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Anne Brontë was for most of the twentieth century regarded as the least interesting of the Brontë sisters, both as a person and as a writer, Anne herself being characterised solely in terms of gentleness and meekness, and her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall seen as relying too greatly on a detailed realism in comparison with the excitements of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. In the last thirty years, however, there has been a movement to revise both of these judgements, and Anne’s novels are beginning to find their rightful place in the Brontë canon. (For a helpful account of the changes in Anne Bronte’s reputation, visit https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/detail/anne-bronte)
Anne was the last of the six Brontë children, born at Thornton in Yorkshire, on January 17, 1820, eighteen months after her closest sibling, Emily. In April 1820, the family moved to Haworth, where her father had a ‘perpetual curacy’. Her mother, Maria, died there of cancer in September 1821, when Anne was only a year and nine months. Thereafter the children were brought up by Patrick and by their mother’s sister, Aunt Branwell, who came to live with them, and to whom Anne was particularly close (they shared a bed). When Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily were all sent in 1824 to the unhealthy Cowan Bridge school for the daughters of clergy, Anne remained at home. Her older siblings Maria and Elizabeth both died of tuberculosis contracted at Cowan Bridge, Charlotte and Emily were brought home from the school, and the three girls, with their brother Branwell, were then all educated at home. During this period Charlotte and Branwell began their first excursions into the Glass Town/Angria fictions, until Charlotte’s departure in January, 1831 to go to school at Roe Head. Left together at home, Anne and Emily became much closer, wandering the moors freely, sometimes with Branwell. It was now that Emily and Anne drew on the Angrian precedent, beginning to create their own privately imagined world of Gondal (though none of these early Gondal manuscripts survive). It was out of this Gondal world that Anne’s poetry would eventually emerge.
Charlotte returned to Roe Head as a teacher in 1835, and Anne joined her later as a pupil. Her departure was precipitated by a sudden illness, possibly accompanied by some sort of religious crisis, and in late 1837 she returned to Haworth, soon followed by Charlotte. Emily records the ensuing period at home as a happy time, in one of the diary papers she and Anne shared, written on June 26th 1837, ‘Anne and I writing in the drawing-room – Anne a poem beginning "Fair was the evening and brightly the sun" ... All tight and right in which condition it is to be hoped we shall be this day 4 years [i.e. 1841]’. At this time, the family’s hopes were still fixed on Branwell, and it became incumbent on Charlotte and Anne to make their way in life, with Emily staying at home to oversee the care of their father. Few roles were open to women of their education and class; other than marriage, there was teaching, or – a somewhat dreaded fate – being a governess. (https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-figure-of-the-governess)
In April 1839, at the age of 19, Anne took up that position with the Inghams of Blake Hall, Mirfield, with two young charges. Though she was dismissed at the end of the year, apparently for her failure to improve the children’s educational attainments, she acquired the experience which became a model for her first novel, Agnes Grey. We do not know whether she began its writing at this time, as there is no extant manuscript, but she continued to build up experience of the complicated role of governess in her next position, with the Robinsons, at Thorp Green, near York, where she went in 1840. Here her charges were three girls, Lydia aged 15, Elizabeth, 13, and Mary, 12. Anne must have formed good relationships with them as Elizabeth and Mary visited her at Haworth in 1848 long after she had left their employ. Some of the poems she wrote at this time express homesickness, e.g. ‘Home’, where, reflecting on the beautiful parkland surrounding her, she asks instead, ‘give me back my barren hills’. (For digital access to a range of Anne’s poems, go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/anne-bronte.) Nonetheless, she stuck at her post, bringing in Branwell to the establishment early in 1843 to act as tutor to the family’s young son, Edmund. Branwell’s disastrous affair with Mrs. Lydia Robinson is now well known; in June 1845 Anne resigned her post, and in July Branwell was dismissed, marking the start of his decline into alcoholism and addiction. That experience too fed into Anne’s writing, this time into her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
At this stage, however, she was still completing her first novel, noting in her diary paper of July 31st 1845, ‘I have begun the third volume of passages in the life of an Individual (sic)’ – this was the working title for what would become Agnes Grey. In this same period, when all four siblings were at home again at Haworth, Charlotte came upon Emily’s notebook containing 43 poems. Anne also offered up 21 poems, and a joint publication by all three sisters was conceived. In May, 1846, a selection of their poems was published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, subsidised by the sisters’ own funds, under the imprint of Aylott and Jones. The ordering of the names here, against alphabetical convention, gives a clue to the sisters’ own self-perceived pecking order. Although the Poems did not flourish, they were now at least published authors, and Charlotte now began to offer their novels to various publishers. In the summer of 1847, T. C. Newby accepted Anne’s and Emily’s novels (Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights) but not Charlotte’s (The Professor). However, Newby was a dilatory publisher, and it wasn’t until Charlotte’s second novel, Jane Eyre, had been published by Smith, Elder, in October 1847 that he finally brought out Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey together, in December 1847. Anne’s novel was again last in line – this time it made up the third volume of the joint publication, with Emily’s novel forming Volumes One and Two. And though Agnes Grey had been completed before Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was begun, the sensational success of her sister’s novel eclipsed Anne’s, with its prior portrait of a plain, principled heroine. However, Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, followed soon after, in July 1848, though the unscrupulous Newby suggested to an American publisher that it was a second work by Currer Bell. This led Charlotte and Anne to present themselves at the offices of Smith, Elder in London, to prove their separate identities. Tenant was successful enough to go into a quick second edition in August. In November 1848, Smith, Elder took over the sisters’ publication, with a new edition of their Poems.
They were now in safe publishing hands and the way was clear for all three sisters to forge ahead as writers. But neither Anne nor Emily had chance to enjoy the fruits of their success. Following quickly on Branwell’s death in September, Emily died in December 1848, and Anne fell ill in the same month, also with tuberculosis. She confronted her possible death bravely, though she did not wish for it; writing to Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey early in 1849, she said: ‘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.’ On May 24th, Charlotte and Ellen accompanied her to Scarborough in the last faint hope that the change of air would effect an improvement. On May 28th, she died, and was buried in St Mary’s churchyard in Scarborough, the only one of the siblings not to be buried at Haworth. She was 29 years old.
The posthumous fate of Anne Brontë’s fiction and poetry was not helped initially by Charlotte, who told Smith, Elder that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was not worthy of republication. The firm did republish Agnes Grey in an edition with Wuthering Heights, and with some of the poems, though only 7 of Anne’s poems were included. In 1854 Thomas Hodgson, another London publisher, brought out what has been called a mutilated edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; badly and summarily edited, it even omits Gilbert Markham’s opening letter, one of the key narrative framing devices of the novel. (www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/anne/mutilate.html) Versions of this edition persisted well into the twentieth century, further marring Anne’s reputation. The original Newby edition, but incorporating the corrections of the second edition, was restored with Oxford’s Clarendon Edition in 1992 – the same text as that used by Wordsworth Editions.
Anne Brontë’s novels are now hailed for their observant understanding of key social concerns of the day, including the socially uncomfortable role of the governess, the rights of women at a time when a wife could have no property of her own, it accruing by right to her husband, and the possibility this allowed for violent abuse within marriage. In Helen Graham, the heroine of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she depicts a spirited woman artist who challenges the power structures of marriage. In that novel too she uses an innovative double framing narrative, which allows the reader shifting perspectives. Anne Brontë’s realist eye can be seen by the modern reader as truly feminist.
Edward Chitham, A Life of Anne Brontë, Oxford, Blackwell, 1991
TITLES BY ANNE BRONTë