- Born: January 17, 1820, Thornton, England
- Died: May 28, 1849 (aged 29), Scarborough, England
- Years Active: 1836—1849
- Notable Works: Agnes Grey (1847), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)
Anne Brontë (17 January 1820 – 28 May 1849) was an English novelist and poet, best known for her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She is the youngest of the Brontë sisters and was considered to have written the first sustained feminist novel.
Anne worked for most of her life as a governess, before she published her first book of poems with her sisters. She originally published her works under the name of Acton Bell, along with her sisters who also had pseudonyms, but they admitted to them in 1848 and were celebrated in London literary circles.
Anne died in 1849 while in Scarborough. It is thought she died from tuberculosis. She was only 29 years old. After her death, her sister Charlotte prevented the republication of her book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is why Anne’s work is not as well known as her sisters.
Early Life and Family
Anne Brontë was born on 17 January 1820 in Market Street, Thornton, west of Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was the last of the six children of Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë, who was an Irish Anglican clergyman. Patrick was appointed perpetual curate of St Michael and All Angels Church in the village of Haworth in 1820.
Anne and her five siblings, four elder sisters Maria, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Emily and brother Branwell, were left to the care of her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, when their mother died of cancer on 15 September 1821. Elizabeth Branwell stayed with the family until her death in 1842, because Patrick’s attempts to remarry after his wife’s death were unsuccessful.
In August 1824, Anne’s father sent Emily, Charlotte, Maria, and Elizabeth to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire for a brief period. The school was unsanitary and in poor condition, which most likely hastened the deaths of both Maria and Elizabeth, who died of tuberculosis in June 1825. Charlotte Brontë used the school as the basis for Lowood School in Jane Eyre.
After the deaths of his older daughters, Patrick removed Charlotte and Emily from the school. The four youngest Brontë children, all under ten years of age, had suffered the loss of the three eldest females in their immediate family, and this was hard on them all.
Patrick, along with their Aunt Branwell, tutored his remaining children at home, all of which thrived in the environment. Anne was said to be a precocious child, and she shared a room with her Aunt. They were close, and she may have influenced Anne’s personality and religious beliefs. The children had access to a wide range of published material, including Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Shelley, and Blackwood’s Magazine, even though they did not have a formal education.
From 1826, Anne took music lessons with her sister Emily and brother Branwell from the Keighley church organist and enjoyed drawing and sketching. The children were inspired by a box of toy soldiers Branwell had received as a gift and began writing about an imaginary world called Angria.
When Anne was around eleven years old, she and Emily began writing articles and poems about Gondal, which was a fictional island. Charlotte and Branwell continued to write Byronic stories about their imagined country, Angria, and Emily and Anne wrote more about Gondal, particularly when Charlotte left for Roe Head School in 1931. Anne and Emily were particularly close, with Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey describing them “like twins”.
In July 1835, Charlotte returned as a teacher at Roe Head School, accompanied by Emily as a pupil. Emily’s tuition was largely financed by Charlotte’s teaching, but Emily was severely homesick. Within a few months, Emily left Roe Head school and was replaced by Anne.
Anne was fifteen at this time and it was her first time away from home, however she stayed for two years and returned home only during Christmas and summer holidays. She made few friends but was studious and hardworking, determined to get an education that would support her.
Although Charlotte was a teacher at the school, her letters home indicate that she was not close with Anne as she barely mentions her. However, in December 1837, Anne had become seriously ill with gastritis. A Moravian minister was called to see her several times during her illness, suggesting her distress was caused, in part, by conflict with the local Anglican clergy. Charlotte wrote to her father to tell her of Anne’s condition, and Patrick brought her home to Haworth.
When Anne was nineteen and a year out of school, she took up a position of a governess for the Ingham family at Blake Hall, near Mirfield. This was a common occupation for poor and educated woman. Anne had great difficulty controlling the children because they were spoiled and disobedient, yet she was not allowed to punish them. The Inghams were unhappy with their children’s progression under Anne, so dismissed her and she returned home to Haworth at 1839 at Christmas. Her time at Blake Hall was reproduced in detail in her novel Agnes Grey.
Thorp Green Hall
From 1840 to 1845, Anne worked at Thorp Green Hall as governess to the children of the Reverend Edmund Robinson and his wife, Lydia. It was a comfortable country house near York that Anne used as inspiration for Horton Lodge in Agnes Grey. Anne had four pupils: Lydia (15), Elizabeth (13), Mary (12), and Edmund (8).
Initially there were the same problems as Blake Hall, with the children disobeying her that led to feelings of homesickness and loneliness. However, Anne was determined and made a success of her position, becoming well-liked by her employers. The Robinson girls became lifelong friends, too.
Anne spent the majority of her time with the Robinsons, accompanying them on annual holidays to Scarborough, a place she grew to love. Different parts of Scarborough also featured as location in her novels. She only spent around five or six weeks a year with her family, during holidays at Christmas and in June.
While both of her surviving sisters work as Governess’s too and experiences similar problems controlling their charges, gaining support from their employers, and coping with homesickness, Anne was the only one who made a success of the profession.
It was at Thorp Green in 1842 that Anne wrote her three-verse poem Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day, which was later published in 1846 under the name Acton Bell.
While she was working with the Robinsons, Anne and her sisters considered setting up their own school, with the hope they might get a loan from their Aunt Branwell. However, in October 1942, Aunt Branwell died due to internal obstruction. Anne returned home to the Haworth parsonage during this period. Elizabeth Branwell left a £350 legacy (equivalent to £30,000 in 2019) for each of her nieces.
In January 1843, Anne returned to Thorp Green and secured a position for Branwell, who tutored Edmund as he was now too old to be in Anne’s care. Branwell did not live in the house like Anne did.
Anne and Branwell taught at Thorp Green for the next three years, with Branwell entering into a secret relationship with his employer’s wife, Lydia Robinson. It is unclear whether this was the reason why Anne eventually left Thorp Green in June 1846 or not, but she remained in contact with Elizabeth and Mary Robinson, who came to visit Anne in December 1848. Branwell was also dismissed when Reverend Edmund Robinson found out about the affair.
By November 1844, the Brontë sisters had abandoned their plan for opening a school in Haworth since not one prospective applicant had responded to their advertisements.
In 1845, Charlotte stumbled upon the notebooks of Emily’s poems and urged her sister to publish her poems with a selection of her own verse, to which were added poems contributed by Anne. They self-published the joint collection of poems under their assumed names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.
The pseudonyms veiled the sisters’ sex while preserving their initials — Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell and Anne was Acton Bell. “Bell” was the middle name of Haworth’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls whom Charlotte later married, and “Currer” was the surname of Frances Mary Richardson Currer who had funded their school.
The works were published in Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), which the small London firm of Aylott & Jones agreed to print at the authors’ expense, a common practice for unknown writers.
Because Charlotte’s poems are longer than those of her sisters, she contributed only 19 to their 21 each, so that each writer is given approximately the same amount of space in the book. Each poem is clearly credited to either “Currer,” “Ellis,” or “Acton,” and the contributions by the three are presented alternately, so that they are equally spread throughout the volume.
Though Charlotte made every effort to publicise Poems, the volume sold poorly — only two copies in the first year — and received only three reviews, which were, however, favourable. Originally priced at four shillings, the volume was republished by the publishers of Jane Eyre in 1848, and received more insightful critical attention after the publication of Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857.
Following the publishing of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, Charlotte, in a letter dated 6th April 1846, wrote to Aylott & Jones that “C., E., and A. Bell are now preparing for the press a work of fiction, consisting of three distinct and unconnected tales”: Charlotte’s The Professor (1857), Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey. Thomas Newby eventually consented to publish the latter two novels.
Soon after, Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë, was published and became an immediate success. It was the first published of the sisters’ novels, while both Anne’s and Emily’s novels “lingered in the press”. Anne and Emily were obliged to pay fifty pounds to help meet their publishing costs.
Their publisher was shocked by the success of Jane Eyre and published Wuthering Heights and Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, together in December 1847. They sold well, but Agnes Grey was outshone by Emily’s more dramatic Wuthering Heights.
Agnes Grey follows Agnes Grey, a governess, as she works within families of the English gentry. It is thought to be largely based on Anne’s own experiences.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was Anne’s second novel and was published in the last week of June 1848, again under the name of Acton Bell. This is arguably the most shocking of all the Brontë sister’s novels and is now considered to be one of the first feminist novels. It follows the story of a woman’s struggle for independence; Helen “Graham” has returned to Wildfell Hall in flight from a disastrous marriage and, exiled to the desolate moorland mansion, she adopts an assumed name and earns her living as a painter.
The book was initially criticised, both publicly and by Charlotte. Anne stuck by her novel though, and “wished to tell the truth”. After her death, Charlotte prevented the republication of the novel.
In July 1848, after The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published, Anne and Charlotte went to Charlotte’s publisher George Smith in London to dispel the rumour that the “Bell brothers” were one person. This is when they revealed that they were women writers.
Other Life Events
In August 1839, William Weightman (1814–1842) started work in the parish as Anne’s father’s new curate. Anne met him when she returned from Blake Hall the same year, and her writing from this time may suggest she fell in love with him. He was 25 years old and had obtained a two-year licentiate in theology from the University of Durham.
William Weightman may have been the inspiration for a character in Agnes Grey, as Agnes’ interest in the curate refreshes her interest in poetry. Little is known about Weightman himself, except he was good-looking, kind and had a good sense of humour.
Weightman died of cholera in the same year, of which Anne expressed her grief for his death in her poem I will not mourn thee, lovely one, in which she called him “our darling”.
In September 1848, Branwell Brontë died of chronic bronchitis and marasmus, aggravated by heavy drinking, although Charlotte believed that his death was due to tuberculosis. Branwell may also have been an opioid addict.
Emily Brontë became seriously ill with a cold shortly after his funeral which later turned into tuberculosis, but refused medical attention. On the morning of 19 December 1848, her last audible words she said to Charlotte were “If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now”, but it was too late and she died of pulmonary tuberculosis at around 2pm that afternoon at the age of 30.
Emily’s death deeply affected Anne, both mentally and physically. Over the Christmas of that year, Anne had influenza and, although she was visited by a doctor and took all the medications she was prescribed, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis with little chance of recovery.
However, by February, Anne seemed somewhat better and she decided to visit Scarborough. She thought a trip to the sea might benefit her and, although Charlotte was initially against the journey, she changed her mind and went with Anne.
Anne, Charlotte and Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey set off for Scarborough on 24th May 1849, spending a day and night in York on the way. They pushed Anne in a wheelchair and it was clear she had little strength left. On 27th May, Anne asked Charlotte if it would be easier to return home and die instead of remaining in Scarborough. A doctor was consulted the next day and said that death was close.
Anne died at about two o’clock in the afternoon on Monday 28th May 1849, aged 29. Charlotte decided to bury her in Scarborough, and the funeral was held on May 30th. Patrick Brontë could not make such a journey to her funeral so the former schoolmistress at Roe Head, Miss Wooler, who was in Scarborough, was the only other mourner at Anne’s funeral. Anne was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, beneath the castle walls and overlooking the bay.
There were multiple errors on Anne’s headstone, the most prominent being that it stated Anne was 28 when she died, not 29. In 2011, the Brontë Society installed a new plaque at Anne’s grave. The original gravestone had become illegible at places and could not be restored. It was left undisturbed while the new plaque was laid horizontally, interpreting the fading words of the original and correcting its error.
Both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have become literary classics since the 19th century, read all over the world. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is regarded as one of the first feminist novels, and gives us greater insight into the time as it challenged the prevailing morals of the Victorian era.
Sally McDonald of the Brontë Society said in 2013 that in some ways Anne “is now viewed as the most radical of the sisters, writing about tough subjects such as women’s need to maintain independence and how alcoholism can tear a family apart.”
After Anne’s death, Charlotte, as her late sister’s heir, suppressed the republication The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, an action which had a deleterious effect on Anne Brontë’s popularity as a novelist and has remained controversial among the sisters’ biographers ever since. Some think Charlotte was trying to protect her sister’s legacy from criticism, while others think she was jealous of her sister.
- Agnes Grey (1847)
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)
- Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846)
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