Anne Brontë

Poet and Novelist of the 19th Century

Anne Brontë
Anne Brontë, from a watercolor by her sister Charlotte Brontë. Hulton Archive/Culture Club/Getty Images

Known for:  author of Agnes Grey and Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Occupation: novelist, poet 
Dates: January 17, 1820 - May 28, 1849
Also known as: Acton Bell (pen name)

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Maria Branwell (April 15, 1783 – September 15, 1821); born in Cornwall. Mother: Anne Crane, whose father was a silversmith. Father: Thomas Branwell, prosperous merchant in Penzance. Maria became a teacher when her parents died.
  • Father: Patrick Brontë (March 17, 1777 – June 7, 1861); born in Ireland; ordained August 10, 1806; poor Anglican clergyman. Studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he changed the spelling of his last name from Brunty. Published poet. Parents: Eleanor McCrory and Hugh Brunty.  (Surname originally mac Aedh Ó Proinntigh)
  • Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë married December 29, 1812.
  •  Siblings:
    • Maria Brontë April 23, 1814 – May 6, 1825
    • Elizabeth Brontë 1815 – June 15, 1825
    • Charlotte Brontë April 21, 1816 – March 31, 1855
    • Patrick Branwell Brontë June 26, 1817 – September 24, 1848 – usually called Branwell to distinguish him from his father, also Patrick
    • Emily Jane Brontë July 30, 1818 – December 19, 1848
  • Aunt who helped raise the siblings: Elizabeth Branwell (December 2, 1776 – October 29, 1842), Maria Branwell’s sister

Education:

  • Roe Head School, Desbury Moor

Anne Brontë Biography:

Anne was the youngest of six siblings born in six years to the Rev.

Patrick Brontë and his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë. Anne was born at the parsonage in Thornton, Yorkshire, where her father was serving. The family moved in April 1820, not long after Anne’s birth, to where the children would live most of their lives, at the 5-room parsonage at Haworth on the moors of Yorkshire.

Her father had been appointed as perpetual curate there, meaning an appointment for life: he and his family could live in the parsonage as long as he continued his work there.  The father encouraged the children to spend time in nature on the moors.

Maria died the year after Anne was born, possibly of uterine cancer or of chronic pelvic sepsis.  Maria’s older sister, Elizabeth, moved from Cornwall to help care for the children and for the parsonage. She had an income of her own.

In September of 1824, the four older sisters, including Charlotte, were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, a school for the daughters of impoverished clergy.  Anne was too young to attend; she was educated mostly by her aunt and her father, later by Charlotte.  Her education included reading and writing, painting, music, needlework and Latin.  Her father had an extensive library that she read from.

A typhoid fever outbreak at Cowan Bridge school led to several deaths.  The next February, Anne’s sister Maria was sent home very ill, and she died in May, probably of pulmonary tuberculosis. Then another sister, Elizabeth, was sent home late in May, also ill. Patrick Brontë brought his other daughters home as well, and Elizabeth died on June 15.

Imaginary Lands

When her brother Patrick was given some wooden soldiers as a gift in 1826, the siblings began to make up stories about the world that the soldiers lived in. They wrote the stories in tiny script, in books small enough for the soldiers, and also provided newspapers and poetry for the world they apparently first called Glasstown.  Charlotte’s first known story was written in March of 1829; she and Branwell wrote most of the initial stories.

Charlotte went away to school in 1831 to Roe Head. She returned home after 18 months. Meanwhile Emily and Anne had created their own land, Gondal, and Branwell had created a rebellion. Many of Anne’s surviving poems recollect the world of Gondal; any prose stories written about Gondal do not survive, though she continued writing about the land until 1845 at least.

In 1835, Charlotte went away to teach, taking Emily with her as a student, her tuition paid as a way to pay Charlotte.  Emily soon became ill and Anne took her place at the school.  Eventually Emily, too, became ill, and Charlotte came home with her.  Charlotte went back early the next year, apparently without Anne.

Governess

Anne went away in April of 1839, taking up a position of governess to the two eldest children of the Ingham family at Blake Hall, near Mirfield.  She found her charges spoiled, and returned home at the end of the year, probably having been dismissed.  Charlotte and Emily, as well as Branwell, were already at Haworth when she returned. 

In August, a new curate, William Weightman, had arrived to assist the Rev. Brontë. A new and young clergyman, he seems to have attracted flirting from both Charlotte and Anne, and perhaps more attraction from Anne, who seems to have had a crush on him.

Then, from May 1840 to June 1845, Anne served as governess to the Robinson family at Thorp Green Hall, near York. She taught the three daughters and may have also taught some lessons to the son. She briefly returned home, unsatisfied with the job, but the family prevailed on her to return in early 1842. Her aunt died later that year, giving a bequest to Anne and her siblings.

In 1843 Anne’s brother Branwell joined her at the Robinson’s as a tutor to the son. While Anne had to live with the family, Branwell lived on his own.  Anne left in 1845. She had apparently become aware of an affair between Branwell and the wife of Anne’s employer, Mrs. Lydia Robinson. She was certainly aware of Branwell’s increasing drinking and drug use.  Branwell was dismissed shortly after Anne left, and they both returned to Haworth.

The sisters, reunited at the parsonage, decided with Branwell’s continuing decline, and abuse of alcohol and not to pursue their dream of starting a school.

Poems

In 1845, Charlotte found Emily’s poetry notebooks.  She got excited at their quality, and Charlotte, Emily and Anne discovered each others’ poems.

The three selected poems from their collections for publication, choosing to do so under male pseudonyms. The false names would share their initials: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. They assumed that male writers would find easier publication.

The poems were published as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in May of 1846 with the help of the inheritance from their aunt.  They did not tell their father or brother of their project. The book only initially sold two copies, but got positive reviews, which encouraged Charlotte.

Anne began publishing her poetry in magazines.

The sisters began preparing novels for publication. Charlotte wrote the Professor, perhaps imagining a better relationship with her friend, the Brussels schoolmaster.  Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, adapted from the Gondal stories.  Anne wrote Agnes Grey, rooted in her experiences as a governess.

Anne’s style was less romantic, more realistic than that of her sisters.

The next year, July 1847, the stories by Emily and Anne, but not Charlotte’s, were accepted for publication, still under the Bell pseudonyms.  They were not actually published immediately, however.

Anne’s Novel

Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, borrowed from her experience in depicting a governess of spoiled, materialistic children; she had her character marry a clergyman and find happiness.  Critics found the depiction of her employers “exaggerated.”

Anne was not intimidated by these reviews. Her next book, published in 1848, depicted an even more corrupt situation.  Her protagonist in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a mother and wife who leaves her philandering and abusive husband, taking their son and earning her own living as a painter, hiding from her husband.  When her husband becomes an invalid, she returns to nurse him, hoping thus to turn him into a better person for the sake of his salvation.  The book was successful, selling out the first edition in six weeks.

In negotiating for publication with an American publisher, Anne’s British publisher represented the work, not as the work of Acton Bell, but as that of Currer Bell (Anne’s sister Charlotte), author of Jane Eyre. Charlotte and Anne traveled to London and revealed themselves to be Currer and Acton Bell, to keep the publisher from continuing the misrepresentation.

Anne continued writing poems, often representing in them her belief in Christian redemption and salvation, until her final illness.

Tragedies

Anne’s brother Branwell died in April of 1848, probably of tuberculosis.  Some have speculated that the conditions at the parsonage were not so healthy, including a poor water supply and chilly, foggy weather. Emily caught what seemed to be a cold at his funeral, and became ill. She declined quickly, refusing medical care until relenting in her last hours.  She died in December. 

Then Anne began to show symptoms at Christmas,  Anne, after Emily’s experience, did seek medical help, trying to recover.  Charlotte and her friend Ellen Nussey took Anne to Scarborough for a better environment and sea air, but Anne died there in May of 1849, less than a month after arriving.  Anne had lost much weight, and was very thin.

Branwell and Emily were buried in the parsonage graveyard, and Anne in Scarborough.

Legacy

After Anne’s death, Charlotte kept Tenant from publication, writing “The choice of subject in that work is a mistake.”

Today, interest in Anne Brontë has revived.  The rejection of the protagonist in Tenant of her older husband is seen as a feminist act, and the work sometimes considered a feminist novel.

Bibliography

  • Agnes Grey & Poems: Anne Brontë. Printed 1994. (order from Amazon)
  • Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Brontë. Printed 1996. Editor: Steve Davies. (order from Amazon)
  • Life of Anne Brontë: Edward Chitham. 1993. (order from Amazon)
  • Twin Spirits: The Novels of Emily & Anne Brontë. Robert Liddell. 1990. (order from Amazon)
  • Anne Brontë: A New Critical Assessment, Critical Studies: P.J. Scott. (order from Amazon)
  • Anne Brontë: Her Life & Work: Ada M. Harrison and Derek Standord. 1970. (order from Amazon)
  • Anne Brontë: Her Life & Writings. Will T. Hale, 1929. (order from Amazon)
  • Brontës at Haworth: The World Within. Charlotte, Anne and Emily Brontë, published 1993. (order from Amazon)
  • Four Brontës: The Lives & Works of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily & Anne Brontë: Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson, 1967.  (order from Amazon)