Relatively little is known about Anne Brontë's life. Records indicate where she was and suggest general outlines of what she was doing; her published works suggest something of her experience and beliefs; but few records survive of her daily life and feelings, in her own words or those of witnesses. The few cases in which her own recorded impressions can be compared with those of her sisters, Charlotte and Emily, suggest that their perceptions of Anne are not reliable guides to Anne's feelings. Any biography is a fragile patchwork of facts and possibilities, sewn together with inferences, suppositions, and hopes.
Anne Brontë was born on January 17th, 1820, at Thornton (see also The Brontë Birthplace). Anne was the last of the six children of Patrick and his wife Maria Branwell Brontë. Her siblings, by age, were Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, and Emily Jane. Patrick Brontë was the curate of Thornton. Given the size of the family, Patrick actively sought a better clerical appointment. After much difficulty, he was appointed to the perpetual curacy of Haworth. The Brontë family moved to the parsonage there in April, 1820.
Anne was barely a year old when her mother became ill of what is believed to have been uterine cancer. The children were looked after by their nursemaid, Sarah and her sister Nancy Gars. Patrick Brontë dedicated himself to nursing his beloved wife, while still fulfilling his clerical duties in the new parish. It was a gruelling load, one which became nearly unbearable when all six children caught scarlet fever, itself potentially fatal. The children recovered, and help arrived in the form of Maria's sister, Elizabeth Branwell. After months of physical agony and distress over the future of Patrick and their children, Maria Branwell Brontë died on September 15th, 1821. She was buried September 22nd in Haworth Church.
Patrick too was deeply concerned for his family. Elizabeth Branwell could not be expected to stay with them forever; his children needed a mother During the next two years, Patrick made several rather desperate attempts to find a second wife. Failing, he began looking for a good school which would offer his children a good education and a chance to become independent. Crofton Hall, and later the Clergy Daughter's School, seemed good choices. Between July 21st, 1824, and November 25th, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily were sent to school. In May, 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth died; Charlotte and Emily were immediately brought home. Faced with this disastrous outcome, Patrick could not face sending them away again, and Elizabeth Branwell agreed to stay. Thus, she was a surrogate mother to Anne throughout her childhood. Anne slept with Aunt Branwell, not with Charlotte and Emily. She and her aunt were particularly close, and this loving adult role model may have strongly influenced Anne's personality and religious beliefs. The tragic deaths that had such an impact on the other children had less effect on Anne, who was too young to remember her mother, or much about her two eldest sisters.
In The Brontës (1994), Juliet Barker describes the Brontës' childhood in considerable detail. The four remaining children banded together; as elders Charlotte and Branwell joined forces and tended to somewhat ignore "the babies" Emily and Anne. They played with toys, including Branwell's toy soldiers, made up stories about them, and eventually began to write them down. Charlotte and Branwell developed the private worlds of the Glass Towns and Angria; Emily and Anne in turn developed their own world, Gondal. The closeness of their relationship was reinforced by 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 describes Anne at this time:
"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. " (Chitham, 1991, p. 39)
Anne's studies at home included music, which she always enjoyed, and drawing. Later, she began more formal studies at Roe Head School. Charlotte returned there on July 29th, 1835 as a teacher. Emily accompanied her as a pupil; her tuition largely financed by Charlotte's teaching. Emily was unable to adapt to life at school, and by October, was physically ill from homesickness. Anne returned to Roe Head in Emily's place. At fifteen, it was Anne's first time away from home. Her later poems express a deep attachment to her home, and she made few friends at Roe Head, so there is no reason to suppose that she was less homesick there than her sisters. However, her response to the same environment was totally different. She was quiet and hard-working, and more importantly, determined to stay and get the education that would allow her to support herself. Anne was certainly aware that Charlotte and others were making sacrifices to give her the opportunity to do so. "She had a core of steel, a sense of duty and obligation" (Barker, p. 237) Anne stayed for two years, winning a good-conduct medal in December 1836, and returning home only during Christmas and the summer holidays.
One of Anne's activities during the holidays was playing at the Gondals with Emily. The first of Anne's known poems, "Verses by Lady Geralda", dates from Christmas 1836. The next, "Alexander and Zenobia", is dated July 1st, 1837. Both are set firmly in the world of Gondal. They deal with clearly fictional characters, and bear their signatures. Though there is disagreement over the categorization of Anne's poetry into Gondal and non-Gondal poetry, most of the poems which are 'signed' by Gondal characters seem to have been written during or immediately after periods of proximity to Emily.
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 prior to December 1837, Anne became seriously ill and underwent a religious crisis. (Mrs. Gaskell incorrectly gives the time of Anne's illness as a year later, in The Life of Charlotte Brontë .) A Moravian minister, James LaTrobe, was called to see Anne several times during her illness. It is notable that a Moravian was called in, rather than a local Anglican minister. It supports the idea that the Dewsbury clerics, hard-line and censorious in comparison to Anne's more liberal father, were the source of her religious distress. James Latrobe noted a number of issues which were of concern to her at 17:
"I found her well acquainted with the main truths of the Bible respecting our salvation, but seeing them more through the law than the gospel, more as a requirement from God than His gift in His Son, but her heart opened to the sweet views of salvation, pardon, and peace in the blood of Christ, and she accepted His welcome to the weary and heavy laden sinner, conscious more of her not loving the Lord her God than of acts of enmity to Him " (Barker, p. 281)
In later poems such as "Hymn" vt. "The Doubter's Prayer"; "A Word to the Calvinists", vt. "A Word to the 'Elect'"; "To Cowper"; and the autobiographical poem "Self-Communion", Anne continued to consider these issues.
Charlotte was sufficiently concerned about Anne's illness to notify Patrick Brontë, and to take Anne home. Charlotte returned alone to Roe Head after Christmas, while Anne remained at home to recover.
Little is known about the next year, but by 1839 Anne was actively looking for a teaching position. She left home on April 8, 1839, and travelled alone, at her own request, to Mirfield. There she began work as a governess at Blake Hall, the home of the Ingham family. Blake Hall was an imposing eighteenth-century mansion with a small wooded park. Joshua Ingham was 37, his wife 10 years younger. Their two eldest children, Cunliffe, age 6, and Mary, age 5, were put in Anne's care. Three younger girls were still in the nursery.
Anne seems to have assessed her situation quickly and accurately, and determined that she would make the best of it. An early letter home was summarized by Charlotte in a letter to Ellen Nussey:
"she expresses herself very well satisfied–and says that Mrs Ingham is extremely kind... both her pupils are desperate little dunces–neither of them can read and sometimes they even profess a profound ignorance of their Alphabet–the worst of it is the little monkies are excessively indulged and she is not empowered to inflict any punishment " (Barker, p. 308)
Anne drew on her experiences at Blake Hall in later writing Agnes Grey. Her heroine's first position is a similar situation, supervising children of much the same age and sex. Anne's fictional descriptions convey both detail and conviction, and independent anecdotes suggest that the Ingham children may well have been models for the Bloomfield children of the book. As adults, Cunliffe and Mary Ingham were known to be difficult and wilful; if they were as unmanageable in real life as the children of the book, Anne's stay at Blake Hall was hardly pleasant. 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 also left their positions, and Branwell.
There was a new face around the parsonage as well. Patrick had a new curate. William Weightman began work in the parish in August, 1839. Twenty-six years old, he had obtained a two year licentiate in theology from the University of Durham, and was recommended for the curacy of Haworth by the Bishop of Ripon. He quickly became welcome at the parsonage.
Anne's acquaintance with William Weightman parallels the writing of a number of poems which may suggest that she fell in love with him. There is considerable disagreement over this point (Edward Chitham argues strongly for this interpretation; Juliet Barker remains unconvinced.) Not much outside evidence exists beyond a teasing anecdote of Charlotte's to Ellen Nussey in January 1842.
"Your darling 'his young reverence' as you tenderly call him–is looking delicate and pale–poor thing, don't you pity him? I do, from my heart–when he is fat and jovial I never think of him–but when anything ails him I am always sorry–He sits opposite Anne at church sighing softly and looking out of the corners of his eyes to win her attention–and Anne is so quiet, her look so down-cast–they are a picture. " (Chitham, 1991, pp. 62-63).
A major issue in the debate is whether Anne's poetry of 1840-1845 reflects her personal experience, or that of Gondal characters. Without independent Gondal manuscripts or details about them it is difficult to assign poems to specific Gondal contexts. Chitham argues that Anne's poetry falls into both classes, and that she primarily wrote Gondal works when in direct contact with Emily. Anne's views of poetry itself, perhaps dangerously inferred from her fictional writing, are directly relevant to this question. Both Agnes Grey and Helen Hungtingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall write poetry. The character of Agnes Grey refers to poems as "pillars of witness" in a passage that may well reflect Anne's own view: Anne's religious poetry certainly fits this pattern.
"When we are harrassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry–and often find it, too–whether in the effusions of others, which seem to harmonize with our existing case, or in our own attempts to give utterance to those thoughts and feelings in strains less musical, perchance, but more appropriate, and therefore more penetrating and sympathetic, and for the time, more soothing, or more powerful to rouse and to unburden the oppressed and swollen heart. Before this time, at Wellwood House and here, when suffering from home-sick melancholy, I had sought relief twice or thrice at this secret source of consolation; and now I flew to it again, with greater avidity than ever, because I seemed to need it more. I still preserve those relics of past sufferings and experience, like pillars of witness set up in travelling through the vale of life, to mark particular occurrences. " (Agnes Grey, Everyman Classics Edition, 1985, pp. 121)
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. We know that he sent valentines to the three sisters and visiting Ellen Nussey, in February 1840. Juliet Barker suggests that Charlotte Brontë may well have been interested in Weightman herself, given repeated references to him in her letters. Charlotte's initial impression was a positive one. She even painted his portrait. Later, however, she characterized him bitterly as a flighty and flirtatious, an idler who attracted numerous females. Edward Chitham suggests that Charlotte may have been trying to 'protect' Anne from possible involvement. There is no record of how Weightman felt about the sisters. However, one wonders whether Weightman's indication of a previous attachment to one Agnes Walton–the veracity of which has been questioned–may have been an attempt to divert interest away from himself!
In startling contrast to Charlotte's portrayal of Weightman as someone who "ought not to have been a parson", Patrick Brontë and others who worked with Weightman spoke of the piety and dedication that he displayed in his clerical duties. Their statements suggest that he felt a deep and heartfelt committment to the church. Church records indicate that he took on the major work of christenings and funerals as his pastoral duties, actively campaigned on church rates, and deeply involved himself in ministry to members of the parish, particularly the sick and dying. Anne, for whom religious belief was a major focus, and who always sought in religion a source of strength and consolation, may well have been aware of this aspect of Weightman's character. 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. Written on January 1st, 1840, "A Fragment", vt. "Self-Congratulation", is signed like a Gondal poem, but the signature is not that of a known Gondal character. The maiden of the poem is young, newly experiencing adult feelings of attraction for a male acquaintance, and thankfully concealing them from all those around her. An identification of Anne with the maiden is consistent with Anne's characterization of poems as "pillars of witness", and with an assessment of her personality as combining deep feeling with stern self-control.
Regardless of any feelings she may have been developing for her father's curate, Anne was determined to find another post as a governess. The presence of four young Brontës at home was a financial hardship, and Anne wished to support herself. She soon obtained a post with Reverend Edmund Robinson and his wife Lydia, at Thorp Green, a wealthy country house near York. She was to have four pupils: Lydia, 15, Elizabeth, 13, Mary, age 12, and Edmund, age 8.
Anne probably left home for Thorp Green on May 8, 1840. She could not know it at the time, but for the next 5 years she would spend no more than 5 or 6 weeks a year with her family, during holidays at Christmas and in June. The rest of her time would be spent with the Robinsons at their home Thorp Green, or on holiday with them in Scarborough. While living with the Robinsons, Anne first saw York Minster, which she found moving and inspirational. She also visited the seaside at Scarborough, and loved it for both its beauty and the benefits to her health. Her employers were satisfied with her work, and as Bessy and Mary Robinson grew older, Anne became close to them. Of all her sisters, Anne spent the most time away from Haworth, establishing fond associations elsewhere.
There is no question that she missed her home and family. "Lines Written at Thorp Green", vt. "Appeal", was written only a few months after her arrival there. It speaks of "loneliness" and "repining"; the identity of its longed for visitor has been much speculated upon. "Home" pleads for the "grey walls" of Haworth rather than the beautiful grounds of Thorp Green. Yet while Anne repeatedly writes of her depression and unhappiness, these are not her only emotions. In "Retirement" , she turns from "earthly cares" and "restless wandering thoughts" to seek comfort in God. In "In Memory of a Happy Day in February" and "Music on Christmas Morning", she rejoices in her religious belief. She exults in the beauty and wildness of nature in "Lines composed in a Wood on a Windy Day".
While Anne's feelings about Thorp Green were certainly mixed–she commented in a diary paper in 1841 that she did not like her situation and wished to leave it–she also chose to repeatedly return to Thorp Green, in spite of her sister's schemes for opening a school, and the death of Elizabeth Branwell in early November 1842, while her sisters were away in Brussels.
Aunt Branwell's death closely followed that of Patrick's curate, William Weightman, who died of cholera on September 6th, 1842. Anne would have seen Weightman on her holidays at home, particularly during the summer of 1842, when her sisters were away. In December, she wrote "To–" (Chitham, 1979) the first of several poems in which she expresses grief and loss at the death of a young man, saying in part:
And yet I cannot check my sighs,
Thou wert so young and fair,
More bright than summer morning skies,
But stern death would not spare;
He would not pass our darling by
Nor grant one hour's delay,
But rudely closed his shining eye
And frowned his smile away,
That angel smile that late so much
Could my fond heart rejoice;
And he has silenced by his touch
The music of thy voice.
In "Yes, Thou Art Gone", April 1844; vt. "A Reminiscence", Anne eulogizes someone buried beneath the old church floor. In "Night", in early 1845, she speaks of a form, "cold in the grave for years" that it was once "my bliss to see". In her "Dreams" of spring 1845, she longs for both "earnest looks of love" and an "infant's form" and concludes poignantly
A heart whence warm affections flow,
Creator, thou hast given to me,
And am I only thus to know
How sweet the joys of love would be?
As late as 1847, Anne writes passionately of one whose "heavenly flame has heavenward flown" in an untitled poem. Her autobiographical poem "Self-Communion" of 1847-1848, speaks wistfully of those "whose love may freely gush and flow" and "whose dreams of bliss were not in vain". Religious references occur repeatedly in these poems, and often present a source of comfort. Anne's poems convey a sense of personal grief and loss, and a sense of attempts over time at reconciliation with the pain of lost hopes and possibilities. To what extent those hopes may once have focused on William Weightman, and whether there was ever any real possibility of their fulfillment, is unclear; but we know of no other young man of Anne's acquaintance who died at this time. 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 returned again to Thorp Green in January 1843. This time, she was not alone. Her brother Branwell accompanied her, as a tutor for Edmund Robinson, previously Anne's pupil. Though Branwell did not live in the house with the Robinson family, as Anne did, his presence at Thorp Green may have lifted her spirits. "A Word to the Calvinists", May 28th, 1843; vt "A Word to the Elect", is one of Anne's most confident statements of religious faith. But by September 10th, 1843, she was again fighting religious doubts, as attested to by "A Hymn", vt "The Doubter's Prayer". 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.
Anne and Branwell continued to teach at Thorp Green for the next two years. But when they returned home for the holidays in June 1845, Anne had startling news: she had resigned her position and would not be returning to Thorp Green.
Anne celebrated her new-found freedom by taking 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. Emily, however, was more interested in playing at the Gondals than in any of the sights Anne wanted to show her. Emily describes the trip in her diary paper of July 31st, 1845.
"Anne and I went our first long Journey by ourselves–leaving Home on the 30th of June–monday–sleeping at York–returning to Keighley Tuesday evening sleeping there and walking home on wedensday morning–though the weather was broken, we enjoyed ourselves very much except during a few hours at Bradford and during our excursion we were Ronald Macelgin, Henry Angora, Juliet Augusteena, Rosobelle Esraldan, Ella and Julian Egramont Catherine Navarre and Cordelia Fitzaphnold escaping from the Palaces of Instruction to join the Royalists who are hard driven at present by the victorious Republicans" (Barker, pp. 450-451)In Emily's opinion:
"The Gondals still flourish as bright as ever I am at present writing a work on the First Wars– Anne has been writing some articles on this and a book by Henry Sophona–We intend sticking firm by the rascals as long as they delight us which I am glad to say they do at present– " (Barker, pp. 453-454)
In sharp contrast is Anne's description of the Gondals, in her own diary paper of the same date.
"Emily is engeaged in writing the Emperor Julius's life She has read some of it and I very much want to hear the rest–She is writing some poetry too I wonder what it is about – I have begun the third volume of passages in the life of an Individual, I wish I had finished it. ... We have not yet finished our Gondal chronicles that we began three years and a half ago when will they be done?– The Gondals are at present in a sad state the Republicans are uppermost but the Royalists are not quite overcome–the young sovereigns with their brothers and sisters were still at the palace of Instruction–the Unique Society above half a year ago, were wrecked on a dezart Island as they were returning from Garldin–they are still there but we have not played at them much yet–The Gondals in general are not in first-rate playing condition–will they improve? " (Barker, pp. 454-455)
Emily seems to have been blissfully unaware–indeed quite oblivious–to Anne's disenchantment with the Gondals. Some researchers have suggested that Passages in the Life of an Individual was actually a working title for Agnes Grey, but no one knows for certain. No manuscripts for either title have been found.
In the same diary papers, the sisters commented briefly on Branwell, who had now also left Thorp Green. Emily simply notes "Anne left her situation at Thorp Green of her own accord–June 1845 Branwell left–July 1845. " (Barker, p. 456) Anne says "Branwell has ... been a tutor at Thorp Green and had much tribulation and ill health he was very ill on Tuesday ... we hope he will be better and do better in future–" (Barker, p. 456) What their notes do not mention is that Branwell had been dismissed from his post at Thorp Green because he was having an affair with Mrs. Robinson, seventeen years his elder. Branwell was distraught, at their separation and at reports that Mrs Robinson was in great anguish. There are suggestions that Anne's poem "The Penitent" is an expression of sympathy for Branwell: Anne may have interpreted Branwell's depression as indicating repentance as well as regret.
While Anne gave no reason for her own resignation from Thorp Green, it is generally believed that she chose to leave upon becoming aware of the relationship between Branwell and Mrs. Robinson. She retained close ties to Bessy and Mary Robinson, remaining on good terms with them, and exchanging frequent letters with them even after Branwell's disgrace. The Robinson sisters turned to Anne for advice, rather than to their mother. They also came to visit Anne in December, 1848. Charlotte wrote of them that "they seemed overjoyed to see Anne; when I went into the room they were clinging round her like two children " (Barker, p. 574).
Thus, in the summer of 1845, all four of the Brontës were at home with their father Patrick. The atmosphere was not a happy one. Branwell had disgraced himself. Charlotte had been depressed since her return from Brussels, where she had fallen in love with her married professor. None of the four had any immediate prospect of employment. It was at this point that Charlotte 'found' her sister Emily's poems, written in tiny script. They had hitherto been shared only with Anne, her partner in the world of Gondal. Charlotte proposed that they be published.
Emily was furious at Charlotte's intrusion into their private world. Anne, perhaps in an attempt to make peace, perhaps hoping for recognition of her work, 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. Charlotte could arrange to publish the poems, but only pseudonymously, and they must first be editted to remove references to the Gondal world.
They told neither Branwell, nor their father, nor their friends about what they were doing. Anne and Emily each contributed 21 poems. Emily's poems were mostly written within the past 2 years; Anne's in the past 5. In contrast, most of Charlotte's 19 poems had been written over 5 years before, as part of the Angrian chronicles which she had shared with Branwell. Charlotte arranged publication of The Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell through Aylott & Jones, at the authors' expense. The cost of publication was 31 pounds, 10 shillings–about 3/4 of Anne's annual salary at Thorp Green. On May 7, 1846, the first three copies of the book were delivered to Haworth Parsonage. The volume achieved three somewhat favourable reviews, one of which particularly noted Emily's poetic talent. It sold a total of two copies.
By the time of its publication, however the "Bells" were venturing into a new domain–that of the novel. By July 1846, a package of three manuscripts was making the rounds of London publishers. Charlotte's The Professor and Emily's Wuthering Heights draw on their earlier writings about Angria and Gondal. Their books reflect both Gothic and Romantic ideas. In contrast, Anne began Agnes Grey with the words "All true histories contain instruction", and wrote in a realist, rather than a romantic style. In Agnes Grey, Anne drew strongly on her own life and experience as a governess. Her rather plain first-person female narrator begins the story young, inexperienced, and idealistic. Like Anne, she might well say that she has "some very unpleasant and undreamt of experience of human nature". Her experience does not destroy her sweetness of character, but rather strengthens it. Agnes Grey is a wish-fulfillment 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 writing is reminiscent of Jane Austen. Anne's understated humour and occasional satire also remind the reader of Austen. (Given these similarities, it is worth noting that Charlotte Brontë disliked Jane Austen's writing.)
After sending out the manuscripts of their first novels, the sisters had quickly begun new works. Charlotte followed Anne's lead in creating a plain governess heroine, in the much more romantic Jane Eyre . Emily may also have begun a new book, but if she did its manuscript has never been found. Anne began writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
The first three manuscripts were to make the rounds of the publishing houses for most of a year. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were eventually picked up by Thomas Cautley Newby. The manuscript of The Professor was noticed by Mssrs. Smith and Elder, who preferred not to publish it, but hoped that Charlotte's next work would be more marketable. Smith, Elder were considerably more responsive than Newby once an agreement had been reached, and Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey finally appeared in print in December 1847, two months after the publication of Charlotte's wildly successful Jane Eyre . Most of the reviewers' attention focused on Wuthering Heights. One reviewer did compare Agnes Grey (somewhat unfavourably) to the works of Miss Austin [sic].
The depiction of Lowood school in Jane Eyre , based as it was on the Clergy Daughter's School, had started rumours about the identity of its author. Although Charlotte told Patrick Brontë that she was the author of Jane Eyre , the sisters had otherwise maintained their anonymity. The very success of Jane Eyre was to be their undoing. In July, 1848, Thomas Newby marketed Anne's second book to an American publisher as the latest work of Currer Bell, affirming that "to the best of his knowledge" the Bells were one person. Smith, Elder & Co., who had been promised Currer's next book, were alarmed and furious. Charlotte and Anne saw only one way to prove, beyond doubt, that Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were separate people. They went to London to reveal their identities to the publishers. Emily flatly refused to go with them, and was adamant that the secret must go no further. It was a vain hope, once the secret was out.
The book so misleadingly advertised was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In it Anne Brontë deals with several themes. She is concerned about the preparation of young women for marriage, an issue affecting the young Robinson girls who she had tutored. Their mother was pressuring them to marry, since she herself wished to remarry. They turned to Anne for advice. Anne may also have found a model for an unhappy marriage in a Mrs. Collins, who visited once or twice at the parsonage. Anne is also concerned with the preparation of young boys for adulthood, a particularly salient concern, given Branwell's failure to fulfill his youthful promise. 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'. A careful reading of the novel, and a close comparison of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with Emily's Wuthering Heights, suggest that it 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.
It is believed that many of these details were based on Anne's observation of Branwell. Branwell's emotional and physical condition had continued to worsen. Branwell initially seems to have believed that Mrs. Robinson loved him, and hoped that she would marry him if her husband died. Instead, after her husband's death in May 26, 1846, she moved to the home of a distant cousin in Birmingham, Sir Edward Scott. He later became her second husband. She consistently distanced herself from Branwell, using intermediaries to dissuade him from approaching her. She also sent him occasional gifts of money, which he used to drink himself into oblivion. Between 1845 and 1848, Branwell destroyed his health. He had attacks of delirium tremens, and on one occastion his bedclothes caught on fire while he was drunk. Anne discovered him and tried to rouse him, then called the stronger Emily, who was able to drag him to safety. Eventually Branwell caught influenza, and possibly tuberculosis. He died on Sunday, 24th September, 1848.
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 English law. At the time, a married woman had no independent legal existence, apart from her husband (c.f. Caroline Norton's English Laws for Women). She 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 book, which appeared in August 1848, Anne clearly stated her intentions in writing it. She presented a forceful rebutal to critics who considered her portrayal of Huntingdon overly graphic and disturbing. (Charlotte was among them.)
"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." (Barker, pp. 532)
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.
"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. " (Barker, p. 564)
The increasing popularity of the Bell's 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, Elder, and reissued under new covers in November 1848. It still sold poorly. Anne, however, was beginning to find a market for her more recent poetry. "The Three Guides" appeared in Frazier's Magazine in August; "The Narrow Way" in December.
In the period between 1846 and 1848, health was a continuing concern: Patrick's health, Branwell's health, the sisters' healths. Though the whole family had suffered from coughs and colds during the fall of 1848, it was Emily who next became severely ill. She refused all offers of medicine or medical help, and her condition deteriorated rapidly. On Tuesday, December 19, 1848, she died of tuberculosis, the dread scourge of consumption.
Anne was also ill. Although Anne and Emily had grown apart since their childhood, there was still a strong bond between them. In "Self-Communion" (1847-May 1848) while reflecting on their relationship, Anne remembered the pain she had felt on realizing that they did not share the same concerns. She described herself and her sister then as two trees "that at the root were one" but of which "the stems must stand alone". Her sister's death deeply affected her and her grief further undermined her physical health. Charlotte wrote, determined to support her remaining family, "The sight too of my sister Anne's very still but deep sorrow wakens in me such fear for her that I dare not falter." (Barker, p. 578)
It was a well-justified fear. Over Christmas, Anne caught influenza. Patrick Brontë called in a specialist in cases of consumption. Mr Teale examined Anne on January 5, 1849, and could offer little hope. Anne met the news with characteristic determination and self-control, qualities she displayed throughout her illness, even when undergoing painful treatments. "Anne is very patient in her illness", Charlotte wrote "–as patient as Emily was unflinching. I recall one sister and look at the other with a sort of reverence as well as affection–under the test of suffering neither have faltered." (Barker, p 582).
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Huntingdon finds consolation at her husband's death in the doctrine of universal salvation. She believes that her husband will not be eternally damned despite his sins. Huntingdon himself, in dying, feels no such surety. From her childhood, Anne Brontë had found consolation in the belief that all sinners could in time be received with joy in Heaven. "I drew it secretly from my own heart and from the word of God before I knew that any other held it." (Barker, p 580). She had not always found it easy to believe, though, and now, facing her own death, past religious doubts again distressed her.
Privately, in a final "pillar of witness" poem, Anne expressed the pain, fear and distress that she carefully controlled before her family. She feared not only suffering and death, but loss of faith, the possibility of sin brought on by the experience of suffering. She regretted the loss of hope as well as joy: hope for a long and happy and fulfilling life of contribution and achievement. Returning to the same poem three weeks later, Anne determined "to gather fortitude from Pain" and "hope & holiness" by fixing her heart on God during this trial. Though she writes longingly of her resolutions "if thou shouldst bring me back to life", the main wish expressed in her concluding lines is "But Lord whate'er my future fate / So let me serve thee now." (Barker, p. 582-583.)
In February, Anne seemed somewhat better. In March, Ellen Nussey invited her to Brookroyd, to be nursed by Ellen and her sisters. Anne made a counter-proposal. Through Charlotte, she asked if Ellen would accompany her to Scarborough. Anne had always loved the sea there, and there was some slight hope that the climate might be beneficial. Charlotte chose to ignore Anne's own wishes, and argue against the plan, suggesting that it would be better to wait. Anne feared that she had little time to waste, and wrote to Ellen herself, asking her help and painstakingly refuting counter-arguments. She speaks clearly and calmly of her illness and of death.
"I have a more serious reason than this for my impatience of delay: the doctors say that change of air or removal to a better climate would hardly ever fail of success in consumptive cases if taken in time, but the reason why there are so many disappointments is, that it is generally deferred till it is too late. Now I would not commit this error; and to say the truth, thouhg I suffer much less from pain and fever than I did when you were with us, I am decidedly weaker and very much thinner my cough still troubles me a good deal, especially in the night, and, what seems worse than all, I am subject to great shortness of breath on going up stairs or any slight exertion. Under these circumstances I think there is no time to be lost... 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. " (Barker, p 589)
Though ill, Anne's strength of will was the equal of Charlotte's. In the end Patrick intervened, removing Charlotte's last defense against the plan by stating his willingness to be left with the servants in Haworth, and requesting that Charlotte accompany Anne. On May 24, 1849, Anne said her good-byes to her father and the servants at Haworth, and set off for Scarborough with Charlotte and Ellen. They stayed overnight in York, gratifying Anne's desire to see her beloved York Minster. Anne found great joy in returning to York and Scarborough, and showing well-loved places to Charlotte and Ellen. However, it was clear that Anne had little strength left.
On Sunday, May 27th, she asked Charlotte whether it would be easier for her if Anne returned 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 spent time in prayer, and spoke of her confidence in God. She expressed her love and concern for Ellen and Charlotte, and seeing Charlotte's distress, whispered to her to "take courage". Conscious, calm, and aware of others until the last, Anne died at about two o'clock, Monday, May 28th, 1849. The doctor, who had returned several times throughout the day, said that he had never seen such a tranquil deathbed.
Charlotte arranged to bury Anne in Scarborough, the place she loved. It was a pragmatic as well as an emotional decision; the two-day journey back to Haworth would have been difficult and expensive. The funeral was held on Wednesday, May 30th, which did not allow time for Patrick Brontë to make the 70-mile trip to Scarborough, had he wished to do so. The service was read at Christ Church, because the parish church of St. Mary was being renovated. Anne was buried at St. Mary's, overlooking the sea. That the church records list Anne as having been 'from Scarboro, near York' rather than from Haworth may indicate that the clergyman remembered Anne from her time at Thorp Green. 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". (Barker, p. 596)
It was somewhat unfortunate that Charlotte, who showed little sympathy with or understanding of Anne's character, became the de facto literary executor of her work. Charlotte tended to see Anne as mild and uninteresting, a minor talent whose work was of little value. This is hardly surprising; she held a similar view of Jane Austen. "She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound; the Passions are perfectly unknown to her... Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman... " (Barker, pp. 634-635). Charlotte, with her Gothic red visions and Romantically expressed passions for "what the blood rushes through", did not recognize that equally strong feeling might be expressed in "human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly". The sisters were reminiscient of Austen's Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, but never achieved the mutual understanding found by the fictional characters.
In 1850, discussing with Smith, Elder the possibility of republishing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Charlotte wrote damningly "'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." (Barker, p. 654) Charlotte failed to acknowledge the motivations behind Anne's work, and found it disconcerting because it challenged her own conception of Anne's character. The subsequent publication history of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been a difficult one. Many editions have been published without the initial sections of the book, demolishing its structure. Luckily, the recent Penguin edition is based on the original Newby publication, not later mutilated versions.
Charlotte did agree to have Smith, Elder reprint Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey in 1850. She added a biographical notice in which she attempted to counter criticisms of the Bell's works as crude and degrading by portraying her sisters as inexperienced, unlearned writers, working according to the "dictates of intuition" and innocently describing truths from their rural seclusion. (Barker, p. 655) The Brontë myth was born.
Charlotte also appended a number of Anne and Emily's poems to the new edition. She selected seven of Anne's poems, and eighteen of Emily's, making substantial revisions to them before they went to press. Many of the changes were unnecessary (cf. "In Memory of a Happy Day in February", 1850); in some cases they substantially changed the sense or intent of the poem. Charlotte chose not to include some sections of the poems, and to four poems, she added stanzas of her own composition. These editorial changes are not documented in the 1850 text. A complete collection of Anne's poems, based on the original manuscripts, and noting variants from other publications, can be found in The Poems of Anne Brontë (1979) by Edward Chitham. Chitham has also published a recent biography of Anne's life.
For many years, Anne Brontë has been remembered primarily as the third Brontë sister, the meek one. Her works have been largely forgotten. 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. Now, with increasing critical interest in women authors, her life is being reexamined, and her work reevaluated.
[Poems are presented in order by estimated data of composition.]