It’s Anne’s 200th birthday this year and to celebrate her and her life I wanted to look a little closer at her and how we view her.
The portrayal and our understanding of the Bronte Sisters has had many incarnations and has changed dramatically over the years. It’s always interesting to look at this, as it reveals other facets of their complex personalities, offering us another tantalising glimpse of who they really were.
The sisters have been variously portrayed as the scourge of decent society, the lonely gentle geniuses, victims of a hard, cruel and isolated environment. There are so many words that have been used to describe them and it’s all too easy to accept a one-dimensional view of them. They are long gone and as we view them through the lens of our current 21st century view-point we can easily mistake our contemporary impressions and influences that colour our view of them, for the actuality of their existence and who they were. This is especially true of Anne, we know relatively little of her and she’s often been portrayed as the quiet, weak sister.
She was born in Thornton West Yorkshire on 17th January 1820, the youngest of the Bronte children. Within a year the family had de-camped from Thornton to Haworth where Anne’s dad Patrick had been offered a parish to watch over and reasonable sized home for his growing family. Within a few months of arriving in Haworth, Maria Bronte; Anne’s mum had died, leaving Patrick to raise their six children alone.
Anne has often been described as gentle and sometimes referred to as weak, however, I really feel that she was so much more that this and her perceived weakness comes, in part, from her position as the youngest of the family. I also feel that looking at the events of her life and her writing she was really very strong and self-sufficient.
It’s documented that Anne was the only Bronte sibling that had no memory of their mother and so from the very start, that fact set her apart from the rest of her sisters and brother. When Patrick Bronte finally decided to send his daughters to school, it was decided the Anne was still too young to go, so she stayed at home, alone in a house full of adults.
Only to be re-joined by her two eldest sisters when they returned home from school to die of Consumption, which they did in rapid succession. One can only imagine how traumatic these events must have been for young Anne and how self-reliant she must have had to be, whilst all attention was focused on her two dying sisters. We know that Helen Burns in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was based on their eldest sister Maria and it is to be wondered if the Helen’s death scene described in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was a result of Anne’s description of their sister’s deaths. A few days later her next two sisters Charlotte and Emily returned home, as the school closed due to the outbrake of Consumption. Anne must have lived in fear that they too would die. They did not succumb to Consumption, during childhood, but these events must have given Anne nerves of steel and a very solid sense of self-reliance.
It is very clear from the writing of the Bronte Sisters that the idea of becoming a governess was a terrible nightmare to them, but it was Anne who went and found herself a position as a governess to the Ingams at Blake house. Her letters show that it was indeed a nightmare; she was homesick and felt out of place and it is understood that several episodes in Jane Eyre; where John Reed throws a book at Jane and when the Ingrams discuss how they mistreated their governesses came from Anne’s actual experiences as a governess that she related to Charlotte. Despite the horrors, and the loss of her post at Blake House, she endured and was determined to help support her family financially. She found another post at Thorpe Green Hall, staying for over 5 years – refusing to give up and return home.
She even managed to get a place for her brother Branwell, who had a very sketchy professional history. This was no mean feat for a lowly governess and she was clearly aware that bringing her brother into her place of work, was a risk, yet she bravely stepped up.
Anne’s worries regarding her brother’s behaviour were well founded, but she kept going, as a governess, through the subsequent scandal as Branwell & Mrs Robinson proceeded to have an affair. She was revolted by their behaviour and had to put up with the humiliation of household servants, locals and friends gossiping, and she did. She only left her position when the Mr Robinson dismissed her and Branwell, after he found out about the affair. Throughout, she had shown remarkable strength of purpose and resilience – it wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.
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Anne wrote her novel Agnes Grey, a largely autobiorgaphical account of the life of a governesss. She also wrote poems on the subject of love and loss which are ascribed to her (as believed unrequited) feeling for Willie Weightman, her father’s curate. Willie died of Cholera and her writing shows that Anne felt his loss deeply, but again her strength of character is evident as she kept to her purpose and plans regardless of suffering and how hard she found it.
In the following years Branwell met with further disappointments in his professional and love lives and he fell into alcoholism and Laudanum addiction. As his physical and mental health declined, Anne stoically nursed him, watching him waste away as he purged and ranted – not a task for the faint hearted.
After the loss of Branwell, Anne wrote her novel: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, It’s the story of Helen Graham, abused by her alcoholic husband, Arthur Huntingdon, she runs away. She meets Gilbert Markham and falls in love with him, but they are unable to marry. Anne’s depiction of Arthur’s decline was based on Branwell’s death. Anne’s story speaks clearly of the unfairness faced by abused wives, it is an unflinching depiction of alcoholism, she refused to romanticise what happened to her brother. Helen Graham is a clear-thinking, strong woman and Anne creates a narrative about the choices that the men in her story faced and how they handled them, which even today feels relevant – none of her sister’s Byronic heroes for Anne, just real men with real demons and choices.
Despite bravely facing more loss and heart-ache when Emily died shortly after, Anne also had great joy in her love of the seaside. Right until the very end of her short life, Anne retained her strength of character. As her health declined, Anne decided that she wanted to spend some of her little time left at the Yorkshire Coast. Charlotte and her farther both felt that Anne was too weak to travel and along with Ellen Nussey tried to pursued her that her plan was a bad one, but they failed. Anne, strong and independent as ever, carried her point and with Charlotte to help her, she travelled to her beloved Scarborough, where she died a few days later. Again showing her brave spirit, she remained unafraid of death to the end.
I feel that when we look at Anne, we have to accept that she was a multi-facetted, complex individual and far more so that then labels that have been applied to her would leads us to believe. She was gentle and quiet, but she was also clear-sighted, brave, persuasive, smart, resilient and really, really, strong.
It remains only to say that; Anne was an amazing woman and she left an incredidble legacy. The best way to honour her and her birthday is to read her wonderful writing, so let’s do just that!
Happy Birthday Anne!
Thanks & have a great day.