Bookish Birthdays: Anne Brontë
17th Jan 2014
In this profile of arguably the most feminist Brontë sister, we look at what lurked beneath her meek and mild demeanour...
Anne Brontë was born on January 17th, 1820. Her father, Patrick, was curate in the village of Thornton, near Bradford in Yorkshire. At four months old, Anne moved with her parents and five elder siblings to Haworth Parsonage, seven miles away. Her mother, Maria, died a year later.
The Brontë children were raised by Patrick and their Aunt Elizabeth, who shared a bed with Anne. Though a rather stern woman, she favoured Anne as the ‘baby’ of the family. Anne’s mature, responsible outlook, and devout faith, may have been influenced by their close relationship.
When Anne Brontë was four, Patrick sent three of his daughters to boarding school. Tragically, the two eldest daughters fell ill and died of consumption. Anne was closest to her sister Emily, born less than two years before.
The Brontë children created an intense imaginary world, ‘Angria’, chronicled in tiny, handwritten booklets. After the oldest of the girls, Charlotte, returned to education in 1831, Emily and Anne invented their own kingdom, ‘Gondal.’ Their early stories are now lost, although some poetry survives.
By 1835, Charlotte was a teacher at Roe Head School. Emily joined her briefly as a pupil, but became so homesick that she eventually withdrew. Anne was sent in her place. Although perhaps the most reticent of the sisters, Anne applied herself to her studies during her two-year stay.
At sixteen, she became ill and returned to Haworth. Her recovery was accompanied by a renewed Christian fervour, looking to religion as a way to navigate a morally ambivalent world.
In 1839, she was appointed governess to the Ingham family of Blake Hall at Mirfield, in the West Riding. The two children in her care were over-indulged, their behaviour uncontrollable. Anne was not permitted to discipline them, and their parents refused to intervene. After eight months, she was dismissed from her post. This miserable experience would inspire much of her first novel, Agnes Grey.
Despite Anne’s meek demeanour, her life was anything but timid...Back at Haworth, Patrick had been joined by a young curate. Charming and funny, William Weightman became a friend of the family; and some biographers believe that Anne was in love with him. She was considered the most amiable, and attractive of the three sisters. Like Emily, however, Anne left few clues behind – there is only a brief allusion to the supposed romance in Charlotte’s correspondence.
If Anne Brontë ever hoped to marry William, she would have been disappointed. Though a kindly man who helped the poor of Haworth, Weightman was also something of a flirt. Whether he returned Anne’s affections, or was even aware of how she felt is unclear. Weightman died of cholera in 1842.
Undeterred, Anne found another position as governess to the Robinsons of Thorp Green Hall, near York. She would stay there for five years, even spending holidays with the family by the sea at Scarborough. After initial difficulties, she grew close to the young girls in her charge.
In 1843, Anne’s brother, Branwell, joined her at Thorp Green, where he became entangled in an adulterous affair. The siblings left Thorp Green three years later, under a cloud of scandal.
During the summer of 1845, Charlotte had decided to publish a volume of poems by herself, Emily and Anne, under male pseudonyms. The book was not a success, and the sisters each began a novel. Agnes Grey was published in 1847. In the wake of Charlotte’s success with Jane Eyre, Anne’s second novel – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – sold out within weeks of its release in June 1848, though critics branded it ‘coarse.’
Partly inspired by events Anne had witnessed at Thorp Green, the novel depicts Helen Huntingdon’s failed marriage to a dissolute rake with a gritty realism quite different to her sisters’ more romantic works.
Branwell died of tuberculosis in September 1848, followed by Emily in December. Anne, too, had contracted the disease. She longed to visit Scarborough again, and died there, aged 29, on May 28, 1849. She is the only Brontë offspring to be buried outside Haworth.
A grief-stricken Charlotte was left to face the spotlight alone. After her identity was revealed, she took steps to protect her sisters’ memories from the onslaught of narrow-minded critics. Fatally, she dismissed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as ‘a mistake.’
While Anne’s place in the literary canon is assured, she has often overshadowed by her sisters. Her biographers include Winifred Gerin, Edward Chitham, Betty Jay, Maria Frawley, Juliet Barker and Elizabeth Langland, who – with heavy irony – dubbed her ‘the other one’.
Despite Anne’s meek demeanour, her life was anything but timid. She lived courageously, and wrote two ground-breaking novels. As suggested recently on the Hark! A Vagrant blog, the youngest Brontë sister’s day in the sun may still be yet to come.