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Brontë, Anne [pseud. Acton Bell]free

(1820–1849)
  • Margaret Smith

Brontë, Anne [pseud. Acton Bell] (1820–1849), novelist and poet, was born on 17 January 1820 at the parsonage in Market Street, Thornton, near Bradford, Yorkshire, the sixth and youngest child of the Revd Patrick Brontë (1777–1861) and his wife, Maria (1783–1821), daughter of Thomas Branwell of Penzance and his wife, Anne. Patrick Brontë, born in Emdale, co. Down, Ireland, graduated BA from St John's College, Cambridge, in 1806 and was ordained an Anglican priest in December 1807. Four curacies preceded his appointment in 1815 to Thornton, where Anne was baptized on 25 March 1820. Her siblings were Maria (1814–1825), Elizabeth (1815–1825), Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855), (Patrick) Branwell Brontë (1817–1848), and Emily Jane Brontë (1818–1848). By 20 April 1820 the family had moved to the moorland parish of Haworth, of which Patrick Brontë had been appointed perpetual curate.

After their mother's death on 15 September 1821 the Brontë children were cared for by their aunt Elizabeth Branwell (1776–1842). The early deaths of Anne's elder sisters Maria on 6 May 1825 and Elizabeth on 15 June 1825 perhaps increased the family's protective care for the delicate Anne. She was not sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge (the fearsome 'Lowood' of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre) but was educated at home by her aunt and her father until mid-1832, when Charlotte Brontë began to teach her younger sisters. Anne and her inseparable companion Emily acquired considerable linguistic skills, developed their talent for music, and invented a secret, exotic, imaginary land—Gondal. No prose stories of Gondal survive, but some twenty-three of Anne's poems describe the loves and griefs of its romantic heroes and heroines. They reflect the sisters' delight in oriental tales and the works of Scott and Thomas Moore. Anne and Emily, like Charlotte and Branwell Brontë in their Angrian saga, chronicled the violent feuds, treacheries, and imprisonments of warrior kings and tragic queens; but while Angria had been virtually abandoned in 1839, new volumes of the Gondal saga were still being written as late as 1845.

In July 1835 Charlotte Brontë became a teacher at Margaret Wooler's school at Roe Head, Mirfield. Their father wanted to keep Anne at home for another year, but Emily, who had accompanied Charlotte as a pupil, longed for freedom and rapidly declined in health. Anne replaced her at Roe Head from October 1835, until in December 1837 she too became 'wretchedly ill', suffering from pain and difficult—probably asthmatic—breathing, and perhaps also from gastric fever (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.173–5). Charlotte took Anne home, where she gradually recovered. Charlotte returned to the school early in 1838 and continued teaching there when it was moved to Heald's House, Dewsbury Moor, in that year. Anne may also have returned at that time. She was a quiet, diligent pupil, earning a prize for good conduct, and developing her talents for languages and drawing.

Anne was the most attractive looking of the Brontë sisters. A friend of the family, Ellen Nussey, described 'dear gentle Anne' as she appeared in 1833: 'Her hair was a very pretty light brown and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet blue eyes, fine pencilled eye-brows, a clear, almost transparent complexion' (Reminiscences of Charlotte Brontë, Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.598). The publisher George Smith recalled Anne 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' (Huxley, 60). Charlotte Brontë's pencil drawing of Anne dated 17 April 1833 was identified as an excellent likeness, while two of her watercolours (c.1833 and 17 June 1834) and Branwell Brontë's oil painting of his sisters (now in the National Portrait Gallery) show Anne's attractive colouring.

Anne Brontë had an affectionate nature and inspired affection in others. On 20 January 1842 Charlotte described the young curate William Weightman sitting opposite Anne in church, sighing softly '& looking out of the corners of his eyes to win her attention—& Anne is so quiet, her look so downcast' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.279). Anne's poem 'I will not mourn thee, lovely one', written in December 1842 after Weightman's death, shows her trying to control her grief for the loss of one whose 'angel smile … Could my fond heart rejoice'. In the end Anne also won the hearts of two of her pupils, the wayward and difficult Robinson girls. Mild and reticent as she seemed, she possessed an extraordinary heroism of endurance.

Anne Brontë's work as a governess began on 8 April 1839, when she insisted on going alone to Blake Hall, Mirfield, where she was to teach Joshua Cunliffe Ingham and Mary Ingham, the eldest children of Joshua Ingham and his wife, Mary. Like the eponymous heroine of her novel Agnes Grey, Anne found her pupils spoilt little dunces whom she was not allowed to punish. She endured the 'struggle of life-wearing exertion' to keep the children in decent order until the end of the year, when her employment at Blake Hall ceased—probably by her employers' decision (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.210).

Anne next became a governess in the family of the Revd Edmund Robinson and his wife, Lydia, née Gisborne, at Thorp Green Hall, Little Ouseburn, near York. She probably arrived on or about 8 May 1840, and remained until June 1845. Her pupils were Lydia Mary, Elizabeth Lydia (Bessy), and Mary, and she may have taught Latin to Edmund. Agnes Grey's time at Horton Lodge is partly based on Anne's experiences at Thorp Green, while her descriptions of the 'broad, bright bay' of A— recall Anne's delight in Scarborough, where she accompanied the family during their summer holidays. Anne had much to endure in the Robinson household. In her diary paper for 30 July 1841 Anne recorded that she disliked her situation and wished to change it for another, and Emily in her paper sent 'from far an exhortation of courage courage! to exiled and harassed Anne wishing she was here'. Charlotte thought of her as a 'patient, persecuted stranger—amongst people … grossly insolent, proud & tyrannical' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.264, 263, 267).

Anne's return to Thorp Green at the Robinsons' urgent request in January 1842 was perhaps a victory of conscience over inclination, for her poem 'In memory of a happy day in February' shows her rejoicing in God's glory shining 'throughout the moral world'. Her faith was to be tested by the death of William Weightman from cholera on 6 September 1842 and the painful death of Elizabeth Branwell on 29 October 1842. Materially, Anne benefited by her aunt's bequest of a quarter-share of effects which were valued at under £1500. She bought books and drawing materials, and continued to study Latin and German, for she and her sisters intended ultimately to set up their own school.

Meanwhile, Branwell Brontë became tutor to the young Edmund Robinson in January 1843. A year later he and Anne were still 'wonderously valued in their situation' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.342). But according to Branwell, Mrs Robinson soon became 'damnably too fond' of him, and inspired an 'attachment' on his part, leading to 'reciprocations … little looked for' and, apparently, to Mr Robinson's discovery of an affair. He abruptly dismissed Branwell in July 1845 for conduct 'bad beyond expression' (ibid., 399–414; Barker, 455–77). Anne may not have realized the full extent of the alleged affair, but she left Thorp Green on or just after 11 June 1845, and recorded in her diary paper for 31 July that she had 'had some very unpleasant and undreamt of experience of human nature' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.410). Anne, witnessing with pain and revulsion Branwell's descent into increasingly heavy drinking and drug taking, grieved over his wasted talent and his moral and spiritual degeneration. In her preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall she defended her realistic presentation of 'vice and vicious characters' as the best method of warning inexperienced youth to avoid the 'snares and pitfalls of life'.

Branwell's behaviour led his sisters finally to abandon their plan for a school at the parsonage. But in the autumn of 1845 Charlotte discovered a manuscript volume of verse in Emily's handwriting, and with difficulty persuaded her that it should be published. Anne quietly produced some of her own poems, and by about 22 May 1846 Aylott and Jones had published, at the authors' expense, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell—nineteen by Currer (Charlotte), twenty-one each by Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne). Although only two copies of the first issue were sold, The Critic and The Athenaeum reviewed it favourably on 4 July, and the volume was reissued by Smith, Elder & Co. in 1848. Fraser's Magazine published Anne's poem 'The three guides' in August and her hymn beginning:

Believe not those who sayThe upward path is smooth

in December that year.

Soon after 27 June 1846 the Brontë sisters began to offer to various publishers three novels: Anne's Agnes Grey, Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte's The Professor, the last of which was rejected by all. The other two, accepted by Thomas Cautley Newby by July 1847, were not published until December, after the outstanding success of Charlotte's Jane Eyre in October convinced Newby that any works by the ‘Bells’ would be a profitable venture. In Agnes Grey Anne Brontë describes the tribulations of a governess, shrewdly portrays her worldly employers and spoilt pupils, and contrasts the miseries of a mercenary marriage with the happiness of Agnes and her ideal clergyman, Edward Weston. Modern critics see Agnes Grey as an effective exposure of the threat to woman's integrity and independence posed by a corrupt and materialistic society. At the time, though praised for its minute observation, the novel (like those of the other Bells) was criticized for its concern with the eccentric and unpleasant, and accused of exaggeration in parts 'carefully copied from the life', as Anne was to recall in the preface to the second edition of her next novel.

Undeterred by such criticisms, Anne Brontë courageously depicted in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a wife who leaves her debauched and adulterous husband in order to protect her young son, and who earns her living as an artist, returning only to nurse her husband—now an ungrateful and peevish invalid—in the hope that he will seek and receive God's mercy. Before Newby published the novel in June 1848, he informed an American publisher that it was the latest work of Currer Bell. Since Smith, Elder & Co., the publishers of Jane Eyre, had arranged that Harper & Brothers should publish the first American edition of Currer Bell's next work, George Smith demanded an explanation. Charlotte and Anne made their hasty 'pop visit' to London from 8 to 12 July, astonishing Smith by identifying themselves as two of the famous Bells, and confronting Newby with his chicanery. On the day they arrived in London, The Spectator admitted the power of Acton Bell's novel, but condemned the writer's 'morbid love for the coarse, not to say the brutal' (21, 662–3). The book sold well, despite or because of such criticism. Today it is seen as an innovative and radical expression of feminist values, challenging the then current ideal of woman as an ‘angel in the house’, submissive to her lot as her husband's chattel.

Anne Brontë felt harsh reviews keenly, and must have been especially depressed by allegations that the revolting details of the novel made it unfit to be read, in spite of its unimpeachable moral and religious purpose. For Anne, the need to pursue and to guide others into the difficult upward path of Christian faith was paramount. Her religious poems, eloquent in their self-analysis and exhortation, include the well-known hymn, 'My God! O let me call thee mine!' Her last and most moving poem,

A dreadful darkness closes inOn my bewildered mind

was written in January 1849, when she knew she was mortally ill. It moves from that torturing darkness to a prayer for patience, fortitude, and hope. Anne was supported by her belief in the doctrine of universal salvation, which she had cherished from her childhood.

After Branwell Brontë's death on 24 September 1848 and Emily's on 19 December, symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis became evident in Anne's declining health. As courageous as her sister but more amenable, she accepted medical help and wished strongly for recovery. Her journey to Scarborough in May 1849 in the company of Charlotte and of Ellen Nussey was undertaken in the hope of improvement; but on 28 May Anne Brontë died at their lodging at 2 St Nicholas Cliff, Scarborough—with almost her last breath saying she was happy, and thanking God that 'death was come, and come so gently' (Wise and Symington, 2.337). Her funeral took place at Christ Church, Scarborough, on 30 May, and she was buried in St Mary's churchyard on Castle Hill, Scarborough, the same day.

Sources

  • The letters of Charlotte Brontë, ed. M. Smith, 2 vols. (1995–2000), vol. 1
  • J. Barker, The Brontës (1994)
  • C. Brontë, ‘A biographical notice of the authors … and a preface’, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, by Ellis and Acton Bell, ed. C. Bell (1850), [vii]–xvi, [471]–3, 490–91
  • A. Brontë, Agnes Grey, ed. H. Marsden and R. Inglesfield, Clarendon edn (1988)
  • A. Brontë, The tenant of Wildfell Hall, ed. H. Rosengarten, Clarendon edn (1992)
  • E. Chitham, ed., The poems of Anne Brontë: a new text and commentary (1979)
  • parish register, Old Bell Chapel, Thornton, Yorkshire, 1813–27 [baptism]
  • d. cert.
  • manuscript diary of Elizabeth Firth of Kipping House, Thornton, University of Sheffield
  • T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, eds., The Brontës: their lives, friendships and correspondence, 4 vols. (1932)
  • E. C. Gaskell, The life of Charlotte Brontë (1857)
  • [L. Huxley], The house of Smith Elder (1923)
  • E. Chitham, A life of Anne Brontë (1991)
  • C. Alexander and J. Sellars, The art of the Brontës (1995)
  • M. Allott, ed., The Brontës: the critical heritage (1974)
  • G. A. Yablon and J. R. Turner, A Brontë bibliography (1978)
  • M. H. Frawley, Anne Brontë (1996)
  • A. J. Drewery, ‘The tenant of Wildfell Hall: a woman's place?’, Brontë Society Transactions, 19 (1998), 251–60

Archives

  • BL, papers
  • Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire, collection
  • Hunt. L., papers
  • Morgan L., papers
  • NYPL, papers
  • Princeton University, New Jersey, papers
  • Ransom HRC, papers

Likenesses

  • C. Brontë, pencil drawing, 1833, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire
  • C. Brontë, watercolour drawing, 1833, priv. coll.; [on loan to Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire]
  • B. Brontë, group portrait, oils, 1834 (The Brontë sisters), NPG; see illus. in Brontë, Charlotte (1816–1855)
  • B. Brontë, group portrait, oils, 1834 (‘The gun group’)
  • C. Brontë, watercolour drawing, 1834, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire
  • C. Brontë, pencil, 1835 (Anne Brontë?), repro. in A. Brontë, The tenant of Wildfell Hall, Thornton edn (1907), frontispiece
  • E. Brontë, pen-and-ink sketch in diary paper, 1837, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire
  • photograph and pencil tracings (after B. Brontë, ‘The gun group’), Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire
  • portraits, repro. in Alexander and Sellars, Art of the Brontës

Wealth at Death

under £600; incl. quarter-share of aunt's estate of under £1500; salary of £40 p.a. during employment at Thorp Green; £50 received from publisher Newby for The tenant of Wildfell Hall; legacy of £200 from godmother; plus unspecified funds: administration, Borth. Inst.