The daughter of a poor Irish clergyman in the Church of England, Anne Brontë lived most of her life with her family at the remote village of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors. For a couple of years she went to a boarding school. At the age of nineteen, she left Haworth working as a governess between 1839 and 1845. After leaving her teaching position, she fulfilled her literary ambitions. She wrote a volume of poetry with her sisters (Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, 1846) and in short succession she wrote two novels: Agnes Grey, based upon her experiences as a governess, was published in 1847; her second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall appeared in 1848. Anne's creative life was cut short with her death of pulmonary tuberculosis when she was only twenty-nine years old.
Anne Brontë is often overshadowed by her more famous sisters, Charlotte, author of four novels including Jane Eyre, and Emily, author of Wuthering Heights. Anne's two novels, written in a sharp and ironic style, are completely different from the romanticism followed by her sisters. She wrote in a realistic, rather than a romantic style. Her novels, like those of her sisters, have become classics of English literature.
Anne's mother, Maria Branwell (1783–1821), was the daughter of a successful, property-owning grocer and tea merchant of Penzance, Thomas Branwell and Anne Crane, the daughter of a silversmith in the town. The eighth of eleven children, Maria had enjoyed all the benefits of belonging to a prosperous family in a small town. After the death of both parents within a year of each other, Maria went to help her aunt with the teaching at the school. A tiny, neat woman, aged thirty, she was well read and intelligent. Her strong Methodist faith immediately attracted Patrick Brontë.
Though from vastly different backgrounds, within three months Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell were married on 29 December 1812. Their first child, Maria (1814–1825), was born after their move to Hartshead. In 1815, Patrick was made curate of a chapel in the little village of Thornton, near Bradford; a second daughter, Elizabeth (1815–1825), was born shortly after. Four more children would follow: Charlotte, (1816–1855), Patrick Branwell (1817–1848), Emily, (1818–1848) and Anne (1820–1849).
Anne was barely a year old when her mother became ill of what is believed to have been uterine cancer. Maria Branwell died on 15 September 1821. In order to provide a mother for his children, Patrick tried to remarry, but he had no success. Maria's sister, Elizabeth Branwell (1776–1842), had moved into the parsonage, initially to nurse her dying sister, but she subsequently spent the rest of her life there raising the Brontë children. She did it from a sense of duty, but she was a stern woman who expected respect, rather than love. There was little affection between her and the eldest children, but to Anne, her favorite according to tradition, she did relate. Anne shared a room with her aunt, they were particularly close, and this may have strongly influenced Anne's personality and religious beliefs.
In Elizabeth Gaskell's biography, Anne's father remembered her as precocious, reporting that once, when she was four years old, in reply to his question about what a child most wanted, "she answered: age and experience".
In the summer of 1824, Patrick sent his eldest daughters Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily to Crofton Hall, and later to the Clergy Daughter's School, Cowan Bridge, Lancashire. When the two eldest siblings died of consumption in 1825, Maria on 6 May and Elizabeth on 15 June, Charlotte and Emily were immediately brought home. The unexpected deaths of Anne's two eldest sisters distressed the bereaved family enough that Patrick could not face sending them away again. For the next five years, all the Brontë children were educated at home, largely by their father and aunt. The young Brontës made little attempt to mix with others outside the parsonage, but relied upon each other for friendship and companionship. The bleak moors surrounding Haworth became their playground.
Those readings fed the Brontë's imaginations. The children's creativity soared after their father presented Branwell with a set of toy soldiers in June 1826. They named the soldiers and developed their characters, which they called the "Twelves". This led to the creation of an imaginary world: the African kingdom of "Angria". That was illustrated with maps and watercolour renderings. The children kept themselves busy devising plots about the people of Angria, and its capital city, "Glass Town", later called Verreopolis, and finally, Verdopolis.
These fantasy worlds and kingdoms gradually acquired all the characteristics of the real world—sovereigns, armies, heroes, outlaws, fugitives, inns, schools and publishers. For these peoples and lands the children created newspapers, magazines and chronicles, all of which were written out in extremely tiny books, with writing that was so small it was difficult to read without the aid of a magnifying glass. These juvenile creations and writings served as the apprenticeship of their later, literary talents.
At fifteen, it was Anne's first time away from home, and she made few friends at Roe Head. She was quiet and hard working, and determined to stay and get the education that would allow her to support herself. Anne stayed for two years, winning a good-conduct medal in December 1836, and returning home only during Christmas and the summer holidays. Anne and Charlotte do not appear to have been close during their time at Roe Head (Charlotte's letters almost never mention Anne) but Charlotte was concerned about the health of her sister. At some point before December 1837, Anne became seriously ill with gastritis and underwent a religious crisis. A Moravian minister was called to see Anne several times during her illness. Charlotte was sufficiently concerned about Anne's illness to notify Patrick Brontë, and to take Anne home where she remained to recover.
The children in Anne's charge were spoilt and wild, and persistently disobeyed and tormented her. She experienced great difficulty controlling them, and had almost no success in instilling any education. She was not empowered to inflict any punishment, and when she complained of their behaviour to their parents, she received no support, but was merely criticized for not being capable of her job. The Inghams, unsatisfied with their children's progress, dismissed Anne at the end of the year. She returned home at Christmas, 1839, joining Charlotte and Emily, who had left their positions, and Branwell. The whole episode at Blake Hall was so traumatic for Anne, that she reproduced it in almost perfect detail in her later novel, Agnes Grey.
It may or may not be relevant that the source of Agnes Grey 's renewed interest in poetry is the curate to whom she is attracted. As the person to whom Anne Brontë may have been attracted, William Weightman has aroused much curiosity. It seems clear that he was a good-looking, engaging young man, whose easy humour and kindness towards the Brontë sisters made a considerable impression. It is such a character that she portrays in Edward Weston, and that her heroine Agnes Grey finds deeply appealing.
If Anne did form an attachment to Weightman, that does not imply that he, in turn, was attracted to her. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Weightman was no more aware of her than of her sisters or their friend Ellen Nussey. Nor does it follow that Anne believed him to be interested in her. If anything, her poems suggest just the opposite–they speak of quietly experienced but intensely felt emotions, intentionally hidden from others, without any indication of their being requited. It is also possible that an initially mild attraction to Weightman assumed increasing importance to Anne over time, in the absence of other opportunities for love, marriage, and children. Anne would have seen William Weightman on her holidays at home, particularly during the summer of 1842, when her sisters were away. He died of cholera in the same year.
For the next five years, Anne spent no more than five or six weeks a year with her family, during holidays at Christmas and in June. The rest of her time she was with the Robinsons at their home Thorp Green. She was also obliged to accompany the family on their annual holidays to Scarborough. Between 1840 and 1844, Anne spent around five weeks each summer at the resort, and loved the place. A number of locations in Scarborough formed the setting for Agnes Grey 's final scenes.
During the time working for the Robinsons, Anne and her sisters considered the possibility of setting-up their own school. Various locations, including their own home, the parsonage, were considered as places to establish it. The project never materialized and Anne chose repeatedly to return to Thorp Green. She came home at the death of her aunt in early November 1842, while her sisters were away in Brussels. Elizabeth Branwell left a £350 legacy for each of her nieces.
Anne returned to Thorp Green in January 1843. She secured a position for Branwell with her employers: he was to take over from her as tutor to the Robinsons' son, Edmund, the only boy in the family, who was growing too old to be under Anne's care. However Branwell did not live in the house with the Robinson family, as Anne did. Anne's vaunted calm appears to have been the result of hard-fought battles, balancing deeply felt emotions with careful thought, a sense of responsibility, and resolute determination. All three Brontë sisters had spent time working as governesses or teachers, and all had experienced problems controlling their charges, gaining support from their employers, and coping with homesickness—but Anne was the only one who persevered and made a success of her work.
Anne and Branwell continued to teach at Thorp Green for the next two years. However, Branwell was enticed into a secret relationship with his employer's wife, Lydia Robinson. When Anne and her brother returned home for the holidays in June 1845, she resigned her position. While Anne gave no reason for leaving Thorp Green, it is generally believed that she chose to leave upon becoming aware of the relationship between her brother and Mrs. Robinson. Branwell was sternly dismissed when his employer found out about his relationship with his wife. In spite of her brother's behaviour, Anne retained close ties to Elizabeth and Mary Robinson, exchanging frequent letters with them even after Branwell's disgrace. The Robinson sisters came to visit Anne in December 1848.
Once free of her position as a governess, Anne took Emily to visit some of the places she had come to know and love in the past five years. An initial plan of going to the sea at Scarborough fell through, and the sisters went instead to York, where Anne showed her sister the York Minster.
In the summer of 1845, all four of the Brontës were at home with their father Patrick. None of the four had any immediate prospect of employment. It was at this point that Charlotte came across Emily's poems. They had been shared only with Anne, her partner in the world of Gondal. Charlotte proposed that they be published. Anne also revealed her own poems. Charlotte's reaction was characteristically patronizing: "I thought that these verses too had a sweet sincere pathos of their own". Eventually, though not easily, the sisters reached an agreement. They told neither Branwell, nor their father, nor their friends about what they were doing. Anne and Emily each contributed 21 poems and Charlotte with nineteen. With Aunt Branwell's money, the Brontë sisters paid to have the collection published.
Afraid that their work would be judged differently if they revealed their identity as women, the book appeared under their three chosen pseudonyms—or pen-names, the initials of which were the same as their own. Charlotte became Currer Bell, Emily became Ellis Bell and Anne became Acton Bell. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell was available for sale in May 1846. The cost of publication was about 3/4 of Anne's annual salary at Thorp Green. On 7 May 1846, the first three copies of the book were delivered to Haworth Parsonage. The volume achieved three somewhat favourable reviews, but was a dismal failure, with only two copies being sold during the first year. Anne, however, began to find a market for her more recent poetry. Both the Leeds Intelligencer and Fraser's Magazine published her poem "The Narrow Way" under her pseudonym, Acton Bell. Four months earlier, in August, Fraser's Magazine had also published her poem "The Three Guides".
After a number of rejections, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were accepted by a publisher in London, but Charlotte's novel was rejected by every other publisher to whom it was sent. However, Charlotte was not long in completing her second novel, the now famous Jane Eyre, and this was immediately accepted by Smith, Elder & Co., a different publisher from Anne's and Emily's though also located in London. However, Jane Eyre was the first to appear in print. While Anne and Emily's novels 'lingered in the press', Charlotte's second novel became an immediate and resounding success. Meanwhile, Anne and Emily were obliged to pay fifty pounds to help meet the publishing costs. Their publisher, urged on by the success of Jane Eyre, finally published Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey in December 1847. These too sold exceptionally well, but Agnes Grey was distinctly outshone by Emily's much more dramatic Wuthering Heights.
Agnes Grey is a wish-fulfilment story in which patience and virtue are rewarded. It is also a quiet but sharply pointed critique of the life of a governess and the instruction of children at the time. Anne portrays her characters and their surroundings with the minute attention to detail of a camera eye, focusing on the direct experience of daily life in a constrained environment, and recognizing the importance of subtle impressions. Anne's understated humour and occasional satire also remind the reader of Jane Austen.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the twin themes of character and education are woven throughout the novel, in the experiences of Helen, who has been poorly prepared to choose a marital partner; her husband Arthur Huntingdon; and later her young son, also named Arthur, whose father appears likely to give him the worst possible education. The novel is also a realist's response to the romanticization of violence and conflict that had occurred in her sisters' writings. Anne pointedly emphasizes the degradation of drunkenness and violence, and any initial attractiveness of her 'Byronic' character, Huntingdon, is outweighed by her painstaking and detailed description of his degradation and death.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is perhaps the most shocking of the Brontë's novels. In seeking to present the truth in literature, Anne's depiction of alcoholism and debauchery were profoundly disturbing to nineteenth century readers. Helen Graham, the tenant of the title, intrigues Gilbert Markham and gradually she reveals her mysterious past as an artist and wife of the dissipated Arthur Huntingdon. The novel's brilliance lies in its revelation of the position of women at the time, and its multi-layered plot.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an immediate success. It is easy today to underestimate the extent to which it was a challenge to existing social and legal structures. May Sinclair, in 1913, said that the slamming of Helen Huntingdon's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. Anne's heroine eventually leaves her husband to protect their young son from his influence. She supports herself and her son by painting, while living in hiding, fearful of discovery. In doing so, she violates not only social conventions, but also English law. At the time, a married woman had no independent legal existence, apart from her husband; could not own her own property, sue for divorce, or control custody of her children. If she attempted to live apart from him, her husband had the right to reclaim her. If she took their child with her, she was liable for kidnapping. In living off her own earnings, she was held to be stealing her husband's property, since any income she made was legally his.
In the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which appeared in August 1848, Anne clearly stated her intentions in writing it. She presented a forceful rebuttal to critics who considered her portrayal of Huntingdon overly graphic and disturbing. (Charlotte was among them.)
Anne also sharply castigated reviewers who speculated on the sex of the authors, and the appropriateness of their writing to their sex, in words that do little to reinforce the stereotype of Anne as meek and gentle.
The increasing popularity of the Bells' work led to renewed interest in the Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, originally published by Aylott and Jones. The remaining print run was purchased by Smith and Elder, and reissued under new covers in November 1848. It still sold poorly.
Branwell's health had gradually deteriorated over the previous two years, but its seriousness was half disguised by his persistent drunkenness. He died on the morning of 24 September 1848. His sudden death came as a shock to the family. He was aged just thirty-one. The cause was recorded as Chronic bronchitis - Marasmus; though, through his recorded symptoms, it is now believed that he was also suffering from tuberculosis.
The whole family had suffered from coughs and colds during the winter of 1848 and it was Emily who next became severely ill. She deteriorated rapidly over a two month period, persistently refusing all medical aid until the morning of 19 December, when, being so weak, she declared: "if you will send for a doctor, I will see him now". It was far too late. At about two o'clock that afternoon, after a hard, short conflict in which she struggled desperately to hang on to life, she died, aged just thirty.
Emily's death deeply affected Anne and her grief further undermined her physical health. Over Christmas, Anne caught influenza. Her symptoms intensified, and in early January, her father sent for a Leeds physician, who diagnosed her condition as consumption, and intimated that it was quite advanced leaving little hope of a recovery. Anne met the news with characteristic determination and self-control. Unlike Emily, Anne took all the recommended medicines, and responded to all the advice she was given. Her health fluctuated as the months passed, but she progressively grew thinner and weaker.
In February 1849, Anne seemed somewhat better. By this time, she had decided to make a return visit to Scarborough in the hope that the change of location and fresh sea air might initiate a recovery, and give her a chance to live. On 24 May 1849, Anne said her good-byes to her father and the servants at Haworth, and set off for Scarborough with Charlotte and their friend Ellen Nussey. En route, the three spent a day and a night in York, where, escorting Anne around in a wheelchair, they did some shopping, and at Anne's request, visited the colossal York Minster. However, it was clear that Anne had little strength left.
On Sunday, 27 May, Anne asked Charlotte whether it would be easier for her if she return home to die instead of remaining at Scarborough. A doctor, consulted the next day, indicated that death was already close. Anne received the news quietly. She expressed her love and concern for Ellen and Charlotte, and seeing Charlotte's distress, whispered to her to "take courage". Conscious and calm, Anne died at about two o'clock in the afternoon, Monday, 28 May 1849.
Over the following few days, Charlotte made the decision to "lay the flower where it had fallen". Anne was buried not in Haworth with the rest of her family, but in Scarborough. The funeral was held on Wednesday, 30 May, which did not allow time for Patrick Brontë to make the trip to Scarborough, had he wished to do so. The former schoolmistress at Roe Head, Miss Wooler, was also in Scarborough at this time, and she was the only other mourner at Anne's funeral. She was buried in St. Mary's churchyard; beneath the castle walls, and overlooking the bay. Charlotte commissioned a stone to be placed over her grave, with the simple inscription "Here lie the remains of Anne Brontë, daughter of the Revd. P. Brontë, Incumbent of Haworth, Yorkshire. She died, Aged 28, May 28th, 1849". Anne was actually twenty-nine at her death.
The general view has been that Anne is a mere shadow compared with Charlotte, the family's most prolific writer, and Emily, the genius. This has occurred to a large extent because Anne is very different, as a person and as a writer, from Charlotte and Emily. The controlled, reflective camera eye of Agnes Grey is closer to Jane Austen's Persuasion than to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The painstaking realism and social criticism of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall directly counters the romanticized violence of Wuthering Heights. Anne's religious concerns reflected in her books and expressed directly in her poems, were not concerns shared by her sisters. Anne's subtle prose has a fine ironic edge; her novels also reveal Anne to be the most socially radical of the three. Now, with increasing critical interest in women authors, her life is being reexamined, and her work reevaluated. A re-appraisal of Anne's work has begun, gradually leading to her acceptance, not as a minor Brontë, but as a major literary figure in her own right.