|A Vision of Anne Brontë by Maria Torres.|
'Long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade,' wrote Charlotte of Anne. In some biographies, Anne is described as having been a 'somewhat melancholy child'; her closeness to Aunt Branwell, who was once characterised as a rather stern and austere person (though this is now doubted), is often cited as the reason. However, this portrayal of Anne's personality may well be a misinterpretation, brought about by the fact that she was of a very quiet and reserved nature: even in adulthood, she found difficulty in making conversation, declaring in a letter to Ellen Nussey (a friend of the three sisters) in 1848 - 'you must know that there is a lamentable deficiency in my organ of language, which makes me almost as bad a hand at writing as talking unless I have something particular to say'.1 The occasion, noted by Emily in the 1834 diary paper, when Aunt Branwell walked into the kitchen and said to her fourteen-year-old niece, 'Where are your feet Anne?', only to receive the reply 'On the floor Aunt'; coupled with the dry humour that became a feature of her novels indicate that she had a far more active sense of humour than either of her sisters.
In brief, Anne was deeply religious; she was noted for being always highly considerate of others; she loved animals, as did the rest of her family, and had a particular affinity for cats: 'She was ever fond of dumb things, and would give up her own comfort for them' reported Ellen Nussey many years later. She was a very practical minded person: 'Although Anne has been characterised in Brontë biography as a gentle, fragile being, it would appear that she was in fact far more pragmatic than her sisters' wrote Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars in their book, The Art of the Brontës. Anne, herself, tells us that she was prone to keep her inner feelings to herself - describing her heroine, Agnes Grey, who was a representation of herself, as a 'resolute dissembler':
'I was a close and resolute dissembler . . . My prayers, my tears, my wishes, fears, and lamentations, were witnessed by myself and Heaven alone.' declares Agnes.2
Anne's quiet, gentle disposition initially caused her problems in controlling her unruly charges during her two posts as a governess; however, with her characteristic determination, she made a resounding success of her second post, becoming 'wondrously valued' by her employers. Her charges, the Robinson girls, ultimately became her life long friends, and years later turned to Anne, rather than their mother, in times of trouble. Several years after Anne had terminated her employment with the Robinsons, Charlotte told Ellen Nussey that the constant letters they sent to Anne were 'crammed with warm protestations of endless esteem and gratitude'. In 1848, Bessy and Mary Robinson visited her at the 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.' Many years after the entire Brontë family had died, it was recorded that Mary Robinson 'always retained the most kindly memories of her gentle governess'.3
All three Brontë sisters had spent time working as governesses or teachers, and all three 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. One of the Brontës' leading biographers, Juliet Barker, remarks that Anne had 'a core of steel' and 'a sense of duty and obligation which seems to have been flawed, if not altogether missing in Emily.' 4
It has been noted that the word 'gentle' is so frequently associated with Anne - by the people who knew her,5 even Ellen Nussey, in her reminiscences of 1871, began her physical description of Anne with: 'Anne, dear gentle Anne . . . '. Some reports label her a sensitive girl, but there is no doubt that she had unflinching courage. This became starkly evident in the last months of her life, when she was suffering from consumption, and was fully aware that there was little chance of recovery. She put up a characteristic brave and determined fight to survive, but was quite prepared to accept her fate, whatever it was to be. The doctor who attended her in 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'.6
Below is a collection of all the known, contemporary, references to Anne's character/personality. Most of these are not very descriptive; however, reading through them in sequence does help to extend our impression of the type of person she was.
The references come from the various friends and acquaintances of the Brontë family. First and foremost is Ellen Nussey who initially developed her friendship with Charlotte when they met at Roe Head school. She ultimately became a life-long friend to both Anne and Emily. There was Mary Taylor, who likewise, started a lifelong friendship with Charlotte at Roe Head school. Then there was Martha Brown who came to work at the Parsonage on washdays at the age of ten, later becoming a permanent servant there: she also proved a valuable source of information for Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë. Later in life, Charlotte gradually developed a friendship with her publisher, George Smith. He had met Anne only once, when, in 1848, she accompanied Charlotte on a visit to his publishing premises at 'Cornhill', London; and many years later gave his impressions of her. Even some of the children who were taught by Anne and her siblings at the Haworth Sunday-school, on growing into adulthood, made their contributions. Sprinkled amongst these are a number of references from Charlotte's letters that give us brief glimpses of Anne; however, one has to be a little cautious when reading Charlotte's remarks about her younger sister, as she had a tendency to portray Anne as a weak, timid and frequently ill young girl: aspects that are not generally borne out by the other sources of information we have about her; possibly with the exception of her proneness to catching colds and influenza, which, coupled with her asthma, has led to her being regarded as the 'delicate one of the Brontës'. Elizabeth Langland writes:
'Anne, from childhood on, was the most obviously delicate of the Brontë children. She suffered from asthma and was an easy prey to colds and influenza. This weakness caused Charlotte to recall later in life that Anne, since 'early childhood . . . seemed preparing for an early death'. Judgements of Anne's physical infirmity seem to have led Charlotte unconsciously to corollary judgements of relative weakness of character and intellect. But Anne was, of the sisters, perhaps the most rigorously logical, the most quietly observant, the most realistic, and, in certain spheres, the most tenacious, the most determined, and the most courageous. All of these qualities were to emerge as her life unfolded' 7
Mrs. Gaskell, in her biography of Charlotte, relates Ellen Nussey's initial impression of Emily and Anne from Ellen's first visit to the Parsonage in 1833: Anne was aged thirteen at this time:
'The first impression made on the visitor by the sisters of her school-friend was, that Emily was a tall, long-armed girl, more fully grown than her elder sister; extremely reserved in manner. I distinguish reserve from shyness, because I imagine shyness would please, if it knew how; whereas, reserve is indifferent whether it pleases or not. Anne, like her eldest sister, was shy; Emily was reserved.' 8
Some years later, in 1839, Patrick Brontë obtained a new assistant curate in one William Weightman. Weightman moved into Haworth to take up his new post, and quickly won the admiration of the townsfolk, including the entire Brontë family; becoming noted as a very charming, cheerful, friendly and kind young man. He was also good looking, and at twenty-six years old had an obvious appeal to many of the local young ladies. There is strong belief that Anne was in love with him, though no evidence exists to show that any relationship occurred between them. Indeed, the only indication that Anne's feelings were reciprocated by Weightman is a reference made by Charlotte in her letter to Ellen Nussey, dated 20 January 1842:
' . . . He sits opposite Anne at church sighing softly and looking out of the corners of his eyes to win her attention - and Anne is so quiet, her look so downcast - they are a picture.' 9
Anne's calm, patient manner is clearly expressed by Charlotte in another letter to Ellen Nussey: Ellen had been given, as a gift, a puppy - born of Anne's dog Flossy. Ellen named her pup 'Flossy' after its parent; and it proved, over the years, to be quite a destructive and troublesome pet, 'though much loved by Ellen'. On the 29th September, it proceeded to eat one Mrs. Browne's bonnet. The event was reported to Charlotte, who, a little later, wrote back with the following lines:
'the perfect serenity with which you endured the disaster - proved most fully to me that you would make the best wife, mother and mistress of a family in the world - you and Anne are a pair - for marvellous philosophical powers of endurance - no spoilt dinners - scorched linen, dirtied carpets - torn sofa-covers, squealing brats, cross husbands would ever discompose either of you'.10
In 1841, Charlotte was working as a governess with the White family: on 7 August, she wrote informing Ellen Nussey of her concern about Anne's predicament at Thorp Green: Anne had been working there just over a year, and was experiencing much loneliness and depression:
'. . . I have one aching feeling in my heart - it is about Anne - she has so much to endure - far, far more than I have - when my thoughts turn to her - they always see her as a patient, persecuted stranger - amongst people more grossly insolent, proud, and tyrannical than your imagination unassisted can ready depict - I know what concealed susceptibility is in her nature - when her feelings are wounded I wish I could be with her to administer a little balm. She is more lonely - less gifted with the power of making friend even than I am . . .' 11
As the winter months of late 1846 approached, and the three sisters were anxiously seeking acceptance of their first novels by a publisher, the weather turned particularly bad. On 13 December Charlotte wrote to Ellen:
'We have all had severe colds and coughs in consequence of the severe weather. Poor Anne has suffered greatly from asthma, but is now, I am glad to say, rather better - she had two nights last week when her cough and difficulty of breathing were painful indeed to hear and witness and must have been most distressing to suffer - she bore it, as she does all affliction, without one complaint - only sighing now and then when nearly worn out - she has an extraordinary heroism of endurance. I admire, but certainly could not imitate her.' 12
In later life, Ellen Nussey's recalled:
'Charlotte and Anne Brontë were steady and faithful to their posts as Sunday-school teachers both now at this time, and whenever they were at home; some of the village girls as they grew up to womanhood evinced an affectionate appreciation of their labours . . . ' 13
In the early 1900s, Mrs. Tabitha Ratcliffe (nee. Brown) was interviewed by one C. Holmes Cautley who wished her to recall all she could of the Brontë family. Mrs. Ratcliffe was the last surviving sister of the Brontës' servant, Martha Brown: in the Brontës' time, she 'used often to spend the evening with her sister at the Parsonage . . . as well as in the Sunday school, where she was taught by both Charlotte and Anne Brontë'. In the interview, she told Cautley 'I used to think Miss Anne looked the nicest and most serious like; she used to teach at Sunday school. I've been taught by her and by Charlotte and all.' At this time Mrs. Ratcliffe was looking at a portrait of the three sisters, and while gazing at Anne's face she remarked 'I think that is a good face.'
In his later report of this interview, Cautley declared 'There is no doubt which of the sisters of Haworth Parsonage was Mrs. Ratcliffe's favourite.' 13b
One person who, in 1867, visited Haworth while studying the Brontës, was guided around the town by one William Brown, a local man who had known the family. Brown informed the visitor that:
'Miss Annie was his favourite, perhaps because she always paid him so much attention. Baking-day never came round at the Parsonage without her remembering to make a little cake or dumpling for him, and she seldom met him without having something good and sweet to bestow upon him.' 14
On a similar note to the above, but occurring many years earlier - at the commencement of the girls' summer holidays from Roe Head School on 17 June 1836, Charlotte and Anne went to stay, for a week, with Anne's Godmother, Elizabeth Franks, at the Huddersfield Vicarage (her husband was the Reverend James Franks) - located a mere five miles from Roe Head. The girls were not totally enthusiastic about the visit as, naturally, they were anxious to return home to Haworth. However, they had been invited by the Franks, and Patrick pressured them a little to accept the invitation: Juliet Barker reports:
'The eldest child, John Firth Franks, recollected that Charlotte never spoke to him during the whole time she was there though Anne brought toys to him in the nursery.' 15
When Anne was writing her second novel, 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall', she became so absorbed in the story - 'to the exclusion of all else', that it begun to effect her health. Charlotte wrote to Ellen:
'I would fain hope that her health is a little stronger than it was - and her spirits a little better, but she leads much too sedentary a life, and is continually sitting stooping either over a book or over her desk - it is with difficulty one can prevail on her to take a walk or induce her to converse.' 16
On 31 July 1848, about a month after The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had been published, Charlotte wrote to William Smith Williams (her publisher's 'reader'), and remarked on the effect that some reviews of the novel were having on Anne, particularly the more defamatory ones - such as that in The Spectator, which accused Anne of having 'a morbid love of the coarse, not to say the brutal':
"I wish my sister felt the unfavourable ones less keenly. She does not say much, for she is of a remarkably taciturn, still, thoughtful nature, reserved even with her nearest of kin, but I cannot avoid seeing that her spirits are depressed sometimes . . ." 17
Charlotte's publisher, and later friend, George Smith, met Anne only once: when she and Charlotte paid him a visit in London in July 1848, in order to dispel the rumour that the three 'Bell brothers' were all one and the same person. The girls spent several days in his company. Many years after Anne's death, he wrote in the 'Cornhill Magazine' his impressions of her, describing her as:
'.. a gentle, quiet, rather subdued person, by no means pretty, yet of a pleasing appearance. Her manner was curiously expressive of a wish for protection and encouragement, a kind of constant appeal which invited sympathy.' 18
This London visit unexpectedly included a night at the Opera House, when the two girls were escorted there by George Smith. On recalling the occasion sometime later, Charlotte remarked on her excitement on entering the grandiose building, and finding herself amongst 'fine ladies and gentlemen' who kept glancing at the two girls 'with a slight, graceful superciliousness', on account of their 'plain, high-made country garments', which was all they had taken to London with them. She went on:
'. . . and I saw Anne was calm and gentle which she always is.' 19n
Throughout December 1848, Anne had been quite ill and complaining of frequent pains in her side. Though it was not realised at this point, these were the early symptoms of consumption - the illness that, six months later, ended her life. Over Christmas and the New Year she was further ailed by a severe bout of influenza. Becoming so concerned at Anne's deteriorating health, her father, Patrick, arranged for a Leeds doctor, Mr. Teale, who had much experience in cases of consumption, to examine her at the Parsonage. At this time, Ellen Nussey was spending a short stay in the Brontë household. Many years later she recalled:
'While consultations were going on in Mr. Brontë's study, Anne was very lively in conversation, walking round the room supported by me. Mr. Brontë joined us after Dr. Teale's departure and, seating himself on the couch, he drew Anne towards him and said, 'My dear little Anne.' That was all - but it was understood.' 20
Ellen also reported that Anne looked 'sweetly pretty' and was 'in capital spirits for an invalid'.
The first line of Ellen's notes here, is interesting in that it is the only existing reference that shows us another side of the 'silent' Anne.
After Charlotte's husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, saw a professed picture of Anne in a magazine article many years after the entire Brontë family had died, he remarked "what an awful caricature of the dear gentle Anne Brontë!" 21
The reference 'dear gentle Anne' appears yet again!
While Anne was a governess, first with the Inghams at Blake Hall in 1839, and later with the Robinsons at Thorp Green from 1840 to 1845, she witnessed many violent, aggressive and generally undesirable human traits. When she wrote her novels a few years later, she exhibited these traits in her characters, along with many of the incidents she had observed. Some time later, she remarked that her main aim was to portray 'the truth'. In this way, she hoped she could warn other young people from falling into the 'snares and pitfalls of life'. In her famous preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, she states:
'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.' In this story 'the case is an extreme one, as I trusted none would fail to perceive, but I know that such characters do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.'
The novel was an instant, phenomenal success; however, Anne's bold treatment of the aggressive and despicable behaviour exhibited towards her heroine, by the drunken, bullying husband, and the disturbing encouragement he gives to his son - to acquire the same traits; brought on her accusations of having a love of the coarse, and the brutal. Charlotte was hurt and offended by the adverse reputation her 'gentle' sister was gaining, and on a re-issue of 'Wuthering Heights/Agnes Grey' in 1850 - just over a year after Emily and Anne had died, she wrote the 'Biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell', defending her sisters' reputations (Emily had received similar accusations over her moody Wuthering Heights novel - though these were not as fierce as those aimed at Anne). On Anne and 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' Charlotte writes:
' "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer's nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid. She had, in the course of her life been called on to contemplate, near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course with fictitious characters, incidents, and situations) as a warning to others. She hated her work, but would pursue it. When reasoned with on the subject, she regarded such reasonings as a temptation to self-indulgence. She must be honest; she must not varnish, soften, or conceal. This well-meant resolution brought on her misconstruction, and some abuse, which she bore, as it was her custom, to bear whatever was unpleasant, with mild, steady patience. She was a very sincere and practical Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy communicated a sad shade to her brief, blameless life.'
Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell
by Charlotte Brontë (full version)