On this day in history….31st March 1855

On this day in history : 31st March 1855 – English novelist Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, dies during her pregnancy – three weeks before her 39th birthday….

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Charlotte Bronte – George Richmond Public domain

Charlotte, the daughter of an Irish-Anglican priest, had received an unexpected marriage proposal from her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nichols…. Arthur had loved her from a far for a long time….but Charlotte’s father thought it an unsuitable match, partly due to Arthur’s financial status – and so Charlotte declined the proposal….

However, her good friend, fellow writer Elizabeth Gaskell (who was later to become Charlotte’s biographer) urged her to reconsider….pointing out the advantages of being married….

Charlotte found herself becoming more and more attracted to Arthur – and in January 1854 she agreed to become his wife…. It took until April to finally get her father’s begrudging approval but once he had reluctantly agreed plans were made and the couple married in June. Charlotte’s father had been due to give his daughter away – but at the last minute decided he was unable to do it, leaving Charlotte to walk down the aisle alone….

She became pregnant soon after the wedding – but her health was quickly to decline…. Elizabeth Gaskell described the symptoms of her illness as “sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness”…. Charlotte became weaker and weaker and eventually she and her unborn child passed away….

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Portrait by J.H. Thompson at the Bronte Parsonage Museum – Public domain

The cause of death stated upon her death certificate is that of tuberculosis…. However, there are several other possibilities as to the illness that claimed her life…. Typhoid is one such possibility – servant to the Brontë family, Tabitha Ackroyd, had died from the disease a few weeks before – so this could have been very likely…. Another thought is that Charlotte may have contracted pneumonia after getting soaked on a moorland walk – at the time pneumonia was almost impossible to recover from…. ‘Jail Fever’ – or Epidemic Typhus – has been another suggestion put forward; a bacterial infection very common in those more unsanitary times and passed to humans by fleas or lice…. Or it could have been an infection from contaminated water….

But one of the possible causes most favoured by the experts is that she died from dehydration and malnutrition brought on by Hyperemesis Gravidarum – or chronic morning sickness….

Charlotte is buried in the family vault in the church of St. Michael and All Angels in Haworth, West Yorkshire….

On this day in history….11th March 1818

On this day in history : 11th March 1818 – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is published – it is often referred to as the world’s first true work of science-fiction….

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Mary was born on the 30th of August 1797 in Somers Town, London…. Her mother, who died a few days after her birth, was the well-known defender of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft…. Her father, William Godwin, was a radical philosopher….

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Portrait of Mary Shelley – housed in the National Portrait Gallery – London – Public domain

Godwin had got himself into considerable debt…. One of his followers, a young poet by the name of Percy Bysshe Shelley, was in-line for a large inheritance – and promised to help him….

Although young, around 21, Percy was a married man…. However, he and Mary – who was just 16 – found they had a strong attraction to each other….and they began to meet in secret at her mother’s graveside…. On the 26th of June 1814 they declared their love for one another….

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Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint – housed in the National Portrait Gallery – London – Public domain

Mary’s father did not approve….he was also extremely angry because Percy had informed him that he was unable to gain access to his future inheritance and so could not help him…. On the 28th of July Percy and Mary ran off to France together, taking with them Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont…. The trio made their way to Paris, leaving behind them all that they knew – including Percy’s now pregnant wife….

From Paris they travelled through a war-torn France to Switzerland…. Mary and Percy kept a joint journal and both continued to keep up their own individual writing whilst on their travels…. But eventually they ran out of money and had to make their way home….arriving the 13th of September 1814…. Mary was pregnant….

Godwin refused to have anything to do with his daughter…. Mary, Percy and Claire moved in to lodgings…. Percy would disappear for long lengths of time to avoid people he owed money to…. This must have been a miserable time for Mary…. Pregnant (and often poorly with it), penniless and Percy – who believed in free-love – was most certainly ‘carrying-on’ with Claire…. To make her feel even worse, Harriet – Percy’s wife – had given birth to a boy and Percy was over-the-moon….

Curran, Amelia, 1775-1847; Claire Clairmont (1798-1879)
Claire Clairmont – portrait by Amelia Curran – Public domain

On the 22nd of February 1815 Mary gave birth two months prematurely to a girl…. Sadly she was not to live – but Mary was soon to fall pregnant again and on the 24th of January 1816 she had a son…. They called him William, after her father – although he quickly gained the nickname ‘Willmouse’….

In May 1816 Mary, Percy, their young son and Claire travelled to Geneva to spend the summer with Lord Byron…. He and Claire had indulged in an affair – and she was now pregnant…. They stayed with him at his villa near to Lake Geneva….

It was a particularly wet and stormy summer and the constant rain kept them confined indoors much of the time…. During the times when they were not writing the party amused themselves by telling ghost stories…. One night Lord Byron challenged his guests to a ghost story writing competition…. It was this that inspired Mary’s ‘Frankenstein’…. What started out as a short story became ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’….her first novel….

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A draft by Mary Shelley – Public domain

They returned to England in the September….and settled in Bath – hoping to keep Claire’s pregnancy a secret…. On the 10th of December Harriet was found dead in the Serpentine, Hyde Park – she had committed suicide…. To try and gain custody of his two children by Harriet, Percy was advised to get married…. He and Mary married on the 30th of December 1816…. The marriage ended the rift between Mary and her father, he attended the ceremony…. Mary was also pregnant again….

Percy did not manage to gain custody of his children…. He and Mary had several more in their marriage….but only one survived….

In 1822, just before his 30th birthday Percy was drowned in a storm whilst sailing his schooner in Italy…. Mary returned to London and pursued a very successful writing career…. She was a novelist, biographer and travel writer…. In their time together Mary and Percy had always encouraged each other’s writing…. After his death Mary also edited and promoted her husband’s poetry and writing….

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Miniature portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton – Public domain