Charlotte was my best mate while I was growing up. I found her when I was about nine or ten, and I knew instantly that she was my kindred spirit. We were both plain, gawky, too-clever-to-be-cool girls, painfully shy and full of ideas we were desperate to express. I’d never known anyone like her, and I adored her from the first.
She was brilliant, Charlotte, just awesome. She might have been tiny, physically, and her health was never great. But nobody could come close to her for brains and personality. She knew so much about books, art, music and current affairs. She taught me most of the long words I know, and made me unafraid to use them. When boys came on the scene, particularly the gormless first boyfriends who objected to me sounding too clever, it was Charlotte who reminded me that it was worth holding out for a man who was your equal, and that actually, sometimes you were better off on your own. For a girl who stayed single most of her life, she gave great advice. She told me how important it was to be with a man you could actually talk to, that you shouldn’t be pushed into doing anything you didn’t want to do, but that if you liked him then you shouldn’t be embarrassed about telling him so. When a boyfriend came along who actually wanted to come with me to Charlotte’s house on one of our first weekends away together, I knew he was a keeper.*
Charlotte had a rotten life in so many ways. Living in that out-of-the-way house, overlooking the graveyard, her sisters ill and her brother such a loose cannon, it’s no wonder she was so unhappy. To be honest, everything she had to cope with, I’m amazed at how much she achieved in her life. She went to work abroad, even though she was desperately homesick and lonely while she was there. She was a fantastic writer, and she somehow powered through the absolute hell of losing her brother and two sisters in the space of twelve months and came out the other side to write her best novel.
I never met Charlotte. She died 117 years before I was born, and I got to know her through the books she left behind. But she felt like a friend, and I often wished or imagined that we were actually friends as I was growing up. I would have sat with her and Jane Eyre in the corner at Thornfield Hall, watching with contempt (and just a hint of resentful admiration) as Blanche Ingram flirted with Mr Rochester. And I know she would have given my hand a reassuring squeeze, and taken me for a long bracing walk on the moors to sort myself out, every time some amazing guy who shared my taste in music, books and comedy turned away from me to chat up one of my prettier friends.
As an adult, I’ve drifted away from my love of the Brontë sisters. Perhaps because I’m lucky enough to take for granted all the things that Charlotte Brontë so desperately needed and deserved – a university education, equality, a chance to earn my own living in a career of my choice – her story hasn’t resonated with me quite so much in recent years. But on visiting the Brontë Parsonage museum in Haworth today I remembered all the difficulties she faced – financial insecurity, ill health, bereavement, and it made me feel another pang of solidarity with her. One of the displays contained a letter she wrote after the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne (I can’t quote it, mainly because I didn’t write it down but also because you really should visit the Parsonage and see it for yourself) and her description of her sense of loss and loneliness was utterly harrowing. After we’d visited the Parsonage, we headed down Haworth Main Street for lunch in the Villette Coffee Shop. I wondered what my old friend would think about the transformation of her home from a tiny backwater to one of the most popular tourist attractions in Yorkshire. And I wished that I could have treated her to an enormous hot chocolate like this one that we had, and repaid her for some of the friendship and solidarity she unknowingly gave me. It kind of feels like I owe her that much at least.
*Reader, I married him.