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24 September 2014

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Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre (BBC 2006 production)
Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre: a Mancunian?

The Brontës… you don’t get a more Yorkshire set of authoresses, yet if you walk down Boundary Street West in Hulme, you’ll be surprised to see a blue plaque that proclaims Charlotte Brontë began writing Jane Eyre right here in Manchester!

Charlotte Brontë

  • Charlotte was born on April 21, 1816, in Thornton, Yorkshire
  • She first published Jane Eyre under the pseudonym, Currer Bell
  • After Jane Eyre's success, she went on to publish Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853
  • In June 1854, Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate
  • She died on March 31, 1855, during her first pregnancy
  • Her first novel, The Professor, was published posthumously in 1857, around the same time as Elizabeth Gaskell's The Lift of Charlotte Brontë

But how did one of Haworth’s most famous daughters find herself far from her Pennine village in the heart of the big city, a place she referred to, when her relation Patrick Branwell got a job on the Leeds-Manchester railway, as a city "in the wilderness – like Tadmor, alias Palmyra" (an ancient Syrian city).

Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë

The answer lies within her family and we know about it thanks to her great friendship with Manchester’s finest Victorian novelist, Elizabeth Claghorn Gaskell, who wrote a biography of Charlotte’s life after her death in 1855.

Charlotte’s great novel, Jane Eyre, was published in 1847 and she began it the previous year, while visiting Manchester with her father. Reverend Patrick Brontë was being increasingly blinded by cataracts and his daughters Emily and Charlotte had heard of a Mancunian oculist (an ophthalmologist) called Mr Wilson who might be able to help their father.

The sisters went to see Mr Wilson but he couldn’t tell without seeing Rev. Brontë’s eyes whether he could help the old man.

(image: Manchester Archives and Local Studies)
Hulme in 1843

So, in August 1846, Charlotte and her father travelled to Manchester to see the oculist, who said he could do the operation and lodged them with an old servant of his in, what Mrs Gaskell calls in The Life of Charlotte Brontë, "one of numerous similar streets of small monotonous-looking houses, in a suburb of the town." Not the nicest way to describe Hulme!

The operation was a success but there was a period of convalescence before they could return to Haworth. Just as her father had been having his operation, Charlotte’s first book, The Professor (which was published posthumously), was returned to her, rejected by the London publishers she had sent it to. Mrs Gaskell takes up the story in her biography:

"One of numerous similar streets of small monotonous-looking houses, in a suburb of the town."
Elizabeth Gaskell's description of the Hulme that Charlotte stayed in

"Among the dispiriting circumstances connected with her anxious visit to Manchester, Charlotte told me that her tale came back upon her hands, curtly rejected by some publisher, on the very day when her father was to submit to his operation.

"But she had the heart of Robert Bruce within her, and failure upon failure daunted her no more than him. Not only did The Professor return again to try his chance among the London publishers, but she began, in this time of care and depressing inquietude, in those grey, weary, uniform streets; where all faces, save that of her kind doctor, were strange and untouched with sunlight to her, - there and then, did the brave genius begin Jane Eyre."

Reverend Patrick Brontë
Reverend Patrick Brontë

Drawn from her own experiences, Jane Eyre would go on to be a major success. The Professor had not been dismissed outright by one publisher, the firm of Smith, Elder & Co. of Cornhill, who had written to Charlotte to say whatever the merits of The Professor, it was too short for the three-volume form that was the common practice of the day.

The publisher did have a positive end to their correspondence, suggesting that a longer novel would be gladly considered. Charlotte replied in the same month with the now finished Jane Eyre, and the novel was published in October 1847 to great acclaim from critics and her literary peers.

As small and monotonous as her lodgings in Manchester had been and as pale as the faces she saw were, they had also inspired her to start her masterpiece and set her on the path to greatness.

last updated: 10/10/06
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