7/02/2008

Woman of the week - Anne Brontë

Name: Anne Brontë
Born: January 17 1820, Thornton, Yorkshire, England
Dead: May 28 1849, Scarborough, England
Married to: None
Children: None
Occupation: Governess and writer

"Anne, dear gentle Anne was quite different in appearance from the others, and she was her aunt's favourite. Her hair was a very pretty light brown, and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, fine pencilled eyebrows and a clear almost transparent complexion. She still pursued her studies and especially her sewing, under the surveillance of her aunt." - A friend of the family about the 13 years old Anne.

"...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, a kind of constant appeal which invited sympathy." - Her publisher, remembering her many years after her death.

Anne Brontë is the less famous sister of Charlotte and Emily, and a writer in her own right. She was the youngest of the three sisters, and the youngest of the six siblings in the family (that had five girls and one boy - Branwell). The mother died just a year later and the father remained unmarried for the rest of his life. A maternal aunt moved in with the family and took care of the house-hold. Anne shared a room with her and seems to have been the one of the siblings that was closest to her.

The father, the reverend Patrick Brontë, sent the four oldest girl to a boarding school where the two oldest died of consumption. Charlotte and Emily was immediately brought home and they and Anne were educated at home in the following years. At home they learnt both how to run a household and music and drawing, but also about literature and read a lot in their father's quite extensive library. The four remaining Brontë-children all had vivid imagination and built up a fantasy-world that they wrote stories about, first the kingdom of Angria and in 1831 Anne and Emily began their own, Gondal. By now the two sisters were growing closer, and it was even more marked when Charlotte left them for a new boarding-school, Roe Head School.

That school would see the other two sisters later on too - Emily for just a few months in 1835 before homesickness made her literally ill and she had to be sent home and then Anne. The family could afford the school since Charlotte worked there as a teacher and her pay mostly went to the sister's tuition fee. Anne stayed on for two years, making few friends but working hard - she had to get the education needed to go out and work after school. She left the school in December in 1837 when she became seriously ill with gastritis.

In 1839 she got her first teaching position, with the Ingham family at Blake Hall. This was a very trying experience for Anne and she was fired from her position after a year. She would later relate her experiences in her book Agnes Grey. But already in 1840 she got a new position, with the Robinsons at Thorp Green (also to appear in the aforementioned book). At first that position did not suit her either, but she had few options and was determined to do the best of the situation. In the end her staying with the family was quite a success, her employers liked her a great deal and the girls she was in charged of would be her friends for the rest of her life - despite later events. Anne stayed 5 years with the family and went home only a couple of times a year. She also accompanied them around on their travels in England and among other places she went with them to Scarborough, a place she fell in love with. There was talk about the Brontë-sister starting their own school at Thornton, but the plans never led to anything.

In 1843 their brother Branwell took the position as the teacher of the Robinsons's only son. But the arrangement did not work out very well with Branwell entering into an affair with the lady of the house. Anne resigned her position in June 1845 and though she never gave a reason for this it is generally believed it was due to her finding out about her brother's affair. Branwell would subsequently be dismissed under less elegant forms when Mr. Robinson found out about the affair. But Anne remained in good grace with the family despite everything.

In 1845 all three sisters were at home and without employment and they decided to publish a book of poems, under male pen names (Anne's being Acton Bell and the sisters' Currer and Ellis) with their own money, using an inheritance from their aunt who had passed away in 1842. The book sold close to nothing, but Anne managed to sell a few other poems to a few magazines. She also started writing her first book, Agnes Grey, which relied heavily on her experiences as a governess. It was sent to a publisher with Emily's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte's The Professor. The Professor got rejected but the other two got a deal. But it would take a long time for the publisher to get them to print and Jane Eyre was by then published and the success of that book made the other two finally appear in print, in 1847. All the book sold really well.

Anne's second book was The Tennant of Wildfell Hall, published in 1848, which was an immediate success and sold out in 6 weeks. A second edition appeared soon after, with a preface of the author who met with the criticism of writing about an abusive husband, drinking and other forms of lewd behaviour - and a woman who had to break both convention and the law to protect both herself and her son (one of the critics being Charlotte).

"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."

But the end for three of the four Brontë siblings was approaching. In September 1848 Branwell died, from drinking and possibly tuberculosis. In December 1848 Emily also died, from tuberculosis after an ill-treated cold she got at her brother's funeral. Anne was never a very strong person and the loss of her beloved sister really broke her down. She was diagnosed with consumption and though she did everything she could she grew worse. She and Charlotte traveled to Scarborough with the hope of that improving her health. It did not and instead she died there in May 1849. She was buried there.

And her books had a hard time surviving too, though neither lacked talent they were very unlike those of her sisters which they were always compared with. Charlotte also saw to it that The tenant of Wildfell Hall was not reprinted during her lifetime - she really disliked that book, probably much due to the suspicion of the male antagonist being based on her beloved brother Branwell. It is not until modern times that she has been once again begun to be seen as a writer in her own right - not just interesting as a sister of the other two - and more socially radical than either.

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