Had Charlotte Brontë been alive today, she’d never make it on Merv or Johnny or David. Her melancholy, consumptive image would cause any viewer to change channels—pronto. Well, Jane Eyre fans are having to rethink their image of the Gothic romantic novelist who wrote of repressed sexual longing on the moors. Seems Charlotte wasn’t after all such a downbeat character, an image she helped promote through her gloomy prose. Brontë fans were delighted—and somewhat shocked—when a photograph of the author, the only one known to exist, turned up in the archives of London’s National Portrait Gallery. In it Charlotte looks contented, well-fed, even—dare we venture—happy. Until now there have been only two contemporary portraits of Charlotte, in which she appears stern-faced, even woebegone. The most famous, by her brother, Branwell, is with her celebrated sisters, Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).
The newly discovered photograph is believed to have been taken during a serene period in Charlotte’s life—about the time of her marriage in 1854, at age 38, to the Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls. Charlotte’s happiness was brief; she died nine months after the marriage, as a result of complications of a pregnancy. The photo—a glass-copy negative made by Sir Emery Walker (1851-1933) some years after the original was taken—is thought to be a companion piece to a honeymoon photo and is marked with Charlotte’s name on the back. It surfaced in early October at an exhibition of family portraits that were on loan from the National Portrait Gallery to the Brontë museum, which is located at the family home in Haworth, Yorkshire. The Gallery had discovered the picture when members of the staff belatedly got around to cataloging a collection of glass negatives, which they had rescued from the Walker estate in 1956. (A flood in the basement fortunately speeded up the work.)Scholars, convinced of the photo’s authenticity, are excited by the find. “Charlotte thought she was an ugly duckling,” says Brontë biographer Brian Wilks. “I think it’s quite lovely to have this picture that shows she was exaggerating. She’s quite a seemly lady, isn’t she?”