Sunday, January 17, 2016

Today in History

Anne Brontë as sketched by her sister Charlotte

Anne Brontë was born

On this day in 1820, Anne Brontë* was born in Thornton, West Yorkshire, England to Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell. She was the youngest of six children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, and Emily. The family moved to Haworth Parsonage, Yorkshire, a few months later. Her mother died when Anne was 20 months old and she and her siblings were raised by their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, who had moved in to help with her sister's illness.

Her four older sisters were sent to boarding school, but after one year the two older girls, Maria (aged 11) and Elizabeth (aged 10), died of consumption (tuberculosis). Charlotte and Emily were immediately brought back home and their father educated his children at home after that when they died (that poor guy - I can't imagine losing two kids at once like that). The Brontë children kept to themselves, playing on the moor around the parsonage. Their father had an excellent library, and their active imaginations led them to create imaginary worlds. Anne grew specially close to Emily, and they created their own shared world called Gondal.

When Anne was 15 she went to study at Roe Head School, where Charlotte was now teaching. She did well there for two years, but then fell ill to gastritis. She returned home. A year later she took work as a governess at Blake Hall in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. It was a terrible experience, which she later turned into the novel Agnes Gray (one of my favorite Bronte books, btw). She was dismissed and returned home in 1839.

Back home her father had a young new curate, William Weightman. Anne seems to have admired William, and he may have been her model for the character Edward Weston in Agnes Grey. Some historians think she may have been in love with him, but we can't know for sure. Sadly, William Weightman died of cholera in 1842 at age 26 (notice how young people just drop like flies in Victorian England? Thank goodness for modern medicine!) Anne went back to work as a governess, this time for the Robinson family at Thorp Green Hall in York. At first she struggled in dealing with the four Robinson children, but she eventually got along well with the family and became life-long friends with the Robinson girls.

In the summer of 1845, while all the Brontë siblings were home at Haworth, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne decided to secretly publish a book of poems under the pen names Currier, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Although the collection received three somewhat favorable reviews, it only sold two copies (proving that even then, self-published books have an uphill battle getting reviews!) Still, the publication seems to have inspired the sisters to work on getting novels published. Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were accepted by a publisher, but Charlotte's The Professor was rejected everywhere. Undaunted, Charlotte quickly finished Jane Eyre which was immediately accepted by Smith, Elder & Co. and appeared in print before her sisters' novels. Jane Eyre was a big success. Emily and Anne had to pay 50 pounds to publish their books, but they did sell well (though not as well as Jane Eyre). The dramatic Wuthering Heights outsold Agnes Grey.

In 1848 Anne published her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It was an immediate success and sold out in 6 weeks. By Victorian standards the novel was shocking in its depiction of alcoholism and debauchery. Written at a time when women were legally the property of their husbands, it is thought to have a deep impact on women's rights. (It really is an excellent novel and would stand up against any modern novel today.)

Hard on the heels of literary success came tragedy. Three months after Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published, her brother Branwell died of bronchitis. That winter all the sisters suffered from coughs and colds. Emily became quite ill, and in December she died. Anne's grief undermined her health, and she developed influenza over Christmas. Her father sent for a physician from nearby Leeds, and she was diagnosed with advanced consumption. In February, with rest and medicine, Anne felt a little better and in May, accompanied by Charlotte and Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey, decided to visit Scarborough in the hope that the sea air might do her good. The trip sapped her strength and on May 27th a doctor in Scarborough told them that death was close. Anne took the news with her characteristic quiet calm and expressed her love for Charlotte and Ellen, whispering to Charlotte to "take courage." She died quietly the next day.

Charlotte decided to "lay the flower where it had fallen" and bury Anne in Scarborough on May 30.

Although Jane Eyre, which I read first as a child, was my first and favorite Brontë novel, as an adult I really like Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne tells it like it is, and I appreciate her characters' inner strength through faith. I highly recommend them.
About screen adaptations, for Jane Eyre I think the 2011 version is well-cast, the 2006 BBC version is closer to the original but harder to find. I don't think there are any good adaptations of Anne's books, and I am not one to ask about Wuthering Heights.

*All links go to Amazon


  1. Vmom, I am not the target demographic for this material, but your review makes it appealing even to me!

    I presume there is a book, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf", but I did see the movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and was completely baffled by it. It wasn't what I would call entertaining.

    1. Hi Sandy! I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Sorry I didn't reply sooner - I was a feeling a bit poorly :)

      I heard a rumor that filming WAOVW contributed to Liz Taylor and Richard Burton getting a divorce, because the acrimony in the script spilled over into their actual relationship. Don't know if that's true.