My history hero: Charlotte Brontë (1816-55)

"She didn't twiddle her thumbs. She got on with things – and she paved the way for other female writers. Her novels have a feminist twist, and she had a strong sense that life wasn't fair for women": Writer Jacqueline Wilson chooses Charlotte Brontë as her history hero

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë. (Photo by De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images)

Charlotte Brontë, born in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood. A novelist and poet, she is best known for Jane Eyre, which she originally published under the pen-name Currer Bell. In 1854 she married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, and soon became pregnant but fell ill and died, along with her unborn child, aged just 38.

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When did you first hear about Charlotte Brontë?

I had a vague awareness of the Brontë sisters when I was a girl, and read Jane Eyre at school when I was 13. I was fascinated by the novel and began reading biographies of the three sisters – and with so many of them out there, I’ll probably be doing so forever.

What kind of person was Charlotte?

On the one hand, she was shy and timid and very self-conscious about her looks – she clearly didn’t like the way she looked. Yet she was very self-assured when it came to her writing and the worth of her writing. And she was the Brontë sister who encouraged Emily and Anne to collect up their poems. She was the one who pushed to get them published, and she was the one brave enough to face literary London and go to terrifying dinners with Thackeray!

What made Charlotte a hero?

She’s always been my literary heroine – for me, the greatest Brontë. Yes, she’s best known for Jane Eyre, but she took people by surprise with her book Shirley, written under difficult circumstances [three of her siblings died at this time]. She also carried on writing when she was alone in the parsonage with her stern father. When a curate proposed, she was brave enough to stand up to her father [who opposed the marriage] and accept – a bid for marital bliss despite the fact that by then she was in her late 30s. She didn’t twiddle her thumbs. She got on with things and paved the way for other female writers. Her novels have a feminist twist; she had a strong sense that life wasn’t fair for women, particularly impoverished women.

What was Charlotte’s finest hour?

Nearly every woman I know who likes reading ranks Jane Eyre as one of their top 10 books, as do I. Though Rochester is not a conventional hero, I find him vastly more appealing than Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Jane Eyre has an extraordinary effect on people. Women of all types identify with Jane and are stirred by the story, a curious mix of ultra-realism combined with this strange Gothic romance. It’s the first book I know of that starts off in the first person as if written by a child – and such a realistic and extraordinary child. Jane is poor, she’s plain, she’s put upon – yet she remains fiercely independent and thinks for herself. She’s not cowed in the slightest. Jane Eyre is a book that ticks every box.

Wasn’t Charlotte something of a one-hit wonder?

In my view, Charlotte’s last book, Villette, was another masterpiece, even if its protagonist, Lucy, is a slightly more irritating character than Jane. It’s a mature work, though not quite up there with Jane Eyre. I think people should read all of Charlotte’s books.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

She certainly doesn’t sympathise with children. Most of the children in her books are a bit curt or outrageously naughty or unkind. But I think this is understandable because she was built like a child herself and found it difficult as a governess to keep control. One of her charges apparently even threw a bible at her.

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own? 

I identified with Charlotte because I was quite small, wasn’t pretty and was poor for a long time. But she was a great writer and I’m trying to be a quite good writer.

If you could meet Charlotte, what would you ask her? 

I’d love to ask her about the books that she and her siblings wrote when they were small children, and to generally find out more about her childhood.

Jacqueline Wilson was talking to York Membery. Jacqueline Wilson is one of the UK’s most popular children’s authors. Her new book, Clover Moon (Doubleday), will be published on 6 October. Her tales about a troubled girl living in a residential care home were dramatised in the CBBC series The Story of Tracy Beaker.

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This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine