Rifling through her late relative’s attic, a woman finds a mysterious box. But the container is locked, and the woman tries key after key to no avail. Then, finally, when the box can be prised open, it reveals its contents: one solitary ring with an inscription. This item is puzzling, though, as it doesn’t seem to relate to any part of the family’s history. Then, when the full story subsequently unfolds, the ring’s true provenance leaves the woman flabbergasted.
The unnamed woman’s father-in-law had recently passed away, meaning it was left to her and her family to go through his possessions. And the relatives duly worked their way through the deceased’s home in Wales, eventually ending up in the attic. But while such high spaces can hold a treasure trove of long-forgotten relics, this family found something truly special.
More specifically, the family members came across a wooden box – one that was very obviously old and covered in scratches. Yet it wasn’t this item that was of particular interest; instead, it was all to do with the contents. Inside the box, you see, was a ring made from a silver-colored metal that featured a floral, almost feather-like engraving. The piece of jewelry also had an inscription of “C Brontë,” although this wasn’t a name that the finders were able to place within their family.
There was also a date emblazoned on the ring: “31st March 1855.” And as this too failed to ring a bell with the deceased man’s relatives, they decided to ultimately turn to the internet to try and find answers – or at least set them on the right path. Upon a search for the name and date, however, what emerged was quite the eye-opener.
You see, the top result that Google returned was for the famous 19th-century author Charlotte Brontë. And more than 150 years after her death – which did indeed occur on March 31, 1855 – Charlotte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre, remains a highly lauded literary classic.
The third child of Maria and Patrick Brontë, Charlotte entered the world on April 21, 1816, in the small English village of Thornton. And while Thornton has since been consumed by the urban sprawl of neighboring city Bradford, Charlotte, along with her sisters, are still arguably the area’s most famed former inhabitants.
Patrick Brontë served as a priest but was also a keen writer – a passion he seemingly passed on to his children. He and Maria were the parents of Maria and Elizabeth, who were born in 1813 and 1814, respectively. Charlotte arrived next, followed by brother Patrick, or Branwell, in 1817 and two more sisters, Emily and Anne, in 1818 and 1820.
But the Brontës soon experienced a devastating loss that would forever leave a mark on the family. After mother Maria developed uterine cancer, she passed away at the age of just 38. And although Maria’s older sister, Elizabeth, ultimately joined the clan in 1821 to help raise the six children, Patrick never remarried.
Instead, while Elizabeth and a maid named Tabitha Aykroyd looked after the younger Brontës, Patrick sought solace in his work. After several failed attempts at finding a new wife, he decided to devote his time to the poor and sick. That said, the priest did pay some attention to his children’s needs – particularly when it came to their education.
But although the Brontë siblings were lavished with all the books and toys they desired, formal education was an expense that Patrick couldn’t easily meet. Nevertheless, the widower persisted, and he finally arranged for his daughters to attend a “charity school.” These establishments had relatively low fees and were known for helping out families of the clergy.
So, in July 1824 Patrick enrolled Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily at the Clergy Daughters’ School in the village of Cowan Bridge. Unfortunately, though, their time at the facility was short-lived. Charlotte would later recall that conditions in the school had been unsanitary, and that this had badly affected the health of its students.
In 1825 there was even an outbreak of typhoid at the school, with Maria and Elizabeth contracting tuberculosis and growing seriously ill as a result. And even though both girls were therefore sent home, neither recovered from their sickness. Tragically, Maria passed away on May 6 aged 11, while Elizabeth followed on June 15 aged ten.
After his two eldest daughters died, Patrick then withdrew Charlotte and Emily from the Cowan Bridge school. But although Charlotte’s experiences at the institution had been unpleasant, she still managed to take inspiration from that period later in life. In particular, she drew upon her memories to create the fictional Lowood School featured in Jane Eyre.
Perhaps owing to the loss of her mother and two older sisters, Charlotte took on a more maternal role with her younger siblings in the following years. It was during this time, moreover, that she started writing poetry. This became a form of therapy for the adolescent – a magical realm into which she, her sisters and brother could escape.
From the age of 13 up until her death, Charlotte is believed to have penned over 200 poems. Her siblings were also keen wordsmiths, with much of their work going on to be published in the family’s own Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine. In 1831, though, Charlotte eventually returned to her formal studies by enrolling at Roe Head School.
And Charlotte’s time at Roe Head was altogether more pleasant than her earlier schooling had been. It was there, in fact, that she formed friendships with Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, who would continue to be part of her life into adulthood. At the age of 19, Charlotte also returned to the school to teach for several years.
Being an instructor at Roe Head was not as fulfilling as being a student, however, and sadness and isolation seemingly seeped into Charlotte’s poetry as a consequence. Indeed, works such as “We Wove a Web in Childhood” stand in stark contrast to the imagined world she had earlier inhabited with her brother and sisters.
Then, after leaving Roe Head, Charlotte found work as a governess, or private tutor, from 1839. The author didn’t much enjoy this role either, leading her to quit after two years. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all for nothing, as again Charlotte would mine her personal life for Jane Eyre, with one on-the-job incident believed to be the basis of part of the book’s opening chapter.
After that, Charlotte and Emily enrolled in a boarding school in Brussels, Belgium. In lieu of paying rent and tuition fees, the sisters took up tutoring posts in 1842, with Charlotte teaching English and Emily music. Ultimately, though, the pair returned home in October that year, as news came that their aunt Elizabeth had passed away from an intestinal obstruction.
Charlotte returned to the boarding school as a teacher the following January; Emily, by contrast, remained in England. But life in Belgium didn’t always run smoothly. Charlotte grew homesick, for one, and found herself developing a strong attraction to Constantin Héger, who ran the school with his wife. Eventually, then, she went home a year later – and with more experiences to draw upon for her future novels.
Then, after an attempt to set up their own boarding school in the Haworth family home, the surviving Brontë sisters took to self-publishing the novels on which they had been working. At the time, though, most writing by women was not generally held in the same regard as literature penned by men, and so the three women decided to release their works to the world under pseudonyms that obscured their gender.
Charlotte had previously sought motivation from then-Poet Laureate Robert Southey – although, in the end, he was far from encouraging. In response to the aspiring writer’s letter, Southey said, “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.”
And so the sisters self-published and submitted their first manuscripts under the names Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. Charlotte, for her part, had written The Professor, which had been based on her experiences in Brussels. But though the work was initially rejected, there was hope on the horizon. You see, publishers Smith, Elder & Co. had expressed an interest in any longer works that she – or, rather, Currer Bell – produced.
Charlotte was therefore sufficiently motivated to finish her second manuscript, Jane Eyre, and within a month and a half the novel was published. The book drew largely from her own experiences and was considered groundbreaking not only for being told in the first person, but also for being from a woman’s point of view. This combination proved to be a winning one, too.
But Charlotte’s success would be marred by further tragedy. While working on what was to become her second published novel, Shirley, the author’s brother, Branwell, contracted bronchitis and died in September 1848. Her sibling had been a heavy drinker and possible drug user, which may have compounded his illness.
Contrary to her brother’s diagnosis, Charlotte believed Branwell had died of tuberculosis – just as their older sisters had done 20 years previously. Whatever the truth, though, Emily would follow by falling ill soon after her brother’s funeral. Tuberculosis ultimately took her life in December 1848, with Anne dying of the same condition just months later.
To cope with the loss of three siblings in an eight-month period, Charlotte got lost in her writing. She had shared the pursuit with her late sisters, of course, with Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey also proving a success in the wake of Jane Eyre. Yet Charlotte’s later novels never quite matched the popularity of her debut.
Shirley, published five months after Anne’s death, failed to connect with readers in the same way as Jane Eyre. By this time, moreover, it was widely suspected that Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were in fact women hiding behind male pseudonyms. And Charlotte’s decision not to posthumously republish Anne’s second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, under her real name remains controversial today, with some believing that the decision negatively affected Anne’s popularity,
Nevertheless, if there were any lingering doubts as to the Bells’ true identities, they were confirmed as the surviving sister’s profile rose. And at around the time that Charlotte’s third novel, Villette, emerged in 1853, the author finally found love.
Arthur Bell Nicholls was the curate in the Brontës’ home village and the person from whom the sisters had taken their collective pen name. He had long been in love with Charlotte, who had resisted a proposal of marriage at first. After the writer grew increasingly enamored of Arthur, though, the pair went on to wed in June 1854.
Then, not long after tying the knot, Charlotte fell pregnant. But during what should have been a happy period, her health took a turn for the worse. According to her friend and fellow author Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte suffered “sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness.” Today, Brontë sisters biographers speculate that Charlotte suffered from malnourishment and dehydration as the result of severe morning sickness, and it was this that ultimately led to her death. Still, the official diagnosis sounds all too familiar.
You see, contemporary doctors decided that Charlotte had succumbed to tuberculosis. And with that, Patrick Brontë had survived his entire family, losing all five of his daughters and possibly his only son to the same disease. The most famous of the Brontë authors passed away on March 31, 1855, along with her unborn baby. She missed her 39th birthday by three weeks.
This date was the same as that inscribed on the ring found in the Welsh attic. But that wasn’t the only thing tying the piece to the famous writer. The ring hid a secret, you see, and it was this that its finder spotted soon after the jewelry’s discovery. Ultimately, then, she went to a taping of Antiques Roadshow in order to verify her suspicions.
For more than 40 years, the BBC has invited the public to have their belongings appraised by professionals on Antiques Roadshow. And while the ring’s new owner was pretty sure about the significance of what the jewelry contained, she needed to be certain. While being filmed for the series, then, she told an expert her story.
“I’ve got goosebumps now thinking about it,” the woman said to Geoffrey Munn, an Antiques Roadshow jewelry specialist. “[The ring’s] got a hinge on it, and inside there’s plaited hair. I think it may be the hair of Charlotte Brontë.” But Munn needed no further convincing; after all, he knew the traditions of the era.
Munn explained, “It was a convention to make jewelry out of hair in the 19th century. There was a terror of not being able to remember the face and character of the person who had died,” He further described, “[The ring] opens like a little [cookie] tin lid, and amazingly we see this hair-work within – very finely worked and plaited hair.”
But there was more. Munn also had recollections of pieces he had seen before, and he went on, “[The ring] echoes a bracelet Charlotte wore of her two sisters’ hair… So it’s absolutely the focus of the mid- to late 19th century and also the focus of Charlotte Brontë.”
So, Munn explained to the woman, he had “very little reason to doubt” to whom the hair belonged – not least because there are already numerous examples of similar items on show in museums. And as a consequence, the expert said that the idea the locks had once belonged to Charlotte Brontë was an “utterly and completely credible” one.
What’s more, Ann Dinsdale, the head curator of the Brontë Society & Brontë Parsonage Museum, had no reason to disagree. Indeed, she later confirmed that the piece would make a “lovely addition” to the array of artifacts already housed at the attraction. Speaking to The Guardian in 2019, Dinsdale said, “We already have a considerable collection of Brontë hair at the museum, and there’s usually a sample on display.”
In fact, it’s the lock of braided hair that makes the jewelry incredibly special. As Munn explained, the ring itself would have been only worth roughly £25, or $32. However, the inscription and hair increase that value significantly. The expert believed that, altogether, the find could fetch somewhere in the region of £20,000 – and that’s more than $25,000.