Biography of Anne Brontë, English Novelist

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

Anne Brontë (January 17, 1820 – May 28, 1849) was an English poet and novelist. She was the youngest of the three Brontë sisters who became well-known authors, but died very young.

Fast Facts: Anne Brontë

  • Full Name: Anne Brontë
  • Pen Name: Acton Bell
  • Occupation: Author
  • Born: January 17, 1820 in Thornton, England
  • Died: May 28, 1849 in Scarborough, England
  • Parents: Patrick Brontë and Maria Blackwell Brontë
  • Published Works: Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), Agnes Grey (1847), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)
  • Quote: "I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be."

Early Life

Brontë was the youngest of six siblings born in six years to the Rev. Patrick Brontë and his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë. She was born at the parsonage in Thornton, Yorkshire, where her father was serving. However, the family moved in April 1820, not long after Anne’s birth, to the 5-room parsonage at Haworth on the moors of Yorkshire, where the children would live most of their lives. 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. Their 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 Branwell, moved from Cornwall to help care for the children and for the parsonage. Although Branwell was a stern aunt, not an outwardly affectionate one, Anne was apparently her favorite of all the children.

In September of 1824, the four oldest sisters, including Charlotte and Emily, were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, a school for the daughters of impoverished clergy. Anne was too young to attend along with her sisters; she was educated at home 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. From then on, the children were educated only at home.

A Burgeoning Imagination

When their brother Branwell 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 and Branwell wrote most of the initial stories.

A wooden chest of drawers with a toy soldier on top
A toy soldier sits in the Brontes' former playroom at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.  Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

While Charlotte was away in 1831 at Roe Head School, Emily and Anne 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. Anne was successful but lonely, and eventually she, too, became ill and suffered a crisis of faith. She returned home in 1837.

Work as a Governess

Brontë left home 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. Her sisters Charlotte and Emily, as well as Branwell, were already at Haworth when she returned. 

In August, a new curate, William Weightman, arrived to assist the Rev. Brontë. A new and young clergyman, he seems to have attracted flirting from both Charlotte and Anne, moreso from Anne, who seems to have had a crush on him. Weightman died of cholera in 1942, and he is likely the inspiration for Edward Weston, the hero in her novel Agnes Grey.

From May 1840 to June 1845, Brontë 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 Brontë and her siblings.

A rough painting of the four Bronte siblings
A painting by Branwell Bronte of him and his three sisters. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1843 Brontë'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.

Poetry (1845-1846)

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; the assumption was 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.

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

Brontë'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.

Career as Novelist (1847-1848)

Brontë'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," and her novel was overshadowed by her sisters' more attention-grabbing Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

The title page of a first edition of Agnes Grey
The title page of the first edition of "Agnes Grey". Archive.org/Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, Brontë was not intimidated by these reviews. Her next novel, 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.

The novel was intensely shocking in its completely overthrowing of Victorian social norms in its depiction of a woman who (illegally, at the time) left her husband, took her son, and supported them both financially. When critics were harsh and called her depiction of the violent husband Huntington too graphic and too disturbing, Brontë was steadfast in her response: that such cruel people exist in the real world, and that it is far better to write them honestly without mitigating their evil than to gloss over it for the sake of keeping everything "pleasant."

In negotiating for publication with an American publisher, Brontë'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.

Decline and Death

Brontë continued writing poems, often representing in them her belief in Christian redemption and salvation, until her final illness. That illness, however, came much sooner than anyone expected.

Branwell Brontë 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 that year. After Emily’s experience, she 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, but she reportedly met her death with dignity, expressing no fear of death, but a frustration that she would not live longer and achieve more things.

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

Legacy

After Brontë's death, Charlotte kept Tenant from publication, writing “The choice of subject in that work is a mistake.” As a result, Anne was the least-known Brontë sister, and her life and works were hardly ever touched upon until the 20th century revival of interest in female authors.

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. In contemporary discourse, some critics position Anne as the most radical and overtly feminist of the three Brontë sisters.

Sources

  • Barker, Juliet, The Brontës, St. Martin's Press, 2007.
  • Chitham, Edward, A Life of Anne Brontë, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991.
  • Langland, Elizabeth, Anne Brontë: The Other One. Palgrave, 1989