Often overlooked by the greater achievements of her older sisters, English author Anne Brontë(1820–1849) was a talented novelist in her own right, though she remains the least celebrated of the three writing Brontë sisters. Before her death at 29, Anne Brontë published two books, Agnes Grey in 1847 and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848, both under the gender-concealing pseudonym Acton Bell.
Raised in Church Parsonage
The youngest of six children, Anne Brontë was born January 17, 1820, to Patrick and Maria Branwell Brontë. Anne Brontë's mother came from a family of wealthy merchants. Her father, a Cambridge University graduate, hailed from Northern Ireland and worked as a clergyman with the Anglican Church. Patrick Brontë was also an author. He published several books of prose and verse, often with a moral bent. The Brontës married in 1812. Between 1814 and 1820, Maria Brontë gave birth to six children—five girls and one boy.
In 1820, the family settled at a parsonage in Haworth, an industrial village in central England. Anne Brontëwasborn here. The Haworth parsonage was not a cheery place—the stone home was cold and bleak. Patrick Brontëfeared fire and therefore allowed no curtains to be hung in the windows. In their front yard sat a cemetery, and the rear of the house backed up to moorland—a habitat of gently flowing hills covered with coarse grasses. The Brontë children enjoyed exploring the moorland; the landscape appeared in many of their novels.
In 1821, Maria Brontë died, leaving Patrick Brontë alone with six children. Anne Brontë was not even two years old at the time. Soon, Patrick Brontë's unmarried sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, came to help out. Growing up, the children developed close ties to one another. They entertained each other and played together all day long, often exploring the moors.
Studied Literature, Religion
Patrick Brontë was highly educated and believed his daughters deserved to be schooled as well. In 19th century England, however, this idea was a bit radical, and the notion of the day was to educate a girl just enough to please her future husband. Girls typically learned such things as singing and needlework and possibly a bit of French. Patrick Brontë, however, believed all of his children had intellectual capabilities that should be fostered. He provided the children with adult books and subscribed to literary magazines. He encouraged their interest in the English romantic poet William Wordsworth and Lord Byron. To
save money, Patrick Brontë arranged to receive day-old copies of The Times from a friend because he wanted his children to keep informed of current events.
Family discussions centered on poetry and art and cultural and political affairs. In addition, the children received a rigorous religious education. They read the Bible, Methodist Magazine and the Book of Common Prayer. Patrick Brontë's Sunday sermons tended to focus more on damnation than salvation. In his sermons and writing, he cautioned his congregants to be wary of sin. Of the children, Anne Brontëwas the one who took his message most to heart, and was the most devout. Morality and religion come up in Agnes Grey, a novel about a governess written by her later on. The protagonist, Agnes, is firm in her desire to teach her charges about Christianity and proper pious behavior. When Anne Brontë worked as a governess, she struggled in this area herself as well.
While the Brontë girls received a more expansive education than their female peers, Patrick Brontë still had some old-fashioned ideas about women's roles in society. His son, Branwell Brontë, received a more rigorous education than his sisters. Patrick Brontë worked with Branwell Brontë incessantly, hoping to prepare him for admission to Oxford or Cambridge. In Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë addressed the issue of educational inequity.
Patrick Brontë understood the need to raise his children so they would be able to earn a living. During this time, teacher and governess were about the only jobs available to middle-class working women. In 1824, a wealthy clergyman named Rev. Carus Wilson opened a school for girls in Lancashire, a town about 50 miles to the northwest. The goal of the school was to turn out future governesses. He enrolled the oldest girls—Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily Brontë. The place was horrid. The wash water froze in their frigid dormitory and they were fed a poor diet, causing their physical health to decline. In 1825, the eldest two Brontës—Maria and Elizabeth—died of tuberculosis they contracted while at the school. Patrick Brontë quickly withdrew the other two girls.
Escaped into Imaginary Worlds
The four remaining siblings, devastated by another loss, became closer than ever, creating their own little close-knit society. They spent their time reading, writing and drawing and escaped the harsh realities of their lives by creating imaginary worlds and writing tales of their inhabitants. Later on, these worlds and characters formed the foundations for their literary work.
The children were particularly inspired by a set of wooden soldiers Branwell Brontë received in 1826. Each of the children took a soldier and gave it a name and personality. Soon, they began writing tales of the soldiers' adventures and created a make-believe place called Glass Town. Charlotte and Branwell Brontë wrote volumes about the place. Inspired by their siblings, Emily and Anne Brontë created their own imaginary land, Gondal, which was ruled by a female leader. The children spent hours writing about these worlds.
At 15, Anne Brontë went off to boarding school, attending Miss Margaret Wooler's Roe Head School near Dewsbury. Her older sister, Charlotte Brontë, had gone there earlier and was currently teaching at the school. Emily Brontë attended for a time but was too homesick to continue. Anne Brontë stayed for about two years before she fell ill with gastritis and returned to Haworth in 1837.
In 1839, Anne Brontë left home to work as a governess, determined to make her own way in the world. A year later she went to Thorp Green Hall near York to serve as a governess for Edmund and Lydia Robinson. In time, she secured a position for her brother, Branwell, as a tutor for the Robinson's son. Branwell Brontë did not last long, however, and was dismissed for allegedly having an affair with Lydia Robinson. Anne Brontë quit in 1845.
Began Publishing Career
The year 1845 found the three Brontë sisters living back at home. None of them had any job prospects. Charlotte Brontë suggested they combine their best work into a poetry collection and seek publication. Each chose a gender-neutral pen name, fearing their work might be dismissed if publishers knew their true identities. In 1846 Poems, by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, was published. Charlotte Brontë chose the name Currer, Emily Brontë chose Ellis and Anne Brontë settled on Acton. In this manner they each kept their initials. The surname Bell was adopted from one of their father's assistants, a curate named Arthur Bell Nicholls, whom Charlotte Brontë later married.
The slim green volume failed to generate many sales; however, the Brontë sisters decided to push on and try their hand at fiction. Anne Brontë delved into Agnes Grey, which she had begun at Thorp Green. Charlotte Brontë worked on The Professor and Emily Brontë worked on Wuthering Heights. The young women fussed with their novels late into the night, sitting at the writing table in the parlor. They read passages to each other, paced the room and offered critiques of each other's work.
In 1847, a publisher offered to print Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, but rejected The Professor. The sisters had to help with the cost. Written as a first-person narrative, Agnes Grey tells the woeful tale of a put-upon governess named Agnes. Much of it was based on Anne Brontë's experiences as a governess. Throughout the book, Agnes is disgusted by the children's unruly behavior and their parents' failure to rein them in. In The Brontës, author Christopher Martin noted that in Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë said governesses lived a life of “minute torments and incessant tediums.”
Wrote Controversial Novel
In 1848, Anne Brontë published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall under her pseudonym. Wildfell Hall explored the breakdown of a drunken adulterer named Arthur Hunting-don and the turmoil he causes his wife, Helen, who finds the courage to leave him and escapes to Wildfell Hall with their son. The character of Arthur was based somewhat on Anne Brontë's brother, who struggled to find his place in the world and turned to alcohol and opium after losing his tutoring job. After watching her brother slip away, Anne Brontë wanted to warn against the dangers of alcohol.
In the book, Helen escapes from her husband and befriends a farmer named Gilbert Markham. The book's narrative structure is sophisticated—part of the story is told through Helen's diary and part through the letters Markham writes his brother-in-law. Because it was pretty much forbidden for a woman to leave her husband during this time period, Anne Brontë made Helen nearly perfect, hoping readers would understand her plight and forgive her actions.
The book received mixed reviews, mostly because the subject matter was considered too lurid. Anne Brontë's frank portrayal of drunken degeneracy offended many critics who condemned the author for seeking self-gratification through debauchery. According to The Brontës by Rebecca Fraser, a review in the Athenaeum called Wildfell Hall “the most interesting novel which we have read for a month past.”
Other reviewers denounced it as a women's fantasy tale and questions concerning the author's gender began to circulate. According to the New York Times' Michael Frank, in a second edition, Anne Brontë declared in the preface: “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.” Anne Brontë defended the novel, saying it was not about amusing readers or even creating a piece of art. According to Fraser, Anne Brontë said she wrote the book with God's help to warn against vice. She acknowledged that the book might be offensive to some but believed that was necessary to make her point and save people from a similar fate.
By now, Charlotte Brontë had published Jane Eyre under her pseudonym, Currer Bell. The book was creating a stir both in England and the United States and critics began to wonder about the Bell brothers. At this time, Anne and Charlotte Brontë decided to tell their publisher the truth.
Work Censored After Death
In September 1848, Branwell Brontë died. A few months later, Emily Brontë died of tuberculosis. In January 1849, Anne Brontë began to show signs of deep decline due to tuberculosis. Anne Brontë had always enjoyed the seaside town of Scarborough and in May 1849 Charlotte Brontë took her sister there. By now, Anne Brontë was so weakened by the disease she had to be lifted in and out of the carriages and trains. They found lodging in a room that overlooked the bay. In this way, Anne Brontë spent her last days, gazing out the window at the sea. She died May 28, 1849, and was buried at St. Mary's Church in Scarborough because Charlotte Brontë could not bear to bring another body home for her father to bury.
During her life, Anne Brontë remained in the shadow of her sisters, whose Romantic novels were better-accepted. In addition, Charlotte Brontë disliked Wildfell Hall and refused to let the book be reprinted after Anne Brontë died. In this manner, Anne Brontë faded away from literary consciousness. “Charlotte didn't like Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” Brontë Parsonage Museum director Jane Sellars told the South China Morning Post. “She really does manipulate what happens to [Anne and Emily's] work and their reputations. She said she didn't know what they were doing when they were writing these books.”
In the 20th century as critics reviewed the sisters and their work, Anne Brontë received acclaim for her strong feminist texts. Both of her books contain resilient female protagonists struggling for autonomy during a time when society was dominated by men. More than 150 years after Anne Brontë's death, fans were still paying homage to the writer who died so young. “People have planted flowers over the years and still leave flowers,” Brontë Society director Alan Bentley told the Daily Telegraph, noting that flowers still arrive at the society's headquarters on the anniversary of her death.
Fraser, Rebecca, The Brontës: Charlotte Brontë and Her Family, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1988.
Martin, Christopher, The Brontës, Rourke Enterprises, Inc., 1989.
Miller, Lucasta, The Brontë Myth, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Daily Telegraph (London), December 29, 2004.
Irish Times, November 18, 2000.
New York Times, March 8, 1996.
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), April 1, 1995