Review of Edward Chitham's 'A Life of Anne Brontë'
I remember once Edward Chitham saying to a conference of Brontë
enthusiasts 'I am an Anne person' and his resultant biography, 'A Life
of Anne Brontë', shows both great sensitivity and a just awareness
of Anne's considerable literary skills as a writer. He also shows us that
Anne was interesting in her own right both as a writer distinct from Emily
and Charlotte and as a person with a life of unfulfilled dreams. Far from
being the weak sibling with the nun-like veil as Charlotte preferred to
view her youngest sister, Chitham views Anne as the sister who stuck it
out longest at being a governess in the outside world and as the sister
with the strongest courage and sense of duty.
Chitham doesn't sensationalize his material but sifts it for truth and
light. He is very aware that original source material on Anne's younger
days, her time at, and reason for leaving, school, her two governess positions,
her possibly strong feelings for her father's curate, William Weightman,
and her fluctuating relationship with her sister, Emily, are scant and
too reliant on Charlotte's screening. Nevertheless, Chitham tries to piece
together what he can from Anne's five surviving letters, her poetry, her
two great novels and other circumstantial material surrounding the Robinson
family with whom she stayed with as a governess. However, as with most
other Brontë scholars, he cannot finally prove that Anne loved Weightman
or that Branwell left the above same Robinson family as a result of indiscretions
towards the Lady of the House (Lydia Robinson) or towards the 12-year-old
pupil in his charge, Edmund Robinson.
Edward Chitham is also cautionary about the use of Anne's novels as
biographical material. Far from quoting parts of Agnes Grey verbatim, he
shows us more where such sources are unreliable. However, in areas and
tone where Agnes Grey and the life of its heroine, squares with
Anne's poetry and life, Chitham is happy to show the ways in which the
likely facts of Anne's life unfold to the diligent researcher of the truth.
All in all, this is a great biography, and until more letters become dusted
down from hidden, and as yet unknown, lofts or boxes, it is likely to be
fairly definitive in its balance and appreciation of Anne Brontë.
Chitham knows where the sources are weak and he also knows what future
researchers will want to look at if any more sources unearth themselves.
Should we be lucky enough to find more of Anne's letters to or from Emily,
Charlotte or the Robinson girls she once taught and kept in touch with,
then would be the time to write another and fuller biography of Anne's
life. Sadly for both writer and reader, Chitham can only but leave us with
an incomplete picture, many broken jigsaw pieces and an overwhelming desire
Copyright © 1999
July - 99