A Dark and Stormy Night: Charlotte Brontë

The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives
January 21 through May 22, 2011
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Portrait of Charlotte Brontë A Dark and Stormy Night: Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855). Fed up with teaching young girls their lessons, future novelist Charlotte Brontë began a diary entry that grew into a fictional fantasy.

About the Diary

Charlotte Brontë's first job did not suit her fiery sensibility. At nineteen, with little heart for marriage and the need to earn a living, she began teaching at Roe Head School in the north of England, about twenty miles from her home in Haworth. She found the atmosphere stultifying and the pupils idiotic. Forced to maintain an outward semblance of professional grace, she concealed her considerable emotional energy and rage. One evening in February 1836, "after a day's weary wandering," she began a diary entry on a loose sheet of paper: "Well here I am at Roe-Head," she wrote, "it is seven o'clock at night, the young ladies are all at their lessons, the school-room is quiet, the fire is low, a stormy day is at this moment passing off in a murmuring and bleak night."

During this rare moment alone, Brontë confessed her feelings of alienation. "It is strange," she wrote, "I cannot get used to the ongoings that surround me. I fulfil my duties strictly & well," but "as God was not in the wind, nor the fire, nor the earth-quake, so neither is my heart in the task, the theme or the exercises." Over the course of her teenage years, Brontë had found a creative way to get through such uncomfortable moments. She had learned to listen to what she called the "still small voice alone that comes to me at eventide"—an imaginative voice that granted her escape and release. "It is that which wakes my spirit & engrosses all my living feelings," she wrote in this diary entry, "all my energies which are not merely mechanical, &, like Haworth & home, wakes sensations which lie dormant elsewhere."

Brontë recalled how the previous night's "stormy blast . . . whirled me away like heath in the wilderness for five seconds of ecstasy." While the others were at tea, she said, she approached an exotic palace in the kingdom of Angria, peered through the windows at a lushly appointed room, and observed a drunken man shamelessly stretched out on the queen's voluptuous ottoman. But this, of course, was pure invention. Having begun writing a straightforward diary entry—a real-time description of her life at Roe Head—Brontë had stepped seamlessly into fiction. She allowed her high-flown storytelling to provide an antidote to the dreary everyday, her diary serving as a gateway from the real world into the fantastical.

Ten years before she wrote this entry, Charlotte's brother Branwell had received a set of toy soldiers as a gift from their father. He and his sisters—Charlotte, Anne, and Emily—were delighted, and they did what children do: They named the soldiers and made up stories about them. But the stunningly imaginative Brontës took typical childhood play to a new level, spinning a complex series of interconnected tales in exotic settings, documenting their creations in tiny handmade books written in a minuscule script appropriate to the scale of their soldier-characters. Charlotte's and Branwell's invented world was called Angria, and it was to this kingdom (and this script) that she returned that evening in 1836 when took a much-needed break from her schoolroom duties.

This is one of several diary entries that Charlotte Brontë made during her three years teaching at Roe Head School. She folded the single sheet of paper to form four pages, each a bit smaller than a 5 x 7 inch photograph, and filled the space with nearly two thousand words. She packed explosive imagination into this miniature canvas, depicting herself as the breathless observer of the debauch of Quashia Quamina, one of the characters she and Branwell had created: "I watched the fluttering of his white shirt ruffles starting through the more than half-unbuttoned waistcoat." She emerged from the erotic reverie of the diary-story only when Miss Wooler—one of the schoolmistresses—appeared at the door with a plate of butter in her hand. "'A very stormy night my dear!' said she. 'It is ma'am,' said I."