The youngest of the Brontë sisters, Anne was caught for a while in the shadow of her illustrious sisters Charlotte and Emily Brontë but she is finally being recognised as a writer of genius in her own right. This is the final milestone of a four-year period which has also seen the 200th birthdays of Charlotte and Emily, so it’s a time for celebration and to look back on Anne and her uniquely talented siblings. With that in mind, here are seven things that you may not have known about Anne Brontë:
The whole world knows about the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but there were six Brontë siblings, not three. Many people also know of brother Branwell Branwell (christened Patrick after his father, he was always known by his middle name, which had been the family name of his mother Maria), who, although beset by addictions to drink and opium, was much loved by Anne. The first two Brontë siblings, Maria and Elizabeth, were born in 1814 and 1815 respectively. Patrick reported that Maria was a particularly prodigious and talented child, but they died of tuberculosis contracted at Cowan Bridge school aged just 11 and 10. Charlotte Brontë later recreated Cowan Bridge as the deadly Lowood of Jane Eyre.
Anne Brontë was the sixth and final child of Patrick and Maria when she was born in 1820, but she wasn’t born in the village which has forever become synonymous with the family: Haworth. In fact Anne was born in the parsonage at Thornton, a village four miles from Bradford. Patrick Brontë was curate there, but three months after Anne’s birth his family made the six mile journey to his new parish of Haworth. Patrick would serve as Haworth curate for over four decades. He outlived all his children and his wife Maria, who tragically died just a year after the move, with Anne a one year old baby.
Emily Brontë, born in July 1818, was the closest sibling to Anne in age, and in much more. Whilst the unusually tall Emily didn’t look like diminutive Anne, they shared many common interests and could often be seen walking the moors, or reading books, with arms interlaced. In their youth they also created the imaginary kingdom of Gondal together, which Emily in particular wrote about for the rest of her life. Ellen Nussey, Charlotte’s best friend who knew the family better than anyone, noted the twin-like connection between Anne and Emily and called them: ‘united statues of power and humility.’
Charlotte Brontë explained how one day she accidentally discovered Emily’s secret book of poetry and was blown away by their power and brilliance. She tried to persuade her sister that they should be published but the painfully shy Emily reacted furiously. It could have been the end of the Brontë writing story before it began, but Charlotte revealed that Anne took steps to end the impasse between her elder siblings: ‘My youngest sister quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that since Emily’s had given me pleasure, I might like to look at hers. I could not but be a partial judge, yet I thought that these verses too had a sweet sincere pathos of their own.’
Emily was won over by the actions of her beloved Anne, and they agreed to try to find a publisher for a jointly produced book of poetry – as long as they could hide their names behind seemingly male pseudonyms. The result was ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’, the first Brontë book to be published, and a stepping stone to the novels we all love today.
Anne was a very shy woman, so much so that Charlotte wrote of how she worried that people would think Anne had a stutter, but she didn’t let it stop her doing what she wanted to do in life. Charlotte and Emily had served as governesses and teachers, though neither lasted long in their positions, but Anne’s stoic nature and innate courage allowed her to thrive in the workplace. Her first job as governess to the Ingham family of Mirfield lasted six months, but she later spent over five years as governess to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall near York, far longer than any of her siblings held a job for. She put these experiences to good use by adapting them for inclusion in her semi-autobiographical novel Agnes Grey, with the Robinsons becoming the Murrays and the Inghams depicted as the monstrous Bloomfields.
Anne Brontë loved music, and she could often be heard playing the upright piano which can still be seen in the Brontë Parsonage Museum and singing along in what Ellen Nussey described as a quiet but sweet voice. Anne amassed a large collection of sheet music and also copied out popular tunes in her own hand so she could play them later. One such copy she made was of Robbie Burns’ setting of the Scottish folk song ‘Ol’ Lang Syne’, so we can imagine her playing it for her family at the turn of the years.
All the Brontë novels are brilliant reads, but when we read Anne’s two novels today we can be particularly struck by how modern and relevant they still feel. That’s because Anne was a courageous woman who carried that same courage into her writing: she was determined to write about the issues that she truly cared about, whatever criticism that might bring her way. Agnes Grey took an unflinching look at the harsh realities of life as a governess, and the misery caused by class divides, and in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall she looked at alcoholism and addiction, abusive relationships, and how married women at the time were viewed as mere possessions of their husbands. It’s an incredibly powerful novel, showing how the hero Helen finds freedom and real love by escaping, with her child, from an abusive, violent husband. It has been called one of the earliest feminist novels, and the suffragette writer May Sinclair wrote of how Helen’s slamming of the bedroom door against her husband reverberated across Victorian England.
It sold in huge numbers upon its 1848 release but was savaged by critics. This led Anne to pen her famous preface to the second edition, in which she sets out a philosophy for writing and life: ‘My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.’
By Nick Holland