A sketch of Anne by sister Charlotte,
|Born||17 January 1820|
Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
|Died||28 May 1849 (aged 29)|
Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire, England
|Resting place||St. Mary's Churchyard, Scarborough|
|Pen name||Acton Bell|
|Occupation||Poet, novelist, governess|
|Notable works||The Tenant of Wildfell Hall|
The daughter of Patrick Brontë, a poor Irish clergyman in the Church of England, Anne Brontë lived most of her life with her family at the parish of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors. She also attended a boarding school in Mirfield between 1836 and 1837. At 19 she left Haworth and worked as a governess between 1839 and 1845. After leaving her teaching position, she fulfilled her literary ambitions. She published a volume of poetry with her sisters (Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, 1846) and 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, which is considered to be one of the first sustained feminist novels, appeared in 1848. Like her poems, both her novels were first published under the masculine pen name of Acton Bell. Anne's life was cut short when she died of what is now suspected to be pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 29.
Partly because the re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was prevented by Charlotte Brontë after Anne's death, she is not as well known as her sisters. However, her novels, like those of her sisters, have become classics of English literature.
Anne's father, Patrick Brontë (1777-1861), was born in a two-room cottage in Emdale, Loughbrickland, County Down, Ireland. He was the oldest of ten children born to Hugh Brunty and Eleanor McCrory, poor Irish peasant farmers. The family surname mac Aedh Ó Proinntigh was Anglicised as Prunty or Brunty. Struggling against poverty, Patrick learned to read and write and from 1798 taught others. In 1802, at 25, he won a place to study theology at St. John's College, Cambridge where he changed his name, Brunty, to the more distinguished sounding Brontë. In 1807 he was ordained in the priesthood in the Church of England. He served as a curate first in Essex and latterly in Wellington, Shropshire. In 1810, he published his first poem Winter Evening Thoughts in a local newspaper, followed in 1811 by a collection of moral verse, Cottage Poems. In 1811, he became vicar of St. Peter's Church in Hartshead in Yorkshire. The following year he was appointed an examiner in Classics at Woodhouse Grove School, near Bradford a Wesleyan academy where, aged 35, he met his future wife, Maria Branwell, the headmaster's niece.
Anne's mother, Maria Branwell (1783-1821), was the daughter of Thomas Branwell, a successful, property-owning grocer and tea merchant in Penzance and Anne Carne, the daughter of a silversmith. The eleventh of twelve children, Maria enjoyed the benefits of belonging to a prosperous family in a small town. After the death of her parents within a year of each other, Maria went to help her aunt administer the housekeeping functions of the school. A tiny, neat woman aged 30, she was well read and intelligent. Her strong Methodist faith attracted Patrick Brontë because his own leanings were similar.
Though from considerably 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 they moved to Hartshead. In 1815, Patrick was appointed curate of the chapel in Market Street Thornton, near Bradford; a second daughter, Elizabeth (1815-1825), was born shortly after. Four more children followed: Charlotte, (1816-1855), Patrick Branwell (1817-1848), Emily, (1818-1848) and Anne (1820-1849).
Anne, the youngest of the Brontë children, was born on 17 January 1820, on the outskirts of Bradford where her father was curate and she was baptised there on 25 March 1820. Anne's father was appointed to the perpetual curacy in Haworth, a small town seven miles (11 km) away. In April 1820, the Brontës moved into the five-roomed Haworth Parsonage which became their home for the rest of their lives.
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 without success. Maria's sister, Elizabeth Branwell (1776-1842), moved to the parsonage, initially to nurse her dying sister, but she spent the rest of her life there raising the 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 older children, but Anne, according to tradition, was her favourite.
In Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte, 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 summer 1824, Patrick sent Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily to Crofton Hall in Crofton, West Yorkshire, and subsequently to the Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. When his eldest daughters died of consumption in 1825, Maria on 6 May and Elizabeth on 15 June, Charlotte and Emily were immediately brought home. The unexpected deaths distressed the family so much that Patrick could not face sending them away again. For the next five years, they were educated at home, largely by their father and aunt. The children made little attempt to mix with others outside the parsonage, but relied on each other for friendship and companionship. The bleak moors surrounding Haworth became their playground. Anne shared a room with her aunt; they were close, which may have influenced Anne's personality and religious beliefs.
Anne's studies at home included music and drawing. Anne, Emily and Branwell had piano lessons from the Keighley church organist. They had art lessons from John Bradley of Keighley and all drew with some skill. Their aunt tried to teach the girls how to run a household, but their minds were more inclined to literature. Their father's well-stocked library was a source of knowledge. They read the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Scott, and many others; they examined articles from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Fraser's Magazine, and The Edinburgh Review and read history, geography and biographies.
Reading fed the children's imagination. Their creativity soared after their father presented Branwell with a set of toy soldiers in June 1826. They gave the soldiers names and developed their characters, which they called the "Twelves". This led to the creation of an imaginary world: the African kingdom of "Angria" which was illustrated with maps and watercolour renderings. The children devised plots about the inhabitants of Angria and its capital city, "Glass Town", later called Verreopolis or Verdopolis.
The fantasy worlds and kingdoms gradually acquired the characteristics of the real world--sovereigns, armies, heroes, outlaws, fugitives, inns, schools and publishers. The characters and lands created by the children had newspapers, magazines and chronicles which were written in extremely tiny books, with writing so small it was difficult to read without a magnifying glass. These creations and writings were an apprenticeship for their later, literary talents.
Around 1831, when Anne was eleven, she and Emily broke away from Charlotte and Branwell to create and develop their own fantasy world, "Gondal". Anne was particularly close to Emily especially after Charlotte's departure for Roe Head School, in January 1831. When Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey visited Haworth in 1833, she reported that Emily and Anne were "like twins", "inseparable companions". She described Anne: "Anne, dear gentle Anne was quite different in appearance from the others, and she was her aunt's favourite. Her hair was a very pretty light brown and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes; fine pencilled eyebrows and a clear almost transparent complexion. She still pursued her studies and especially her sewing, under the surveillance of her aunt." Anne took lessons from Charlotte, after she returned from Roe Head. Charlotte returned to Roe Head as a teacher on 29 July 1835 accompanied by Emily as a pupil; Emily's tuition was largely financed by Charlotte's teaching. Within a few months, Emily unable to adapt to life at school was physically ill from homesickness. She was withdrawn from school by October and replaced by Anne.
Aged 15, 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 she needed to support herself. She stayed for two years, winning a good-conduct medal in December 1836, and returning home only during Christmas and summer holidays. Anne and Charlotte do not appear to have been close while at Roe Head (Charlotte's letters almost never mention her) but Charlotte was concerned about her sister's health. Sometime before December 1837, Anne became seriously ill with gastritis and underwent a religious crisis. A Moravian minister was called to see her several times during her illness, suggesting her distress was caused, in part, by conflict with the local Anglican clergy. Charlotte wrote to her father who took Anne home where she remained while she recovered.
In 1839, a year after leaving the school and aged 19, she was seeking a teaching position. As the daughter of a poor clergyman, she needed to earn a living. Her father had no private income and the parsonage would revert to the church on his death. Teaching or working as governess for a family were among the few options available to poor but educated women. In April 1839, Anne started work as a governess for the Ingham family at Blake Hall, near Mirfield.
The children in her charge were spoilt and often disobedient. She had great difficulty controlling them and had little success in instilling any education. She was not empowered to inflict punishment, and when she complained about their behaviour she received no support, but was instead criticised for not being capable. The Inghams, dissatisfied with their children's progress, dismissed Anne. She returned home at Christmas, 1839, joining Charlotte and Emily, who had left their positions, and Branwell. The episode at Blake Hall was so traumatic that she reproduced it in almost perfect detail in her novel Agnes Grey.
On her return to Haworth, she met William Weightman (1814-1842), her father's new curate, who started work in the parish in August 1839. Aged 25, he had obtained a two-year licentiate in theology from the University of Durham. He was welcome at the parsonage. Her acquaintance with him parallels her writing a number of poems, which may suggest she fell in love with him although there is disagreement over this possibility. Little evidence exists beyond a teasing anecdote of Charlotte's to Ellen Nussey in January 1842.
The source of Agnes Grey's renewed interest in poetry is, however, the curate to whom she is attracted. William Weightman aroused much curiosity. It seems clear he was a good-looking, engaging young man, whose easy humour and kindness towards the 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 formed an attachment to Weightman it does not imply that he was attracted to her. It is possible that Weightman was no more aware of her, her sisters or their friend Ellen Nussey. Nor does it imply that Anne believed him to be interested in her. If anything, her poems suggest the opposite-they speak of quietly experienced but intensely felt emotions, hidden from others, without any indication of being requited. It is 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 Weightman on her holidays at home, particularly during the summer of 1842 when her sisters were away. Weightman died of cholera in the same year. Anne expressed her grief for his death in her poem "I will not mourn thee, lovely one", in which she called him "our darling".
Anne obtained a second post as governess to the children of the Reverend Edmund Robinson and his wife Lydia, at Thorp Green Hall, a comfortable country house near York. Anne was employed at Thorp Green Hall from 1840 to 1845. The house appeared as Horton Lodge in her novel Agnes Grey. Anne had four pupils: Lydia, aged 15, Elizabeth, aged 13, Mary, aged 12, and Edmund, aged 8. Initially, she encountered similar problems as she had experienced at Blake Hall. Anne missed her home and family, commenting in a diary paper in 1841 that she did not like her situation and wished to leave it. Her quiet, gentle disposition did not help. However, despite her outwardly placid appearance, Anne was determined and with experience, made a success of her position, becoming well-liked by her employers. Her charges, the Robinson girls, became lifelong friends.
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 was spent with the Robinsons at Thorp Green. She was obliged to accompany them on annual holidays to Scarborough. Between 1840 and 1844, Anne spent around five weeks each summer at the coastal town and loved the place. A number of locations in Scarborough were the setting for Agnes Grey's final scenes and for Linden-Car village in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Whilst working for the Robinsons, Anne and her sisters considered the possibility of setting up a school. Various locations including the parsonage were considered. The project never materialised and Anne chose to return to Thorp Green. She came home on the death of her aunt in early November 1842 while her sisters were in Brussels. Elizabeth Branwell left a £350 legacy (equivalent to £30,000 in 2019) for each of her nieces.
It was at the Long Plantation at Thorp Green in 1842 that Anne wrote her three-verse poem Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day, which was published in 1846 under her pen-name of Acton Bell.
Anne returned to Thorp Green in January 1843 where she secured a position for Branwell. He was to take over as tutor to the Robinsons' son, Edmund, who was growing too old to be in Anne's care. Branwell did not live in the house 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 worked as governesses or teachers, and all 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 taught at Thorp Green for the next three years. Branwell entered into a secret relationship with his employer's wife, Lydia Robinson. When Anne and her brother returned home for the holidays in June 1846, she resigned her position. While Anne gave no reason for leaving Thorp Green, it is thought she wanted to leave on becoming aware of the relationship between her brother and Mrs Robinson. Branwell was dismissed when his employer found out about the relationship. Anne retained close ties to Elizabeth and Mary Robinson, exchanging letters even after Branwell's disgrace. The Robinson sisters came to visit Anne in December 1848.
Anne took Emily to visit some of the places she had come to know and love in the five years spent with the Robinsons. A plan to visit Scarborough fell through and instead the sisters went to York where Anne showed her sister York Minster.
During the summer of 1845, the Brontës were at home with their father. None had any immediate prospect of employment. Charlotte came across Emily's poems which had been shared only with Anne, her partner in the world of Gondal. Charlotte proposed that they be published. Anne revealed her own poems but Charlotte's reaction was characteristically patronising: "I thought that these verses too had a sweet sincere pathos of their own". Eventually 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 contributed 19 and with Aunt Branwell's money, they paid to have the collection published.
Afraid their work would be judged differently if they revealed they were women, the book appeared using androgynous pen names, the initials of which were the same as their own. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne respectively became Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell was available for sale in May 1846. The cost of publication was about three-quarters of Anne's salary at Thorp Green. On 7 May 1846, the first three copies were delivered to Haworth Parsonage. It achieved three somewhat favourable reviews, but was a dismal failure, with only two copies being sold in the first year. Anne, however, found a market for her more recent poetry. The Leeds Intelligencer and Fraser's Magazine published her poem "The Narrow Way" under her pseudonym, Acton Bell in December 1848. Four months earlier, in August, Fraser's Magazine had published her poem "The Three Guides".
Even before the fate of the book of poems became apparent, the sisters began work on their first novels. Charlotte wrote The Professor, Emily Wuthering Heights, and Anne Agnes Grey. By July 1846, a package with the three manuscripts was making the rounds of London publishers.
After a number of rejections, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were accepted by the publisher Thomas Cautley Newby, but Charlotte's novel was rejected by every publisher to whom it was sent. Charlotte was not long in completing her second novel, Jane Eyre, which was immediately accepted by Smith, Elder & Co. and became the first of the sisters' novels to appear in print. While Anne and Emily's novels 'lingered in the press', Jane Eyre was an immediate and resounding success. Anne and Emily were obliged to pay fifty pounds to help meet their publishing costs. Their publisher, urged on by the success of Jane Eyre, published Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey in December 1847. They sold well, but Agnes Grey was outshone by Emily's more dramatic Wuthering Heights.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is perhaps amongst the most shocking of contemporary Victorian novels. In seeking to present the truth in literature, Anne's depiction of alcoholism and debauchery was profoundly disturbing to 19th-century sensibilities. Helen Graham, the tenant of the title, intrigues Gilbert Markham and gradually she reveals her past as an artist and wife of the dissipated Arthur Huntingdon. The book's brilliance lies in its revelation of the position of women at the time, and its multi-layered plot.
It is easy today to underestimate the extent to which the novel challenged 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 left her husband to protect their young son from his influence. She supported herself and her son by painting while living in hiding, fearful of discovery. In doing so, she violated not only social conventions, but English law. Until 1870, when the Married Women's Property Act was passed, a married woman had no independent legal existence apart from her husband; could not own property, sue for divorce, or control custody of her children. If she attempted to live apart, her husband had the right to reclaim her. If she took their child, she was liable for kidnapping. By living on her own income she was held to be stealing her husband's property, since any property she held or 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 (Charlotte was among them) who considered her portrayal of Huntingdon overly graphic and disturbing.
When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts-this whispering 'Peace, peace', when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience."
Anne sharply castigated reviewers who speculated on the sex of the authors, and the appropriateness of their writing, in words that do little to reinforce the stereotype of Anne as meek and gentle.
I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."
In July 1848, to dispel the rumour that the "Bell brothers" were all the same person, Charlotte and Anne went to London to reveal their identities to Charlotte's publisher George Smith. Emily refused to go with them. The women spent several days in his company. Many years after Anne's death, he wrote in the Cornhill Magazine his impressions of her, describing her as: "a gentle, quiet, rather subdued person, by no means pretty, yet of a pleasing appearance. Her manner was curiously expressive of a wish for protection and encouragement, a kind of constant appeal which invited sympathy."
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 bought by Smith and Elder, and reissued under new covers in November 1848. It still sold poorly.
Although Anne and her sisters were only in their late twenties, a highly successful literary career appeared a certainty for them. However, an impending tragedy was to engulf the family. Within the next ten months, three of the siblings, including Anne, would be dead.
Branwell's health had deteriorated over two years, but its seriousness was 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 31. The cause was recorded as chronic bronchitis - marasmus; though it is now believed he was suffering from tuberculosis.
The family had suffered from coughs and colds during the winter of 1848, and Emily next became severely ill. She deteriorated rapidly over two months, persistently refusing all medical aid until the morning of 19 December, when, being very weak, she declared: "if you will send for a doctor, I will see him now". It was, however, 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 30.
Emily's death deeply affected Anne, and her grief undermined her physical health. Over Christmas, Anne caught influenza. Her symptoms intensified, and her father sent for a Leeds physician in early January. The doctor diagnosed her condition as consumption (tuberculosis) and intimated that it was quite advanced, leaving little hope of recovery. Anne met the news with characteristic determination and self-control. However, she expressed her frustration over unfulfilled ambitions in her letter to Ellen Nussey:
I have no horror of death: if I thought it inevitable I think I could quietly resign myself to the prospect ... But I wish it would please God to spare me not only for Papa's and Charlotte's sakes but because I long to do some good in the world before I leave it. I have many schemes in my head for future practise-humble and limited indeed-but still I should not like them all to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose. But God's will be done.
Unlike Emily, Anne took all the recommended medicines and followed the advice she was given. That same month she wrote her last poem, "A dreadful darkness closes in", in which she deals with being terminally ill. Her health fluctuated as the months passed, but she progressively grew thinner and weaker.
In February 1849, Anne seemed somewhat better. She decided to make a return visit to Scarborough in the hope that the change of location and fresh sea air might initiate a recovery. Charlotte was initially against that journey, fearing that it would be too stressful for her sister, but the doctor's approval of this plan and Anne's assurance that it was the last hope, changed her mind. On 24 May 1849, Anne said her goodbyes to her father and the servants at Haworth, and set off for Scarborough with Charlotte and Ellen Nussey. En route, they 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 York Minster. However, it was clear that Anne had little strength left.
On Sunday, 27 May, Anne asked Charlotte whether it would be easier if she returned home to die instead of remaining in Scarborough. A doctor, consulted the next day, indicated that death was 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 at age 29.
Over the following 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 70-mile (110 km) journey, had he wished to do so. The former schoolmistress at Roe Head, Miss Wooler, was in Scarborough and she was the only other mourner at Anne's funeral. She was buried in St Mary's churchyard, beneath the castle walls, 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". When Charlotte visited the grave three years later, she discovered multiple errors on the headstone, and thus it was refaced. However, Anne's age at death was still written as 28 when, in fact, she was 29 when she died.
In 2011, the Brontë Society installed a new plaque at Anne Brontë's grave. Due to weathering and erosion, the original gravestone had become illegible at places and could not be restored. The original stone was left undisturbed, while the new plaque, laid horizontally, interpreted the fading words of the original, and also added a correction to the remaining error on the headstone (Anne's age at death). In April 2013, the Brontë Society held a dedication and blessing service at the gravesite to mark the installation of the new plaque.
A year after Anne's death, further editions of her novels were reprinted but Charlotte prevented re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In 1850, Charlotte wrote "Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer." Subsequent critics paid less attention to Anne's work, and those such as Lane dismissed her as "a Brontë without genius" and gave her output little consideration.
However, since the mid-20th century, with increasing critical interest in female authors, her life has been re-examined and her work re-evaluated. Her interest in the topic of education has also been explored in publications such as The Brontës and Education, a Bronte Society Conference publication. Biographies by Winifred Gérin (1959), Elizabeth Langland (1989) and Edward Chitham (1991) as well as Juliet Barker's group biography, The Brontës (1994; revised edition 2000) and work by critics such as Inga-Stina Ewbank, Marianne Thormählen, Laura C Berry, Jan B Gordon, Mary Summers and Juliet McMaster, has led to her acceptance, not as a minor Brontë, but as a major literary figure in her own right. Sally McDonald of the Brontë Society said in 2013, "In some ways though she is now viewed as the most radical of the sisters, writing about tough subjects such as women's need to maintain independence and how alcoholism can tear a family apart." In 2016, Lucy Mangan championed Anne Brontë in the BBC's Being the Brontës, declaring that "her time has come".