Anne | Emily | Charlotte
Anne Brontë was the youngest of the three Brontë sisters who became famous as authors. During her short lifetime (she was born on 17 January, 1820, and died on 28 May, 1849, at the age of just 29), she wrote various short stories and poems, plus two novels. Her work was inspired by the people she knew, the places she had been to, and her personal experiences.
Anne's mother had died before Anne was two years old. Her four sisters were sent away to the Clergy Daughters' School in 1824 - their father was Rector of Haworth in West Yorkshire - but the eldest two, Maria and Elizabeth, became ill there and died in 1825. Anne was educated at home by her Aunt Elizabeth Branwell until she was 15. She honed her writing skills by contributing to her siblings' tales about the fantasy lands of Angria and Gondal - her sister Charlotte and brother Branwell included her as Annii in their stories, but Anne worked with Emily the most.
In 1835, Anne went to Miss Wooler's School - Charlotte had studied there and was then a teacher at the school. However, Anne became very unwell, so she returned to Haworth Parsonage in 1837.
The family was not rich, so the sisters' prospects of marrying well were not good. Instead they took steps to become financially independent in jobs that were considered suitable for women. In April 1839 Anne became governess to two of the children of Joshua and Mary Ingham at Blake Hall in West Yorkshire. It was a struggle for her to work out how to handle the children (and their parents) so she was dismissed after eight months.
The Brontë sisters had limited opportunities to meet eligible bachelors, apart from the curates who assisted their father in his work. William Weightman became curate at Haworth in 1840. He made a good impression on all the sisters, and Anne particularly - he even sent them Valentine's cards as they had never received one before. However, he paid attention to several women, including Anne and Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey. He died of cholera in 1842 at the age of 26. Anne's feelings towards him inspired some of her writing.
In May 1840, Anne became governess for the children of Lydia and Rev Edmund Robinson at Thorp Green, near York. In 1843 she was joined there by Branwell, who took the role of tutor to 11-year-old Edmund. Branwell fell in love with Lydia and, whether she reciprocated or not, he was dismissed by Rev Robinson in 1845. Anne left her position there shortly afterwards, and wrote in her diary that she had had 'some very unpleasant and undreamt-of experience of human nature' at Thorp Green.
In 1846 Anne became a published author alongside her sisters. Her two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are semi-autobiographical, featuring incidents from her experiences as a governess and her observations of the people she had met.
Branwell died on 24 September, 1848, and Emily died on 19 December that year. Anne became ill with tuberculosis soon afterwards. On 24 May, 1849, Charlotte and Ellen took Anne on a journey to the coast for the sea air. They visited York Minster en route, and then went to Scarborough, a place she Anne been familiar with during her time as a governess. Anne died there on 28 May, 1849, at the age of 29.
Charlotte's opinions of her younger sisters were infused with the attitudes of the time towards women - she wrote on discovering some of Emily's poems in 1845: 'I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me - a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write.' However, the discovery that both Emily and Anne had written poems helped her to resolve to achieve their dream of becoming published authors.
They chose pseudonyms to protect their identity and also to make it less obvious that they were women, as that would have been likely to hinder their prospects of success. Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was published at their own expense (30 guineas) in May 1846. Anne contributed 21 out of the 61 poems in the book. She wrote on various themes, including loss of loved ones, homesickness and Christianity. Some of the poems had been adapted from ones set in Gondal.
Agnes Grey was published in 1847 together with Emily's novel Wuthering Heights.
The book is written as the autobiography of Agnes Grey, the youngest daughter of a clergyman. The clergyman and his wife had six children, but only Agnes and her sister Mary survived to adulthood. They were home-schooled by their mother. Mrs Grey had been rich, but was disinherited by her father for marrying someone he disapproved of. In an effort to provide his wife with more home comforts, Mr Grey invested in a cargo ship and expected to share in the profits from the sale of the cargo, but the ship was wrecked and his money was lost. To alleviate her family's financial hardship (even though her relatives thought she, as the baby of the family, wouldn't be able to do it), Agnes resolved to earn money by becoming a governess.
Her first position was as governess to Tom and Mary Ann Bloomfield. Agnes thought she would be able to relate to them based on her own childhood, but they were very different in character - in particular their parents thought them to be noble children, but they were 'unruly, violent' children with 'sadistic ingenuity' who were reluctant to learn. Five-year-old Mary Ann didn't care if she had been too naughty to get a goodnight kiss from Agnes, and seven-year-old Tom was cruel to animals, behaviour that was not discouraged by his father.
They knew no shame; they scorned authority which had no terrors to back it; and as for kindness and affection, either they had no hearts, or such as they had were so strongly guarded and so well concealed that I, with all my efforts, had not yet discovered how to reach them.
If Agnes failed in her efforts to get them to sit quietly and do their lessons, Mrs Bloomfield would hear their screams and tell Agnes off. Mr and Mrs Bloomfield were not the happiest of couples - they argued over trivial matters, such as beef not being fresh enough for Mr Bloomfield's taste, or Mrs Bloomfield not knowing what fish had been ordered. After eight months of struggle to teach her charges, Agnes began to make progress, but was dismissed because the Bloomfields realised their children were not progressing as well as other people's children and blamed her.
The following year Agnes was engaged as governess to the daughters of Mr and Mrs Murray, who lived 70 miles away. There, being entrusted with 16-year-old Rosalie, 'decidedly a pretty girl', and Matilda, 'a strapping hoyden of about fourteen, with a short frock and trousers', she faced different challenges from her previous situation. Rosalie was keen to be out in society, and devoted her attentions to various gentlemen, including married men, even though she admitted, 'I detest them all!'
Rosalie even gave the rector of the local church the impression she loved him. She continued paying attention to him after she became engaged to Sir Thomas Ashby, one of the rich gentlemen she detested, but then dashed his hopes as soon as he began to reciprocate her attention. She then turned her attentions to Mr Weston, the curate. Agnes enjoyed Mr Weston's company, but thought she would not be able to compete against Rosalie and the other young women in the area, being a poor, plain governess (plus Rosalie and Matilda had told him Agnes was 'a bookworm... so completely absorbed in your studies that you were lost to any other pleasure'). Agnes wrote a poem as a 'secret source of consolation'1.
After Agnes' father died, her mother resolved to start a school to support herself and asked Agnes to join her. Agnes said a reluctant farewell to Mr Weston without revealing the true depth of her feelings. At first she pined for him, but then turned to religion to enable her to cope with her new situation. However, the book has a happy ending when the two are reunited at the coast.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in July 1848 in three volumes.
The story is mainly told through Gilbert Markham's letters to his friend J Halgrave, Esq, recounting details of his youth. It incorporates some pages of the diary of Helen Graham, the tenant of Wildfell Hall.
As a young man, Gilbert thought he knew what the future held - he was a reasonably wealthy farm manager, on course to marry a local girl. However, a chance encounter with five-year-old Arthur introduced him to Helen Graham, an attractive and intelligent woman who was thought to be a widow.
Helen's reluctance to socialise, and her work as an artist that enabled her to support herself, her son and her housekeeper Rachel, caused people to gossip about her. Her relationship to Mr Lawrence, the owner of Wildfell Hall, also caused much speculation. Gilbert was eager to defend her, as he had fallen in love with her, so Helen gave him pages of her diary to enable him to learn the truth.
Helen was actually a married woman who had left her husband, Arthur Huntingdon, in order to protect her son from his behaviour. Mr Huntingdon had had at least one affair with another woman, was often drunk, and had started giving his son alcohol and teaching him to swear. Helen had initially judged him by his looks and decided he was 'neither a fool nor a knave'. She knew that he was not always well-behaved, but believed that she could reform him when they were married. However, nothing she could do was enough to change his ways2.
Mr Huntingdon's friends also set bad examples to his son. Mr Hattersley was cruel and violent towards his wife Millicent Hargrave. Millicent's brother seemed somewhat better, as he did not drink to excess, but he tried to tempt Helen into having an affair with him. Lord Lowborough (possibly based on Branwell) tried to give up gambling and alcohol, but his 'friends' kept tempting him to indulge so that they could laugh at his drunken behaviour. Even mild-mannered Gilbert had a violent streak - before he learned that Mr Lawrence was Helen's brother, he knocked him off his horse in a jealous moment - but he made amends later.
The book caused controversy over its depiction of an unhappy marriage, adultery, and a woman taking matters into her own hands to protect her son. However, the book also contains illustrations of happy marriages. For example, a vicar's daughter who seems destined to become a spinster waits for her shy beau to finish studying theology at Cambridge and secure a job as a curate, and even Gilbert's wayward brother Fergus gladly settles down to farming life when he falls in love, so in the end everyone is living 'happily ever after'.
Anne defended her writing in response to criticism that her writing had been too 'coarse':
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.
- Acton Bell's Preface to the second edition, 1848
Even Charlotte could not understand Anne's desire to describe such situations with such realism. In 1850, Charlotte wrote of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that, 'The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer's nature could be conceived. [...] hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature.'
There are a number of potential sources for the character of Helen. The Brontë sisters were familiar with the life and work of the poet Lord Byron - his wife Annabella Milbanke (mother of Ada Lovelace) became a single mother when she realised she was unable to reform her husband. A Mrs Collins asked Anne's father for advice about her abusive curate husband - Mr Brontë encouraged her to leave and make a living for herself. Also Anne's aunt Jane Branwell married a curate but became a single parent after her husband had affairs with men and went to America to escape from scandal.
Anne also defended herself against criticism that her writing was 'utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls' and that it was subject matter unsuitable for a woman to write about:
All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.
- Acton Bell's Preface to the second edition, 1848