The Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily, and Anne – are renowned for their contribution to English literature during the Victorian era. However, while Charlotte and Emily garnered significant attention and acclaim for their novels, Anne Brontë remains comparatively relatively forgotten.
Despite this, Anne’s literary works challenged societal norms, confronted explored taboo subjects, and offered a unique perspective on Victorian life. Was Anne simply ahead of her time?
Anne Brontë, the youngest of the six Brontë siblings, was born on 17 January 1820 in Thornton, Yorkshire, and grew up in the parsonage at Haworth parish on the Yorkshire moors. Her mother was Maria Branwell Brontë, and her father, Patrick Brontë, was a poor, Irish, Church of England clergyman.
Anne’s mother died when Anne was 1, leading her aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, to move into the parsonage to care for the children. Despite showing little affection, Anne was Elizabeth’s favourite and shared a room with her, likely influencing Anne’s personality and religious beliefs.
In 1825, Anne faced further tragedy with the deaths of her sisters Maria and Elizabeth from tuberculosis. Charlotte and Emily were subsequently brought home from school and educated by their father, who instilled in them a love for reading and learning, exposing them, along with Anne, to classical literature and other genres.
These early experiences of loss profoundly impacted Anne and influenced her writing through her exploration of themes including mortality and grief.
Anne, Charlotte and Emily made little attempt to mix with others outside the parsonage, instead finding solace in their shared love for storytelling and imaginative play. In 1826, their father gifted their brother Branwell toy soldiers (the ‘Twelves’), which sparked their creativity. They named the soldiers, developed characters, and built stories of an imaginary African kingdom ‘Angria’ around them.
As Charlotte left for Roe Head School in 1831, Anne and Emily grew closer and expanded their imaginative world to create ‘Gondal’, for which they created intricate stories, poems, and plays, which they collectively referred to as the ‘Gondal Chronicles’. This nurtured their literary talents and became an integral part of their shared creative pursuits.
Formal education and time as a governess
Charlotte gave Anne lessons on her return from Roe Head school, and subsequently returned to Roe Head as a teacher. By then Emily was a pupil (her place financed by Charlotte’s teaching), but homesickness eventually led to her withdrawal; Anne took her place, aged 15.
Anne was quiet, diligent and determined to acquire an education, yet by December 1837 had fallen ill with gastritis and was distressed by a religious crisis, and was brought home. Concerned that her father had no private income and the parsonage would revert to the church upon his death, a year later, Anne sought a teaching position. In April 1839 she became a governess for the Ingham family at Blake Hall. However, the disobedient children and family’s prohibition on punishment led to Anne’s dismissal.
Returning briefly to Haworth, Anne and her sisters found solace in the companionship of William Weightman, their father’s handsome curate, until his untimely death from cholera. (Weightman’s influence inspired a poem, and a character in Anne’s novel Agnes Grey).
From 1840-1845, Anne worked as a governess at Thorp Green Hall near York (the inspiration for Agnes Grey’s Horton Lodge) for the Robinson family. She was determined and made a success of her position, becoming well-liked by her employers, even accompanying the family on annual holidays to Scarborough.
During this time, Anne’s aunt Elizabeth died in 1842, leaving a £350 legacy for each of her nieces (equivalent to over £40,000).
Anne arranged for Branwell to work as a tutor at Thorp Green Hall, but later resigned, supposedly after discovering his affair with the employer’s wife.
The Brontë’s emerging publishing dreams
In 1845, the Brontë sisters were all back at their father’s home with no immediate job prospects. Discovering poetry each had written, they decided to use their inheritance from their aunt to pay for the publication of a collection of their poems. Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, was published in May 1846, containing 21 poems by Anne, 21 by Emily, and 19 by Charlotte. To conceal their gender, they adopted pen names, retaining their initials – Anne’s pseudonym was Acton Bell.
Despite favourable reviews, the book was a commercial failure – only two copies sold in the first year. (Nevertheless, Anne’s poems The Three Guides, and The Narrow Way, were later published in 1848 by the Leeds Intelligencer and Fraser’s Magazine under her pseudonym.)
Undeterred, in July 1846, the Brontë sisters sent manuscripts of their debut novels to various publishers in London. Charlotte’s novel was titled The Professor, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey. Although Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were accepted, it was Charlotte’s second novel, Jane Eyre, that was published first, achieving immediate success.
Subsequently, Anne’s Agnes Grey, was published in December 1847 – the same time as Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, followed in June 1848. To dispel rumours of the ‘Bell brothers’ being a single person, Anne and Charlotte visited their publisher, George Smith, in London a month later.
Branwell Brontë’s persistent alcoholism had masked his deteriorating health, and he died on 24 September 1848, aged 31 (likely from tuberculosis). The family suffered further illnesses that winter, and Emily died on 19 December, aged 30.
Emily’s death deeply affected Anne, who was herself battling declining health from influenza and advanced tuberculosis. Anne accepted the news that she had little chance of recovery with characteristic resolve. Unlike Emily, she followed all recommended medical advice, and wrote her last poem, A dreadful darkness closes in, reflecting her acceptance of terminal illness. Anne visited Scarborough in May, hoping sea air might aid her recovery, yet her condition worsened and she died on 28 May 1849, aged 29.
Following Anne’s death, Charlotte edited Agnes Grey to address issues with its first edition, yet prevented the republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, believing the subject matter a mistake. Subsequently, critics paid less attention to Anne’s work.
Writing style and themes
Anne Brontë’s novels, Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), exhibited her distinct writing style and explored unconventional themes for the Victorian era. Agnes Grey draws from Anne’s own experiences as a governess, shedding light on the mistreatment and social inequalities faced by women in such positions – establishing it as an important feminist work.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tackles even more contentious subjects, including alcoholism, abusive relationships, and women’s rights. The protagonist, Helen Graham, defied societal norms by leaving her abusive husband and pursuing independence. This novel received mixed reactions due to its frank depiction of marital issues and female agency, but undoubtedly broke new ground, challenging prevailing social and legal structures.
Impact and legacy
Despite their initial controversy, Anne Brontë’s novels had a lasting impact on Victorian literature, presenting a realistic, un-romanticised depiction of society. She refused to glamorise violent, oppressive men, unlike the idealised worlds found in the works of her contemporaries, instead preferring to write about men who expressed their love in words rather than through domination. Their themes of gender inequality, the struggles of working-class women, and the limitations imposed on women in Victorian society still resonate today.
Anne’s relative obscurity can be attributed in part to her premature death. Her works were also considered less sensational and lacked the gothic elements that made Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights widely popular. However, since the mid-20th century, biographies, scholars, and readers have recognised Anne’s significance in challenging societal norms and feminist perspective.
Although overshadowed by her sisters, Anne’s novels courageously confronted societal taboos, gave voice to silenced women, addressed women’s need for independence, and explored alcoholism’s destructive effects. Anne’s portrayal of strong female characters and exploration of complex moral issues was more radical than her sisters – and ahead of her time, paving the way for future women writers.