Authors We Love: Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë - Wikipedia

The youngest of the Brontes, Anne was gentle, quiet, and less talented than her two sisters. She lived to be only twenty-nine, and in the next decade of her short life her dismal governess occupation took up much of her time, but she wrote two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall  which have their place in the history of English literature. Her novels, like herself, have a tranquil feeling. The hero has a pure moral character, brave pursuit of independence and happiness, which is also the portrayal of Anne’s heart. Anne’s writing is more of an 18th-century work, with its frankness and clarity, rather than the Victorian style in which she lived. Anne’s life was an unhappy one. She had once fallen in love with her father’s assistant, Willie Weightman, but he died suddenly while Anne was away working as a governess. It was a long time before Anne got the news of his death. Her alcoholic brother thwarted the sisters’ hopes of starting a school at home. At the same time, Anne continued to suffer from illness. But she never complained, silently enduring the mental and physical pain with astonishing fortitude. Shortly after the publication of several of her books, she died in May 1849, far from home in the seaside health resort of Scarborough. Anne Bronte was born on January 17, 1820, at No. 74 Market Street, Thornton, West Yorkshire, where there was little room for two adults, six children, two servants and a nurse. Her father was appointed vicar in Haworth, seven miles away, after Reverend Bronte had written all over the place in search of employment. Haworth is more prosperous than Thornton, and the parson’s five bedrooms are far more spacious. But Haworth lacks a drainage system, drinking water is heavily polluted, the average life expectancy is only 25 years, and the vicarage’s window looks out on the churchyard where many of the children who died early are buried. By the time the Brontes moved to Haworth, Maria, their mother, had already been diagnosed with cancer. Maria’s sister, Elizabeth Branwell, came to Haworth to help Reverend Bronte, who was busy with his parish duties. Maria died on September 15, 1821. Soon the vicar Bronte, recovering from his grief, resumed his parish duties. At the end of the year he visited a friend of hers, and Elizabeth Force, Maria’s friend, expressed sympathy and comfort to him.

The priest then proposed to her, hoping to find a stepmother for their six children, but was rejected. Aunt Elizabeth, who took care of Maria, stayed behind to raise her six children. As their six children grew up, Maria and Elizabeth, now self-sufficient, helped their aunt with the housework as much as they could, while Anne, the youngest, became Aunt Elizabeth’s favorite and they shared the same room. When Anne was growing up, Aunt Elizabeth’s devout Methodist beliefs were a big influence. The Bronte’s’ new maid, Tabby Ackroyd, gave them plenty of Irish mythology and northern English country tales. In the summer of 1825, Maria and Elizabeth, who were going to school, fell ill and died, leaving the whole family in grief and pain. The Reverend Bronte no longer dared to give his children away, but instead taught them at home. He encouraged the children to read more, and Aunt Elizabeth wanted the girls to learn housekeeping, so at regular hours the children would come back from Keresley Library, four miles away, carrying heavy books with them. In June 1826, the Rev. Bronte gave Branwell a group of toy soldiers as a gift, which caught the imagination of the children. They gave the soldiers names and arranged their characters. In the years that followed, several children started with these soldiers and created a fictional African country called Angria. Angria includes many features of the real world. Charlotte and Branwell write poems in the voice of Angria’s living characters and an chronicle of Angria with mixed authenticity, but it is hard to see how much of a role Anne, who is not yet ten years old, played in the creation of Angria. As she grew older, Anne took Latin, French, music and art lessons from the local clergy. Her collection of books such as Edmund Burke’s aesthetic works, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, and Aunt Elizabeth’s subscription to Methodist magazines all influenced her. In the summer of 1832, the Rev. Bronte founded a Church Sunday school in the area, where children took turns as teachers. Branwell was said to be impatient, and Anne was said to be the kindest looking but the most serious. Returning home from a year at Roe Head School, Charlotte recalled that one of the things she would do when she returned was to make tea to cheer up Anne and Emily, who were tired of teaching.

Like twins, Anne and Emily often wrote illustrated diaries together, in which Emily first mentioned the name “Gondal” in 1834. Gondal, a fictional country created by Emily and Anne, is a neighbor of Angria. Much of Gondal’s landscape is drawn from the heather moors that spread across West Yorkshire, and its wars, alliances, and lending with its neighbors are rooted in the political landscape of the time. Emily and Anne wrote many poems and narrative fragments, imagining themselves as characters in Gondal. The strong Emily dominates, and Anne shows deference to her sister, but sometimes feels like no one understands her. In October 1835, after Emily returned home, unable to adapt to school life, Anne took her place in The School of Roe head, which was the first time she left home at the age of 15. Charlotte, who was already teaching at the school, did not care much for Anne, but she did care for her sister’s health. Anne had few friends at school, but she worked quietly and hard. She knew she needed a school education to make a living with what she learned, and in the end she won a prize of excellence in 1836. Anne and Charlotte returned home before Christmas in 1836, and Anne took care of Tabby Ackroyd, her maid who had fallen, while she continued to write poems about Gondal. Verses by Lady Geralda, which she wrote at this time, dramatized the somber atmosphere, the despair of the Lady Geralda of Gondal, and is the first poem that Anne Bronte has in existence. After much exposure to Calvinism in 1837, Anne faced a crisis of faith in the question of whether all men could be saved. Charlotte always thought Anne was a child, and Anne’s classmates were too young, so she had no place to talk, which led her to write a poem called “A Voice From The Dungeon“, and then she fell ill. Anne was visited many times by a minister of the Moravian Church, who enlightened her, and her crisis of faith eased, but her condition remained serious. Charlotte was so worried that she even quarreled with Anne’s teacher, Miss Waller. In January 1838 the Reverend Bronte took Anne home, and she gradually recovered. Concerned about Anne’s precarious health, the Reverend Bronte asked her to stay at home and not go back to school, so Anne and Emily continued to write poems and diaries about Gondal.

In the spring of 1839, Branwell’s plans for an art studio failed and he had to go home. Emily worked as a tutor for a while and then went home to recuperate due to health problems. Charlotte couldn’t find a job for a while. The Reverend Bronte found himself once more in the position of supporting several children on his meager stipend. Quiet and practical Anne helped the family in her own way by getting a post of governess with the Ingham family at Blake Hall. Anne refused any company, went alone and settled down quickly. Anne soon discovered that the situation was far worse than she had expected. The pupils were so spoiled that she found it difficult to control them, let alone to get them to learn anything. Once she was so angry that she locked them on the legs of the table. Anne complained to the children’s parents, but they did not support her and she was considered unfit to be a governess. On Christmas Day 1839, Anne, who had lost her job, returned home and the three sisters were reunited. Her experiences at Blake Hall were later written by Anne in Agnes Grey. Anne met her father’s new assistant, William Weightman (1814-1842). Weightman, who graduated from Durham University, has been working at the parish since late August and is very popular at the vicarage. On Valentine’s Day, 1840, Weightman wrote a poem to each of the three sisters who had never received a Valentine’s Day hymn. Anne’s paintings at this stage featured sentient women facing the sea, and her poems featured both men and passionate women, leading researchers to speculate that she had a strong crush on Weightman. In May 1840 Anne got her second job as governess to the Robinsons of Thorp Green, where she worked as a governess for four children. In June she followed the Robinsons to Scarborough, North Yorkshire, for a holiday. Anne loved Scarborough, close to the sea and beautiful, and was happy to walk there and discover the wonders. From the second half of 1840, Anne’s poetry diverged. She wrote Gondal poems with Emily when she returned home, and even went on a trip with Emily imitating Gondal characters, but while at Thorpe Green she wrote poems expressing her own emotions. Anne soon found herself facing the same problems she had encountered at Blake Hall: she was homesick, the children were out of control, and the Robinsons were unsupportive.

She didn’t change much, but she stayed and made friends with two of her students. Returning home for a holiday in June 1841, Anne saw Weightman again, but soon afterwards she went to join the Robinsons at Scarborough. At this point she began to write her own independent diary, in which she mentioned the three sisters’ plan to open a school of her own. Returning home for a holiday in 1842, Anne discovered that Weightman had died of a misadventure, and in December of that year she wrote an elegy for an unknown man, expressing her sorrow and pain. The Bronte sisters at this time considered several school sites, including the vicarage, but did not actually go into action, and the attempt to open a school is also written about in Agnes Gray. In early November 1842, Aunt Elizabeth, who had brought up the Bronte sisters, died. Charlotte and Emily were at school in Brussels at that time. Only Anne returned to attend the funeral. Anne returned to Thorpe Green in January 1843 and found a place for her elder brother, Branwell, as governor for the now grown Edmond Robinson. From 1844 on, Anne became more and more difficult to bear the Robinson’s environment, while Branwell became more Bohemian under the Influence of Robinsons, which made Anne more miserable. She had to write poems to cope with it. In June 1845, Anne Bronte abruptly resigned her post as a governess at Thorp Green and returned to Haworth, supposedly because her older brother, Branwell, was having an affair with Mrs. Robinson, and Mr. Robinson suggested that Anne was acting as an intermediary. When Anne returned home, she sat with her father, who was seeing less and depressed, and began to write Agnes Grey. In the autumn, Charlotte came across Emily’s poem and thought she could publish it. Emily with a strong personality was not happy with Charlotte’s discovery that her sister interfered with her privacy. Anne basically agreed with Charlotte’s plan. In order to settle the quarrel between Charlotte and Emily, she volunteered to contribute her own poem. Without even telling Branwell or their father, Anne and Emily had each chosen twenty poems written after 1840, and Charlotte, with money from Aunt Elizabeth, had chosen nineteen of her own early poems and sent them to the publisher.

Fearing that reviewers would unfairly judge the author because she was a woman, all three sisters used aliases. The pseudonym Bell, derived from the curate of the church, had the same initials as the three sisters, making Anne Acton Bell. In May 1846, the 165-page anthology of poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell was put on sale. It received some critical acclaim, but it sold very little, only two copies in its first year. Charlotte later decided that her poems were childish in the three sisters’ poetry collection, and that Emily’s poems were bold, melancholy and sublime that could be handed down from generation to generation. Anne’s poems had their own sincere lovely pathos. In August 1848, Anne’s “The Narrow Way” and “The Three Guides” were published in The Fraser Magazine, the only poems published by the sisters apart from their collections. The death of Branwell, a chronic alcoholic, on September 24th at the age of 31 was a great shock to the family, and preparations for Branwell’s funeral left Emily and Anne exhausted. The winter brought coughs and colds to the family, especially Emily, who died on December 19. Emily’s death made Anne, who had always been close to her, even more sad. Anne began to show marked shortness of breath and asthma, but still sustained her illness by writing a reply to a theologian about the universal remedy mentioned in “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall “. In early January 1849, Anne became seriously ill. Doctors diagnosed tuberculosis and suggested that the disease was too advanced to recover. Anne accepted the news with calmness and self-control. Unlike Emily, she took her medicine exactly as the doctor ordered. In the months that followed, her illness waxed and waned, but she became noticeably thinner and weaker, and she decided to return to Scarborough, her favorite place. On May 24, Anne and her father said goodbye to the family servants and left Haworth with Charlotte and her friend. They spent a day and a night in York, where Anne and Charlotte went shopping in a wheelchair and visited her favorite chapel. The next day, Anne, who did not want her illness to limit Charlotte, hired a donkey cart. When they found her, they found her teaching the boy who drove her to be kind to his donkey. On May 27, a terminally ill Anne saw Charlotte struggling to contain her grief. Anne died at 2 p.m. the next day. Anne was buried there in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Scarborough. The funeral took place on 30 May. When Charlotte returned three years later, she found several mistakes on the gravestone, which had been re-engraved, but which still put Anne’s death age at 28. In April 2013, the Brontë Society re-erected the gravestone to make it 29.

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