Introduction to the Life of Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë was the youngest of the genius triad of Victorian sister-authors; being slightly less well known than her two sisters Charlotte and Emily, of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights fame respectively; however, it comes as some surprise to many people to learn that during her lifetime Anne was the most successful of the three, being the only one to get her first two novels successfully published - Charlotte's first novel being rejected by every publisher to whom it was sent; Anne's second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, rapidly outsold Emily's all-time classic and only novel, Wuthering Heights; following the failure of the three sisters' combined book of poems, Anne was the only one who went on to have success in getting a number of her poems published independent of her sisters; and she is the only one who has had a number of hymns published: many still appearing in the hymn books of various religious denominations today. It was only her early death, coupled with a number of subsequent actions by Charlotte, that has left Anne in the shade of her two elder siblings.

Both Anne and Emily died within little over a year of achieving fame; only Charlotte lived on for a number of years and was able to fully enjoy that status. During this time, she made friends with the writer Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell who, a few years after Charlotte's death, wrote her biography. However, it was many years before anyone set about writing a biography of Anne or Emily, and by this time information about them had become relatively scarce and 'patchy'. Some information could certainly be gained from Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, but acquisition of other details relied on the memory of the Brontës' friends, servants and acquaintances who lived into old age. The unfortunate consequence is that a fair percentage of the content of their biographies is based on supposition, probabilities and likelihoods rather than known facts.

Many people are aware that Anne's grave is situated in Scarborough - at the northern end of St. Mary's churchyard, beneath the castle walls; but few know anything of how she came to be interred there, or what her connections with the resort were. The following paragraphs give a brief account of Anne's life, and highlight her connections with Scarborough . . .

Anne was born in the small Yorkshire village of Thornton on 17 January 1820, the sixth and last child of the Reverend Patrick Brontë, a man of Irish decent, and his Cornish wife Maria. A few months after Anne's birth, Patrick was made perpetual curate of Haworth - a small town some seven miles away, and in April, the family moved into the Haworth Parsonage. This building became the Brontë family home for the rest of their lives. The following year, Mrs. Brontë was taken seriously ill with cancer: she died in September aged just thirty-eight. Maria's sister, Elizabeth Branwell, had moved into the Parsonage, initially to nurse her dying sister, but she subsequently spent the rest of her life there raising the Brontë children. She was known to the young Brontës as 'Aunt Branwell'. In 1825, the two eldest Brontë girls died of consumption - a disease more commonly known today as tuberculosis - at the ages of eleven and ten, leaving the three sisters who went on to write some of the greatest novels ever written, and their brother, Branwell.

At a very early age, the four remaining children developed a keen interest in reading, and studied a wide range of material - visiting local libraries to gain access to a much wider range of books than those available to them at the Parsonage. They soon began to make up their own stories, and eventually invented their own fantasy kingdoms, complete with imaginary rulers, people and adventures. These fantasy worlds and kingdoms gradually acquired all the characteristics of the real world - sovereigns, armies, heroes, outlaws, fugitives, inns, schools, publishers; and for these peoples and lands the children created newspapers, magazines and chronicles, all of which were written out in extremely tiny books, with writing that was so small it was difficult to read without the aid of a magnifying glass. These juvenile creations and writings served as the apprenticeship of their later, incredible literary talents.

The young Brontës made little attempt to mix with others outside the Parsonage, but relied upon each other for friendship and companionship, and the bleak moors surrounding Haworth became their playground.

Anne was initially educated by her father and aunt, and to some degree by Charlotte, who had spent some time in boarding school at Roe Head - some eighteen miles away. In 1835, Charlotte returned to the school to commence her first employment: she became a teacher there and was accompanied by Emily who went as a pupil. Within a few months, Emily became extremely ill due to acute homesickness. She was withdrawn from the school and replaced by Anne, who spent the next two years at this establishment, earning a 'good conduct' prize along the way.

In 1839, a year after leaving the school, and at the age of nineteen, Anne set out to begin her first period of employment: she was to become a governess with the Ingham family at Blake Hall, Mirfield, which was situated just two miles from Roe Head. The Inghams were well known to the school-mistress and owner of Roe Head School, Miss Margaret Wooler; and also had connections with the Nussey family, whose daughter, Ellen, had become a close friend of the Brontës after developing a friendship with Charlotte at the school several years earlier; and it was probably through one of these avenues that Anne obtained the post.

The children in Anne's charge were spoilt and wild, and persistently disobeyed, defied, teased and tormented her. She experienced great difficulty controlling them, and had almost no success in instilling any education. She was not empowered to inflict any punishment, and when she complained of their behaviour to their parents she received no support whatever, but was merely criticised for not being capable of her job. By the end of the year the Inghams decided they needed to find some other mode of education for their offspring: Anne returned home, her employment with the family having come to an abrupt end. The whole episode at Blake Hall was so traumatic for Anne, that she reproduced it in almost perfect detail in her later novel, Agnes Grey.

With her characteristic determination, she soon obtained her second post: this time as a governess to the children of the Reverend Edmund Robinson at Thorp Green - near York. This was about forty miles from Haworth, and the furthest any of the Brontës had worked away from home. Initially, she encountered the same problems with the unruly children, that she had experienced at Blake Hall. Her own quiet, gentle disposition did not help matters. However, as one biographer has stated, despite her outwardly placid appearance, Anne had a 'core of steel': with sheer determination, and the experience she gradually gained, she made a resounding success of her position, becoming 'wondrously valued' by her new employers. Her charges, the Robinson girls, ultimately became her life long friends, and years later turned to their former governess, rather than their mother, in times of trouble. In 1848, several years after Anne had ended her employment with the Robinsons, Bessy and Mary Robinson, her former pupils, visited her at the Haworth Parsonage, and Charlotte reported the occasion to Ellen Nussey, declaring that their guests were 'attractive and stylish looking girls . . . they seemed overjoyed to see Anne; when I went in the room they were clinging round her like two children - she, meantime, looking perfectly quiet and passive.' 1  Many years after the entire Brontë family had died, it was recorded that Mary 'always retained the most kindly memories of her gentle governess'.2  All three Brontë sisters had spent time working as governesses or teachers, and all had experienced problems controlling their charges, gaining support from their employers, and coping with home-sickness - but Anne was the only one who persevered and made a success of the work.

Anne experienced much home-sickness and depression during the five years she spent with the Robinsons, but there was one aspect of her position that was a sheer delight. She was obliged to accompany the family on their annual holidays to Scarborough. Between 1840 and 1844, she spent around five weeks each summer at the resort, and fell totally in love with the place. The Robinsons stayed in the prestigious Wood's Lodgings, an establishment patronised by only the very rich, and situated at the best location in the resort - on the top of St. Nicholas Cliff at the centre of the bay (today, this site is occupied by the giant Grand Hotel). Its rear windows gave spectacular views over the bay and across to the castle, which crowned the headland - jutting out to sea at the northern end of the bay. It is evident from her novels that Anne explored almost every corner of Scarborough. She visited the castle grounds,3n  took walks across the South Cliff,4n  and particularly enjoyed strolling across the towering 'Spa Bridge' which stood just beside Wood's Lodgings, running parallel to the beach, and spanning the gorge down which ran, at that time, the 'Mill beck' - a small stream running from the southern inland area of Scarborough down to the sea. Like Wood's Lodgings, it provided spectacular views of the South Bay and castle; but with the added benefit of the fresh sea breeze that would frequently blow across it. She engaged in bathing in the nearby indoor baths,5n  and almost certainly tried sea-bathing.6n  She would certainly have visited the 'Rotunda', a small circular museum located just below the Spa Bridge: possibly taking her charges there as an educational exercise. This museum was described by her brother, Branwell, in an unfinished novel: both it and the Spa Bridge remain today. One of Anne's greatest pleasures was a ramble across the South Sands to the 'low rocks out at sea' (as she describes them in her novel, Agnes Grey) located close to the southern end of the bay. These are formed by a giant platform of rock jutting through the sands, partly covered with moss and seaweed, and interspersed with a myriad of indentations and crevices, many holding pools of crystal clear water - regularly topped-up by the flowing and ebbing tide, while others hold pockets of sand and appear like miniature beaches. Indeed, Anne describes a walk to and across these rocks with uncanny precision in the penultimate chapter of Agnes Grey. A number of other locations in the resort formed the setting for some of the final scenes in this novel.

Over the period Anne was working for the Robinsons, the three sisters several times considered the possibility of setting-up their own school. Various locations, including their own home, the Parsonage, were considered as places to establish it: on one occasion Charlotte suggested siting it at the seaside resort of Bridlington, where she and Ellen Nussey had taken a few weeks holiday several years earlier: Anne dreamed of locating the school at Scarborough.7n

In 1843, Anne secured a position for Branwell at Thorp Green: he was to take over from her as tutor to the Robinson's son, Edmund (jnr.), who was now growing too old to be under Anne's care. Like Anne, Branwell also made a success of his post, but he was soon enticed into a secret relationship with his employers wife, Lydia Robinson. The affair continued for two and a half years before their proceedings were discovered by her husband (Anne and Branwell's employer), Edmund Robinson. It seems Mrs. Robinson laid all the blame on Branwell for initiating, and taking the leading role in all stages of the affair, though all the evidence suggests otherwise. In the event, Mr. Robinson stood by his wife, and Branwell was sternly dismissed, being warned 'on pain of exposure to break off instantly and for ever all communication with every member of his family'. He was devastated: Branwell had become besotted with Lydia Robinson, foolishly believing she would one day marry him. He sank into a deep depression, turned heavily to drink and became increasingly dependent on opium, a situation from which he never recovered. The Robinson incident is believed to have been the primary cause of his subsequent decline in health which, a few years later, led to his death.

In 1846, the three sisters made their first venture into the literary world by having, at their own expense, a book of their combined poems published. The book appeared under their three chosen pseudonyms - or 'pen-names', the initials of which were the same as their own. Charlotte became 'Currer Bell', Emily became 'Ellis Bell' and Anne became 'Acton Bell'. The sisters had chosen male pen-names as it was generally believed that female writers were unfairly treated by the critics. The book was a dismal failure, with only two copies being sold during the first year. However, even before the fate of the book of poems became apparent, the three sisters were working on a new project. Charlotte was soon writing to their publisher, 'Gentlemen, C., E. and A. Bell are now preparing for the press a work of fiction, consisting of three distinct and unconnected tales, which may be published either together, as a work of three volumes of the ordinary novel size, or separately as single volumes, as shall be deemed most advisable . . .'.8  The three novels were Charlotte's 'The Professor', Emily's 'Wuthering Heights' and Anne's 'Agnes Grey'. The publishers wrote back advising that they did not deal in works of fiction, but sent the sisters a list of publishers that did: and so, the manuscripts of the three novels were soon sent 'the rounds' of the various publishers. After a number of rejections, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were accepted by one Thomas Cautley Newby; a publisher in London, but Charlotte's novel was rejected by Newby, and by every other publisher to whom it was sent. However, Charlotte was not long in completing her second novel, the now famous Jane Eyre, and this was immediately accepted by Smith, Elder & Co., a different publisher to Anne's and Emily's though also located in London. As it transpired, Jane Eyre was the first to appear in print. While Anne and Emily's novels 'lingered in the press', Charlotte's second novel hit the literary world like a bombshell: it became an immediate and resounding success. This story had been constructed using writing techniques that were unorthodox and very different to those she had used in her previous novel, and indeed, any of her juvenile writings; and these have won Charlotte much acclaim over the years; however, attentive examination reveals that they closely follow techniques that were innovated by Anne nine months earlier in the writing of Agnes Grey.9  Anne and Emily's publisher was urged on by the success of Jane Eyre, and their novels soon followed. These too sold exceptionally well, and although Agnes Grey has since been described by one author as 'the most perfect prose narrative in English Literature',10n  it was distinctly outshone by Emily's much more dramatic Wuthering Heights. Within a year, however, Anne fired back with her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was an instant phenomenal success and rapidly outsold Emily's all-time classic. Within six weeks Wildfell Hall was sold out, and by July 1848, Anne was writing her now famous preface to the second edition.

Things were looking very rosy for the sisters; a highly successful literary career appeared a certainty for them all. There was no hint of the impending tragedy that was to befall the family: within the next ten months, three of the siblings, including Anne, would be dead.

The first blow fell on the 24 September 1848: Branwell's health had gradually deteriorated over the previous two years, but its seriousness was half disguised by his persistent drunkenness. His death, which occurred on that morning, came as a shock to the family. He was aged just thirty one. The cause was recorded as 'Chronic bronchitis - Marasmus'; though, through his recorded symptoms, it is now believed that he was also suffering from consumption (tuberculosis).

By the end of October, Charlotte was writing to her friend, Ellen Nussey:

'I feel much more uneasy about my sisters than myself just now. Emily's cold and cough are very obstinate; I fear she has pain in the chest, and I sometimes catch a shortness in her breathing when she has moved at all quickly. She looks very, very thin and pale. Her reserved nature occasions one great uneasiness of mind - it is useless to question her - you get no answers - it is still more useless to recommend remedies - they are never adopted. Nor can I shut my eyes to the fact of Anne's great delicacy of constitution.' 11

By this time, Emily was firmly in the grip of consumption, which, being contagious, could well have been caught from Branwell. She deteriorated rapidly over a two month period, persistently refusing all medical aid until the morning of 19 December, when, being so weak, she declared: "if you will send for a doctor, I will see him now." 12  The local doctor was immediately sent for, but it was far too late: there was nothing he could do. At about two o'clock that afternoon, after 'a hard, short conflict' in which she struggled desperately to hang on to life, she died on the dining room sofa: she was aged just thirty.

Anne had already been suffering from what was believed to be a cold for the previous few weeks. Over Christmas, her symptoms intensified, and in early January, her father, Patrick sent for a Leeds physician 'who was an expert in consumptive cases'. On January 5th Dr. Teale examined Anne at the Parsonage. He diagnosed her condition as consumption, and intimated that it was quite advanced leaving little hope of a recovery. Unlike Emily, Anne took all the recommended medicines, and responded to all the advice she was given. Her health fluctuated as the months passed, but she progressively grew thinner and weaker. On 1 May, Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey, to report on Anne's condition:

'. . . She is very much emaciated, far more so than when you were with us; her arms are no thicker than a little child's. The least exertion brings a shortness of breath. She goes out a little every day, but we creep rather than walk. . .' 13

By this time Anne had decided to make a return visit to Scarborough in the hope that the change of location and fresh sea air might initiate a recovery, and give her a chance to live: indeed, the doctors of the time had said that a 'change of air or removal to a better climate would hardly ever fail of success in consumptive cases if the remedy were taken in time', and Dr. Teale had particularly approved of Anne's choice of Scarborough. Charlotte initially gave much opposition to the plan, fearing the journey would be too stressful for her ailing sister. However, Anne eventually convinced Charlotte that it was her last hope, and on Thursday, 24 May 1849, the two set off, accompanied by their friend Ellen Nussey, for Scarborough. En-route, the three spent a day and a night in York, where, escorting Anne around in a wheel chair, they did some shopping, and at Anne's request, visited the colossal York Minster. Anne had developed a strong affinity for the Minster from her visits there with the Robinsons when she worked at Thorp Green. Ellen later recorded that as Anne gazed up at the magnificent structure, she said: "If finite power can do this, what is the . . . ?" when emotion stayed her speech, and her companions quickly moved her to a less exciting scene.14

The small party arrived at Scarborough on the Friday afternoon. Anne was now very weak and frail, but she appeared somewhat revived on being back in the place she so much loved. She gained great pleasure in pointing out the delights of the resort to Charlotte and Ellen. The party had booked rooms in Wood's Lodgings - the establishment where Anne had stayed with the Robinsons some five to nine years earlier. The morning after her arrival, she attended the nearby Indoor Sea-water Baths,15n  and at her own insistence, was left to bathe there alone. However, on her return, she collapsed with exhaustion outside her lodgings. Not to alarm Charlotte and Ellen, Anne did not inform them of this incident until some considerable time later. In the afternoon, she drove herself in a donkey cart on the South Sands, and when Ellen arrived to meet her, she found Anne giving the donkey-boy a lecture on treating the animal well. 'She was ever fond of dumb things, and would give up her own comfort for them' reported Ellen later. 16

On the Sunday afternoon, Anne enthusiastically chaperoned Charlotte and Ellen along the Spa Bridge, and the three enjoyed the spectacular open view of the bay from there. Later, overcome with exhaustion, she sat on a seat near the beach and urged her companions to walk on further. It was later this evening that she realised there was no hope left, and that she did not have long to live. She begun discussing, with Charlotte, the propriety of returning to Haworth. Not that she wanted to return for her own sake, she said, but she did not want to leave her companions with the problems, and distress of having to return her lifeless remains home. She spent the rest of the evening sat by her lodgings room window - looking out over the bay, and watching 'the most glorious sunset ever witnessed'. The night passed without incident, but the following morning she was so weak that Ellen had to carry her, like a baby, down the stairs for breakfast, which, for Anne, was a bowl of boiled milk that had been especially prepared for her.

The three spent the rest of the morning in their lounge; Anne sat in her easy chair by the window, looking out over the bay once more; the weather was glorious and the sea as 'calm as glass': she looked 'so serene and reliant', reported Ellen. 'Nothing occurred to incite alarm until about 11 a.m. when Anne announced that she felt a change: she believed she did not have long to live.' A doctor was called, and Anne asked him 'how long he thought she might live - not to fear speaking the truth, for she was not afraid to die'. The doctor admitted 'that the angel of death had already arrived and that life was ebbing fast. She thanked him for his truthfulness . . . and reverently invoked a blessing from on high, first on her sister, then upon her friend, to whom she said, "be a sister in my stead. Give Charlotte as much of your company as you can." '

When she became restless as death approached, she was carried across to the sofa, and asked if she were easier: she replied "It is not you who can give me ease, but soon all will be well through the merits of our Redeemer." Seeing Charlotte was barely able to restrain her grief, she whispered her last words: "Take courage, Charlotte; take courage". A few moments later, at two o'clock in the afternoon of Whit Monday, 28 May 1849, Anne quietly died.

At this time, and over the previous few months - throughout the greatest trial of her life, Anne had shown astounding fortitude and courage. Emily's famous line 'no coward soul is mine' befitted Anne far more than it ever befitted Emily. The doctor who attended Anne during her last hours 'wondered at her fixed tranquillity of spirit and settled longing to be gone': in all his experience, he later told Charlotte and Ellen, 'he had never seen such a deathbed and it gave evidence of no common mind'.17  Remarking on Anne's final hours, one of her biographers says, 'Anne is almost awesomely in command. She rises supremely to her last occasion, and as long as she is conscious, she directs it.' 18

Over the following few days, Charlotte made the decision to 'lay the flower where it had fallen': She later wrote: 'I wanted her to die where she would be happiest. . . . She loved Scarborough.' 19  Anne's funeral was conducted in nearby Christ Church, the very establishment where she had worshipped with the Robinsons several years earlier. Her former schoolmistress at Roe Head, Miss Wooler, was also in Scarborough at this time, and she was the only other mourner at Anne's funeral. Anne was then carried, by horse-cart, through the town, gradually rising to St. Mary's churchyard; and there, beneath the castle walls, and overlooking the bay she had always loved, she was laid in her final resting place.

A year later, further editions of the sisters' novels were required; however, Charlotte prevented re-publication of Anne's second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This act was the predominant cause of Anne's relegation to the back-seat of the Brontë bandwagon. In writing this novel, Anne had presented themes that were very daring for the Victorian era. She gave them bold treatment, and pulled no punches in her depiction of scenes of mental and physical cruelty: many critics had accused her of having 'a morbid love of the coarse, not to say of the brutal'.20  Charlotte told her publishers that its subject matter was totally alien to Anne's nature: and it was reputedly to prevent any further attacks on Anne's character that Charlotte suppressed her book. Curiously, Wuthering Heights had brought similar accusations on Emily, but Charlotte did not take the same action on Emily's behalf - the sister to whom she had always seemed to be closest. The consequence was that Charlotte's novels, along with Emily's Wuthering Heights, continued to be published, firmly launching these two sisters into literary stardom, while Anne's masterpiece had been 'consigned to oblivion'. Elizabeth Langland writes: 'It is worth pausing briefly to reflect on what might have been Anne's fate had the Tenant of Wildfell Hall been re-published with Agnes Grey so that critics could take that opportunity to measure the substantial artistic growth between the two novels. Charlotte herself never accomplished Anne's imaginative range. Further, Anne was only twenty-eight when she wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; at a comparable age, Charlotte had produced only The Professor. And yet, despite the disadvantages in representation Anne suffered at Charlotte's hands'.21

In recent years, a re-appraisal of Anne's work has begun, gradually leading to her acceptance, 'not as a minor Brontë, but as a major literary figure in her own right'. Indeed, her last piece of prose to be published - the preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - has recently been regarded as 'one of the most awesome and powerful defences of a novel in literature by an author.' It seems it is, at last, only a matter of time before Anne takes her rightful place in the literary hall-of-fame - right alongside her two legendary sisters.

A more comprehensive biography is currently in preparation, and will be presented here in due course.

  A Review of Edward Chitham's 'A Life of Anne Brontë'  By Tim Whittome

Copyright © 1999 Michael Armitage
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