Monday, March 7, 2011

March 31, 1855 --- Death at the Parsonage

At home in Haworth Parsonage, Charlotte Bronte dies at 38. Her doctor mistakenly ascribed the death to tuberculosis, a fearsome killer on the windswept moors of West Yorkshire. After all, in the space of eight months, from September, 1848, to May, 1849, consumption had carried away Charlotte's ne'er-do-well brother Bramwell and her two sisters, Emily, the author of Wuthering Heights, and Anne, the author of Agnes Grey. The disease was a speedy killer; Charlotte wrote: "Never in her life had [Emily] lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now."

All but alone, Charlotte lived on at the parsonage with her father, the Rev. Patrick Bronte, now blind. She wrote a friend: "I do hope and pray that never you, or any one I love, be placed as I am. To sit in a lonely room - the clock ticking loud through a still house - and have open before the mind's eye the record of the last year, with its shocks, sufferings, losses, is a trial."  In mid-1854, overcoming both her father's objections and her own reluctance, she married his curate, the Rev. Arthur Bell Nichols.

Soon pregnant, she suffered awfully from nausea and faintness.  Taking to her bed, she wasted away. Modern medical experts trace her death to hyperemesis gravidarum, or pernicious vomiting. Easily treated today, it was mortal then. Charlotte's last gasping words to her husband are, "Oh? I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy."

She was laid to rest in the parsonage crypt in a coffin not five feet long. In distant London, her death passes without much notice. The Times carries only the briefest obituary, noting that Mrs. Arthur Nichols, "the authoress of Jane Eyre," had died. After some literary magazines began repeating the attacks on Charlotte which followed the publication of Jane Eyre (see 16 October), Rev. Bronte urged the novelist Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte's friend, to write the story of her life.  Mrs. Gaskell agreed, vowing to "make the world honor the woman as much as they admired the writer."

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