I have just learned, through the reading of Syrie James’ Author’s Afterword in her book The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, that poor Charlotte died from hyperemesis gravidarum. I was startled when I read the line; it struck me hard, as in "What?! That's like me!" I even allowed myself a few tears, suddenly recalling my own wasted body and the feeling that I was not going to survive during my two pregnancies. It sounds melodramatic, but there were times I wasn’t sure I would make it. It's not your run-of-the-mill morning sickness. I always feel a bit ashamed though, trying to explain to people.
Charlotte Nicholls (Bronte), married not even a year, died with her baby yet unborn . Weak from fever, nausea, vomiting, not able to eat and eventually unable to speak, she fell into a stupor and finally passed away. What a tragic end— how many family deaths she had endured, years of heartache, and how brief her and Arthur Nicholls’ joy in being together.
The excerpt from James’book:
“Early on Saturday morning, March 31, 1855 – just three weeks short of her thirty-ninth birthday – Charlotte Bronte died….Charlotte’s death certificate made no mention of her pregnancy, stating that she died from “phthisis,” the same progressive wasting disease from which her brother and sisters had perished. Modern medical opinion, however, cites hyperemesis gravidarum (excessive sickness in a pregnant woman) as the cause.” (James, p. 452)
Living a century and a half later, I had the medical care (eventually) that gave me a chance to recover and have my two children born, healthy and strong. But I remember the delirium, the strange light-headedness of actually starving, sitting half passed out in a wheelchair in emergency, and later lying on a gurney in a crowded hallway. Late in the night a female doctor pried open my eyes and shone a light into them, one at a time. I heard her murmur, “You, my dear, are very far gone.” Thankfully, over the next few days on IV drip, my mind and body came back to itself. A week later, I was in awe looking at Lauren’s tiny hands waving on the ultra-sound. How could someone else be surviving in my emaciated self? It felt actually miraculous. I am very blessed to have my two children. They are even more precious to me because of the struggle and intense battle that precluded their births.
I know many mothers feel this way on some level, as there are many difficulties that occur on the way from pregnancy, to birth, to the newborn life. I’ve never met anyone though, who really understands what I went through. It was lonely and painful, but I think I understand something of the lucidity and deep waters that come from suffering, and for that I’m actually thankful. To read that Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre, eventually died from hyperemesis made me feel a strong kinship with her, long gone as she is. My heart broke for her, and her new husband, and their unborn little one who would never see the light. So much on earth ends in pain and sadness. I hear myself sounding terribly sentimental, but I suppose we all have our themes of sensitivity. Each of us has certain thoughts that summon sorrow and cause us to reminisce.
Apart from the sadness, and the kinship, the thing I most feel is gratefulness. Thankful that I was born in a time where help was available, when I could raise my beautiful girl and rambunctious boy and carry on with the business of living.
If it wasn’t for the lasting literary triumph that is Jane Eyre, the world wouldn’t know of Charlotte Bronte, and I definitely would never have learned of how she left the world too soon.