10 Facts About Charlotte Brontë

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Charlotte Brontë was born in England to an Irish father and Cornish mother on April 21, 1816. And though much of her life was marked by tragedy, she wrote novels and poems that found great success in her lifetime and are still popular nearly 200 years later. But there’s a lot more to Brontë than Jane Eyre.

1. BRONTË WAS JUST 5 YEARS OLD WHEN SHE LOST HER MOTHER.

Maria Branwell Brontë was 38 when she died in 1821 of ovarian cancer (or, it's been suggested, of a post-natal infection), leaving her husband, Patrick Brontë, and their six young children behind. In the years after Maria died, Patrick sent four of his daughters, including Charlotte, to a boarding school for the daughters of clergy members. Brontë later used her bad experiences at this school—it was a harsh, abusive environment—as inspiration for Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre. As an adult, Bronte mentioned her mother (who was also fond of writing) in a letter, saying: "I wish she had lived and that I had known her."

2. BRONTË HAD BEEN WRITING POETRY AND STORIES SINCE HER YOUTH.

Though one of her boarding school report cards described her abilities as "altogether clever for her age, but knows nothing systematically," Brontë was a voracious reader during her childhood and teen years, and she wrote stories and staged plays at home with her siblings. With her brother Branwell, especially, she wrote manuscripts, plays, and stories, drawing on literature, magazines, and the Bible for inspiration. For fun, they created magazines that contained everything a real magazine would have—from the essays, letters, and poems to the ads and notes from the editor.

3. SHE WORKED AS A TEACHER AND GOVERNESS BUT DISLIKED IT.

portrait of Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte circa 1840.
Portrait by Thompson. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In her late teens and early twenties, Brontë worked on and off as a teacher and governess. In between writing, she taught at a schoolhouse but didn't like the long hours. She also didn't love working as a governess in a family home. Once, in a letter to a friend, she wrote, "I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me, thrown at once into the midst of a large family … having the charge given me of a set of pampered, spoilt, and turbulent children, whom I was expected constantly to amuse as well as instruct." She quickly realized she wasn't a good fit for these caretaking jobs, but she later used her early work experiences as inspiration for passages in Jane Eyre.

4. BRONTË DEALT WITH A LOT OF LITERARY REJECTION.

When she was 20 years old, Brontë sent the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey some of her best poems. He wrote back in 1837, telling her that she obviously had a good deal of talent and a gift with words but that she should give up writing. "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement," Southey responded to her. The Professor, Brontë’s first novel, was rejected nine times before it was finally published after her death.

5. SHE USED THE MALE PSEUDONYM CURRER BELL.

English writers Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
English writers Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte circa 1834, as painted by their brother.
Painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In 1846, Brontë paid to publish a book of poetry containing poems she and her sisters Emily and Anne had written. The three sisters used male pseudonyms—Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell. (The book sold two copies.) Brontë also used the Currer Bell pseudonym when she published Jane Eyre—her publishers didn't know Bell was really a woman until 1848, a year after the book was published!

6. JANE EYRE WAS AN INSTANT SUCCESS.

The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1847, British publishing firm Smith, Elder & Co published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. From the start, the book was a success—one critic called it "the best novel of the season"—and people began to speculate about who Currer Bell was. But some reviewers were less impressed, criticizing it for being coarse in content, including one who called it "anti-Christian." Brontë was writing in the Victorian period, after all.

7. BRONTË WAS LUCKY TO AVOID TUBERCULOSIS …

Tuberculosis prematurely killed at least four of Brontë's five siblings, starting with her two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth (who weren't even teenagers yet), in 1825. In 1848, Brontë’s only brother, Branwell, died of chronic bronchitis, officially, though tuberculosis has also been a rumored cause, probably aggravated by alcohol and opium. Her sister Emily came down with a severe illness during Branwell's funeral and died of tuberculosis three months later. Then, five months later in May 1849, Charlotte’s final surviving sibling, Anne, also died of tuberculosis after a lengthy battle.

8. … BUT SHE DIED AT 38 YEARS OLD—WHILE PREGNANT.

In June 1854, Brontë married a clergyman named Arthur Bell Nicholls and got pregnant almost immediately. Her pregnancy was far from smooth sailing though—she had acute bouts of nausea and vomiting, leading to her becoming severely dehydrated and malnourished. She and her unborn child died on March 31, 1855. Although we don’t know for sure what killed her, theories include hyperemesis gravidarum, based on her symptoms, or possibly typhus. Her father, Patrick Brontë, survived his wife and all six children.

9. ZEALOUS BRONTË FANS TRAVEL TO HER HOME IN ENGLAND.

Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Emily and Anne Brontë wrote famous books, too—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, respectively. The Brontë sisters's writing has inspired devoted fans from around the world to visit their home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. The Brontë Society’s Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth has a collection of early manuscripts and letters, and the museum invites bookworms to see where the Brontë family lived and wrote, and walk the Yorkshire moors that inspired many of the scenes each sister depicted.

10. SHE HELPED MAKE THE NAME 'SHIRLEY' MORE POPULAR FOR GIRLS.

Thanks to Brontë, the name Shirley is now considered more of a girl's name than a boy's one. In 1849, Brontë's second novel, Shirley, about an independent heiress named Shirley Keeldar, was released. Before then, the name Shirley was unusual, but was most commonly used for boys. (In the novel, the title character was named as such because her parents had wanted a boy.) But after 1849, the name Shirley reportedly started to become popular for women. Decades later in the 1930s, child star Shirley Temple's fame catapulted the name into more popular use.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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