BORN: 1820, Thornton, England
DIED: 1849, Scarborough, England
GENRE: Poetry, fiction
Agnes Grey (1847)
The Tenant ofWildfell Hall (1848)
‘‘The Three Guides’’ (1848)
‘‘A dreadful darkness closes in’’ (1849)
Anne Bronte. Hulton Archive / Getty images
Anne Bronte was one of the famous Bronte sisters, all well-known writers of the mid-Victorian era in England. While Anne Brontee remains the least known of the Bronte sisters, often referred to as the ‘‘other one’’ even by scholars, at the time of her death at age twenty-nine in 1849 she was actually more accomplished than her sisters Charlotte and Emily. Brontee not only published a volume of poetry with her sisters, but also saw several of her poems and two novels published independently. Considering that neither Emily nor Charlotte were as productive by their twenty-ninth year, many critics speculate that the youngest of the Brontee sisters might have been a major literary figure had she lived into her thirties.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Anne Bronte was born in Thornton, in the English county of Yorkshire, on January 17, 1820. She was the sixth and youngest of Reverend Patrick and Maria Bran- well Bronte’s children, and spent most of her early life in the village of Haworth at her home at the parsonage. Her mother died in 1821, and Elizabeth, her ‘‘Aunt Bran- well’’, joined the family and served as the household supervisor until her death in 1842. Perhaps to lessen the strain on Aunt Branwell and to help educate his daughters, Patrick Brontee decided to send his daughters away to get an education.
Tragedy at Cowan Bridge. Anne was fortunate that as the youngest daughter she was unable to join her elder sisters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Emily at the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge, because it was there that an epidemic occurred in 1825 that took the lives of Maria and Elizabeth and forced Emily and Charlotte to return to Haworth. The harsh, cramped conditions at the school fostered the spread of tuberculosis, the disease that claimed Maria and Elizabeth and, ultimately, Anne herself, who likely contracted the disease from her sisters. Researchers estimate seven out of every ten people in England contracted tuberculosis in their lifetimes in the nineteenth century, before doctors understood how the disease was spread. Anne received some formal education between 1835 and 1837 at Margaret Wooler’s boarding school at Roe Head and later, when Wooler’s school was relocated, at Dewsbury Moor near Leeds.
Work as a Governess and Literary Productivity. Anne served as a governess between 1839 and 1845, but the work proved too much of a strain for her. After resigning her post in June 1845, she returned to Haworth, where she would remain with her family until her death a few years later.
Anne Bronte’s early years—both before and after her tenure as a governess—were extremely productive in a literary sense. Throughout her childhood, at least up until the time she left Haworth for Blake Hall, Brontee and her sister Emily collaborated on a series of imaginative adventures about the fictitious land known as Gondal. While none of their Gondal prose survives, much of the poetry from that period is still available. One of Bronte’s earliest poems, dated July 1, 1837, is a Gondal poem titled ‘‘Alexander and Xenobia.’’
Romantic Infatuations. Anne had a youthful enthusiasm for romance, evident in some of her poetry. This was apparently tested in 1839 when she developed an infatuation with her father’s curate, the Reverend William Weightman. While the exact nature of their relationship has long been a point of debate, it seems beyond conjecture that Weightman was never a serious suitor. Despite the fact that their relationship never amounted to much, many critics have noted that Weightman’s death in September 1842 may have affected Anne deeply. Two of her poems—‘‘To ________,’’ written in the December following his death, and ‘‘Severed and Gone,’’ written in 1847— ostensibly demonstrate Anne's mourning his loss.
Attempts at Success with Acton Bell. In May 1846 a book of poetry by the Bronte sisters appeared under their pseudonyms as Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Acton was Anne’s pen name. While the sisters considered publication of the book an accomplishment in itself, the collection, which was modestly priced and the beneficiary of several good reviews, had by June 1847 sold only two copies.
Yet even as sales of the collection failed to live up to expectations, the sisters turned to other literary endeavors. They each wrote a short novel and then searched for a publisher who would release Anne's Agnes Grey, Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte's The Professor as a three-volume set. After a series of rejections the quasi-reputable firm of Thomas Cautley Newby of London agreed to publish Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights together if the sisters agreed to contribute fifty pounds to offset expenses. Despite the tough conditions of the offer and Newby's refusal of Charlotte's novel, Anne and Emily agreed to the terms, and Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights were published in December 1847. While Agnes Grey was and still is overshadowed by its companion novel, it was nevertheless at the time warmly received. Agnes Grey, like Charlotte’s later novel Jane Eyre is the story of a governess, forced into her profession by financial necessity. Anne drew from her own experience as a governess in writing the novel.
Mixed Acclaim for Anne Bronte The reviews of Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, however, were in some cases far from kind. Unlike Charlotte, who essentially gave up writing poetry after the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847, Anne did not let her interest in novel writing end her career as a poet. It was about this time, in fact, that she accomplished what her more famous sisters did not: she had one of her poems published independently in a magazine. Anne’s poem ‘‘The Three Guides’’ was published in the August 1848 issue of Eraser’s Magazine. Unfortunately, just as she seemed to be reaching maturity as a poet, tragedy and illness befell her family. On September 24, 1848, a little more than a month after the publication of ‘‘The Three Guides,’’ Bronte’s brother Branwell died. By October 9 Emily’s health seemed in question as well. Refusing medical attention until her last day alive, she died of tuberculosis on December 19, 1848. Anne’s health, which had been delicate even before Emily’s death, began to fail rapidly. In January 1849 she wrote ‘‘A dreadful darkness closes in,’’ a poem that seems not only to address Emily’s recent death, but to anticipate her own. She did not long survive her beloved sister. Anne died of tuberculosis on May 28, 1850.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Bronte's famous contemporaries include:
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888): American novelist best known for her book Little Women, she was also a seamstress, servant, teacher, and Civil War nurse before becoming an author.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): American civil rights advocate and leader, she was instrumental in the securing of women's rights, including the 1919 right to vote.
William Booth (1829-1912): A British Methodist preacher, he founded the Salvation Army—originally a Christian coalition bearing no arms and now one of the largest humanitarian services in the world.
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895): French scientist famous for his breakthrough discoveries about the causes of disease. He is especially known for his work in the areas of germ theory and vaccine development.
Works in Literary Context
Two other British poets, Robert Burns and John Milton, are said to have influenced Anne Bronte’s writing. Further influence on her poetry was the loss of loved ones. Her mother Maria Branwell Bronte died of cancer, and her two older sisters Maria and Elizabeth died of tuberculosis. Much has been written on the impact these deaths had on Bronte.
Gothic Tendencies. Bronte’s early poetry demonstrates a tendency toward emotional extremes, morbid preoccupation, and the supernatural common to Gothic literature. Gothic literature can be considered part of the Romantic movement in literature and the arts, which spanned the first half of the nineteenth century. The Romantic movement that sought to break with the cold rationalism and focus on science prevalent in the eighteenth century and focus instead on nature, emotion, beauty, and personal experience. One of Brontes Gothic-type poems was ‘‘A Voice from the Dungeon,’’ written in October 1837 when Bronte was at Dewsbury Moor. This poem has a rather gruesome tone, as the narrator claims to ‘‘dream of fiends instead of men.’’ The narrator, in a trancelike state, is awakened by ‘‘one long piercing shriek. / Alas! Alas! That cursed scream,’’ which portends that she must ‘‘die alone.’’ Indeed, the eerie nature of the verse is more emblematic of Emily’s work than Anne’s, and for some time this was considered to be Emily’s poem despite the fact that Anne signed the manuscript. It is perhaps an indication of the extent to which Anne Bronte’s reputation as a poet has been reclaimed that she is now justly given credit for this poem that, like much of Emily’s work, is preoccupied with death.
‘‘A Voice from the Dungeon’’ is rather atypical of Bronte’s early poetry in some ways. But other poems written during this period have more consistent thematic connections. A Gondal poem titled ‘‘Alexander and Xenobia’’ contains stanzas depicting the reunion of two young lovers after a period of separation and demonstrates Bronte’s teenage infatuation for romantic poetry. The tone of the poem is cheerful and optimistic although that outlook became less common in Bronte’s poetry after she reached maturity and was beset by a variety of woes. ‘‘The Three Guides,’’ for example, displays a more mature point of view, combining elements of religiosity and underlying morbidity found in much of her early work.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who have also been interested in themes of love and death:
As I Lay Dying (1930), a novel by William Faulkner. This novel tells the story of the aftermath of the death of Addie Bundren from the point of view of several different characters.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In a kind of journalist-detective style, the author tells the story of a murder and the efforts to solve it.
Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595), a play by William Shakespeare. In this classic tale of star-crossed teenagers, love is short-lived and death is inevitable.
Sula (1974), a novel by Toni Morrison. In this contemporary novel themes and characters are presented in an evocative structure of opposites.
Works in Critical Context
Bronte’s reputation as a novelist and poet was for many years somewhat squashed by her sister Charlotte’s influence. Charlotte did not favor The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)—the story of an abused woman who deserts her alcoholic and adulterous libertine husband. Charlotte disliked the subject matter to such an extent that she perhaps tried to compensate for it by stressing her sister’s piety and quiet nature. These efforts to protect Bronte’s reputation succeeded perhaps too well: literary historians have tended to assume that Brontee lacked the fire and passion of her sisters, and that her success was almost entirely due to their fame. These efforts to protect her caused her to be seen somewhat as a writer of extremes.
“Self-Communion” (1848). Written after ‘‘The Three Guides,’’ between November 1847 and April 1848, ‘‘Self-Communion’’ is the longest poem Bronte wrote as an adult, and it is also one of her best works. This poem, which most critics agree explores her relationship with her sister Emily, transcends much of her earlier poetry. For pure lyric beauty, it ranks among the best poetry composed by the Bronte sisters. As in most of her poetry, the presence of God is emphasized. Were this poem representative of the majority of her work, Bronte might rank as one of the greatest of Victorian women poets.
Anne’s piety has often led critics to be dismissive about her work. Some critics have assumed from the prevalence of religious themes in her poetry that she was a bored country girl with little else to write about— although this assessment does belie the careful consideration with which Bronte pursued theological questions. Yet few critics have believed in her abilities as fervently as did George Moore, who claimed on the basis of her novels alone that had Bronte ‘‘lived ten years longer she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Using your library and the Internet, find out who were the most popular writers of the mid-nineteenth century in England. Search for actual newspaper articles and other period documents. What were the critics of the time saying about the popular writings? What subject matter and themes were important to readers of the period? Are the writers who were most popular then still read today, or do modern readers and scholars prefer different writers from the period?
2. Why do you think Anne Bronte has enjoyed less fame than her sisters?
3. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about tuberculosis in the nineteenth century. How widespread was the disease? How was it diagnosed? How was it treated? Write a paper summarizing your findings.
4. Anne Bronte worked for years as a governess. To find out more about the lives of real nineteenth- century governesses, read Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres (2008) by Ruth Brandon.
Chitham, Edward. The Poems of Anne Bronte: A New Text and Commentary. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1979.
Harrison, Ada, and Stanford, Derek. Anne Bronte: Her Life and Her Work. London: Methuen, 1959.
Moore, George. Conversations in Ebury Street. London: Heinemann, 1924, pp. 235-248.
Winnifrith, Tom. The Brontes and Their Background. London: Macmillan, 1973.
Bronte Newsletter, 9 (1990): 1-3, Timothy J. Holland, ‘‘The Image of Anne Bronte.’’
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Volume 39 (1999), Tess O’Toole, ‘‘Siblings and Suitors in the Narrative Architecture of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.’’
Studies in the Novel, Vol. 34 (2002), Maggie Berg, ‘‘Hapless Dependents: Women and Animals in Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey.”
Armitage, Michael. Anne Bronte, The Scarborough Connection. A Magical History Tour. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/anne/bronte.html.
Brontee Parsonage Museum and Brontee Society. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.bronte.info/.
The Gutenberg Project. Bronte, Anne, 1820-1849. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/b#a404.
Ockerbloom, Mary Mark, ed. A Celebration of Women Writers Anne Bronte (1820-1849). Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/bronte/bronte-anne.html.