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The Instant Expert: Charlotte Bronte, literary legend

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week, Helena Frith Powell looks at the life and works of the author Charlotte Brontë, who died on March 31, 1855.

THE BASICS An English novelist and poet, Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816 in Thornton, Yorkshire, one of six children. In 1820 the family moved to Haworth parsonage where her father, Patrick, was appointed curate. Charlotte's mother died the following year, the first of many deaths in the family that would eventually see her father outliving all his children.

THE EDUCATION Cowan Bridge School for clergy daughters was really the beginning and the end. It was here that the five Brontë girls were exposed to such harsh conditions that two (Elizabeth and Maria) would die of tuberculosis the year after they enrolled and the other three would be plagued with health problems for the rest of their short lives. But it was also the source of inspiration; in Charlotte's most famous novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë revisits the school and its cruel headmaster, creating some of the most memorable scenes in literature.

THE WRITING Once they were taken out of school by their father to be educated at home, the Brontë children's imaginations were able to really take off. Along with their brother, Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Anne created the fictitious worlds of Angria and Gondal and basically trained themselves as writers by reading aloud and discussing their work among themselves. The girls would spend hours on the moors next to their house, walking, chatting, exploring and undoubtedly creating the Byronic heroes of Rochester and Heathcliff who were later to appear in their novels and become literary legends. After her schooling, Charlotte worked as a governess for many years, one of the few careers open to women of her social status and education in those days, as was the case with her famous heroine, Jane.

THE SIBLINGS Talk about a talented bunch. You've probably heard of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë? The title, by the way, is said to be based on a house on the moors behind the parsonage called Top Withins. If you feel like a pilgrimage then take some food with you, it's a long walk from the village. You may not have heard of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Agnes Grey by younger sister Anne, both novels written more in the realistic genre as opposed to the romantic genre her sisters preferred. Branwell, considered by contemporaries as the most talented of the siblings, wrote poetry and painted. But he never lived up to his potential and died in 1848 at the age of 31.

THE FIRST BOOK Was a collection of poetry by the three sisters, published in 1846, which sold only two copies. It was published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell because the sisters felt they would have more chance of literary success if readers and publishers thought they were men. The sisters were not discouraged by the poor sales figures and started work on their novels.

THE END With the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847, Charlotte, the eldest of the three sisters, became famous. She was even persuaded to travel to London and reveal her true identity, and she enjoyed brief spells in London literary circles, making friends with William Makepeace Thackery, for example, and Elizabeth Gaskell, who would later write her biography. Emily and Anne both died of tuberculosis shortly after Jane Eyre came out (1848 and 1849, respectively, aged 30 and 29) and Charlotte died in 1855 aged 38 from the same disease, along with her unborn child, having married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, in 1854. Patrick Brontë lived on until 1861.

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The novels

JANE EYRE (1847) The story of the mousy governess who gets the Byronic hero is by far her most popular work. Who can forget the line: "Reader, I married him"? The eponymous Jane is considered one of the first truly feminist characters in English literature, a woman with high morals but at the same time a desire to live and experience everything life has to offer.

SHIRLEY (1849) Before the publication of this novel, set in Yorkskire during the industrial depression, Shirley was a man's name. Its success changed all that. It explores the role of women in society and the events leading up to the Napoleonic Wars.

VILETTE (1853) Most famous for the secretive character of Lucy Snowe, Brontë's heroine, although she has "no attractive accomplishments - no beauty," the book reworks some of the material in her first unsuccessful novel (see below). It explores gender repression, religion and the external suffering of her main protagonist due to internal strife, a genre referred to as Gothic doubling.

THE PROFESSOR (first novel but published posthumously in 1857) Based on her experiences in Brussels and her love for a married man, a certain Constantin Heger, who ran a school she taught in.