Revealed: why Brocklehurst's inspiration threatened to sue Brontë

Charlotte Brontë did not opt for subtlety when she decided to get her own back on the teachers who had made her life a misery.

Drawing graphically on her torrid days at the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, Lancashire, she recreated it as the legendary Lowood School, in her novel Jane Eyre. This was a place where the physical abuse young Jane endured "without a reason" led her to conclude that "we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should - so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again."

This and other comments, including Jane's conclusion that "the lessons appeared to me both long and difficult: the frequent change from task to task, too, bewildered me," have given the Clergy Daughters' School an important place on northern England's Brontë heritage trail.

But now letters have come to light which reveal that, despite the novel's acclaim, Brontë's furious headmaster did not take the attack lightly and threatened to sue his most famous former pupil.

The school's founder and head, the Rev William Carus-Wilson, was the inspiration for Mr Brocklehurst, Lowood's autocratic head. The fearsome Brocklehurst was "little liked here; he never took steps to make himself liked". His real-life counterpart was no different. Having taken great exception to the portrayal of himself and his school in Jane Eyre when it was published in 1847 he took legal advice. Court action was only avoided after Brontë wrote an apology, pointing out that she had used literary licence to exaggerate the details.

The row has emerged in three letters by Carus-Wilson's grandson, Edward Carus-Wilson, which were written in 1912 when Carus-Wilson sold a revised manuscript by Brontë for 10 guineas (£10.50) to an autograph collector to raise cash to pay for his child's medical treatment.

"She did not write favourably of the school and my grandfather was advised to take it up publicly, if not legally, but he refrained from doing so," Carus-Wilson writes in one of the letters. "He ... wrote to Charlotte Brontë to remonstrate with her and the result was that she wrote the sketch that I have in my possession, retracting a good deal of what she had formerly written about the school in Jane Eyre.

"Charlotte Brontë sent it to my grandfather as a kind of apology for what she had written against the Clergy Daughters' school in Jane Eyre and gave him permission to publish it and state, if he wished, that she was the writer of it. My grandfather never published this, but kept it by him and as I told you in my last letter, it passed to my father in 1883 and then to myself."

The school remained a controversial subject when Brontë's biographer, the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell, began tackling it. Mrs Gaskell had to re-write one offending passage in her biography, toning down accusations that Cowan Bridge's harsh regime and inadequate food was responsible for the premature deaths of the elder Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, and for the ruin of Charlotte's own health.

Now the hunt is on for Brontë's revised manuscript. "It really is the most tantalising mystery" said Richard Westwood-Brookes, a documents expert at auctioneers Mullock Madeley, who expects the letters to sell for up to £100 at auction in Ludlow, Shropshire, next month.

"We don't know who the collector [of Carus-Wilson's letters] was. I would imagine the collector kept the letters as provenance of the genuineness of the manuscript, but at some stage it went to someone else who didn't want the letters.

"This folder has probably passed from one dealer to another and changed hands many times. I doubt whether whoever sent it to me has read the letters and nobody has made the connection."

Alan Bentley, the Brontë Parsonage Museum's director, said that since Jane Eyre was originally published under a pseudonym, it was difficult to ascertain whether Carus-Wilson knew whether Charlotte Brontë, his former pupil, was the author.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: German Speaking Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you passionate about sale...

Recruitment Genius: Loan Adviser - OTE £30,000

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Estate Agent / Business Broker - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This business transfer agency /...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Vehicle Sales Executive

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Working with a set process to achieve profitab...

Day In a Page

Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate