Happy Birthday Anne Bronte 17 January 1820 – 28 May 1849
A sketch of Anne Bronte by her sister Charlotte Bronte, 1845
Anne Bronte was born the youngest member of the Bronte family on 17 January 1820 in Yorkshire, England in the village of Thornton, Bradford. Her father was the parish priest there. Though, in April 1820, the Bronte family moved seven miles away to a remote small town of Haworth. It was in the Haworth Parsonage where the Bronte family remained for the rest of their lives. It was Anne, Charlotte and Emily who would later make their parsonage infamous amongst generations throughout the world.
Anne was barely a year old when her mother, Maria Branwell, contracted what is now known as uterine cancer. She died 21 months later on 15 September 1821. When their father Patrick’s marriage attempt was unsuccessful, Maria’s sister, Elizabeth Branwell moved into the parsonage where she spent the rest of her life raising the Bronte children. Anne Bronte was educated at home where she studied mainly music and drawing. However, it would be the moors of Haworth that would be the inspiration for the Bronte children.
Between 1838/9 Anne Bronte was eighteen and nineteen years old. Teaching or being a governess in a private family were the few options available to educated women. So, in April 1839 governess Anne Bronte went to live with the Ingham family at Blake Hall near Mirfield. Apparently, the Ingham children disobeyed and tormented their governess. Anne had great difficulty attempting to keep them in line and trying to teach them their lessons. The Ingham’s criticized Anne for not disciplining them enough. Dissatisfied with her performance they let her go. When Anne returned home to Haworth she wrote Agnes Grey and the events at Blake Hall were written in perfect detail!
Anne Bronte continued working as a teacher and governess during this time through 1848. Her novel Agnes Grey was published in December 1847 and one year later her second novel, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ was published. It was sold out within six weeks and became a phenomenal success.
‘The Tenant of Wildefell Hall’ challenged existing social and legal structures. Anne’s heroine eventually leaves her husband to protect their young son. She supports herself and her son by painting, while living in hiding, fearful of discovery. This violates not only social conventions but also English law. A married woman in Victorian England had no independent legal existence separate from her husband. She could not own property, sue for divorce or maintain custody of her children. If she tried any of these things, her husband had the right to reclaim her. Even if she was able to live off her own earnings, she could be accused of stealing her husband’s property, since any income she made was legally his.
‘The Tenant of Wildefell Hall’ is perhaps the most shocking of the Brontes’ novels. Anne Bronte’s depiction of alcoholism and debauchery was disturbing to the social mores of nineteenth century readers and Victorian England. Heaven forbid a female writer dares to present the truth in literature!
In the second edition of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, which appeared in August 1848, Anne clearly stated her intentions in writing it. Saying to critics who considered her portrayal of Huntingdon overly graphic and disturbing:
When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts–this whispering 'Peace, peace', when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.
Anne also criticized reviewers who speculated on the sex of the authors, and the appropriateness of their writing to their sex, in words that do little to reinforce the stereotype of Anne as being meek and gentle.
I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. 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.
Anne Bronte lost two siblings, her brother Branwell and her sister Emily, in 1848. The Bronte siblings were in their twenties during this time. Greatly affected by their deaths’ and her grief Anne’s health quickly deteriorated. She caught influenza. In January 1849 she was diagnosed with consumption but wrote one final poem about the realization of being terminally ill. She wrote, ‘A dreadful darkness closes in’.
On Sunday, 27 May 1849, Anne asked Charlotte whether it would be easier for her if she return home to die instead of remaining at Scarborough. A doctor, consulted the next day, indicated that death was already close. Anne received the news quietly. She expressed her love and concern for Ellen and Charlotte, and seeing Charlotte's distress, whispered to her to "take courage". Conscious and calm, Anne died at about two o'clock in the afternoon, Monday, 28 May 1849. Anne Bronte was twenty nine years old.
Over the following few days, Charlotte made the decision to "lay the flower where it had fallen". Anne was buried not in Haworth with the rest of her family, but in Scarborough.
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