Saturday, May 28, 2011

Heroine of the Weekend

Our heroine for this last weekend of May is the youngest Bronte sister, Anne, who died on May 28, 1849! Though she is usually overshadowed by her older sisters Charlotte and Emily, her own work is now gaining in appreciation and she's being seen as a literary talent in her own right...

Anne was born, the youngest child of Patrick Bronte (a poor, Irish-born clergyman) and his wife Maria Branwell (daughter of a prosperous Penzance merchant family) on January 17, 1820 in the Yorkshire village of Thornton. Soon after her father took a post at Haworth Parsonage and moved the family to the house that would be their home for the rest of their lives. Her mother died in September 1821, leaving the children to the care of their father and her sister Elizabeth, who moved in to keep house for the family and never left (it was said she didn't get along with the other childern, but Anne was her "pet" of sorts).

The 4 elder daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Emily, were sent to the Cowan Bridge School for Clergymen's Daughters in 1824, which proved to be a terrible decision. It was an abusive, unhealthy place, and Maria and Elizabeth died there of TB while Charlotte and Emily were brought home. Anne spent her childhood being taught at home. The siblings were all voracious readers and blessed with vivid imaginations, and they filled their time writing tales of the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal. Gondal was Emily and Anne's special preserve--they were so close that Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey said they were "like twins."

Anne was sent to Roe Head school where Charlotte was a teacher when she was 15, her first time away from home (she went to replace Emily, who always broke down when she was sent away from Haworth). She stayed there for two years, a very diligent student who was commended for her good conduct. But Charlotte grew concerned about Anne's health and had her sent home. In 1839, her health recovered, she took a job as governess at Blake Hall, which was not a great success. The children were unruly and spoiled, and Anne came home after less than a year (she later used this as inspiration for her book Agnes Grey). Afetr her return home she may or may not have fallen in love with her father's new curate William Weightman (who may or may not have noticed her in return). He died in 1842 ending any hint of romance in her life.

Anne then took a position as governess at Thorp Green to the 4 children of the wealthy Robinson family (3 daughters and a son). She had the same problem with unruly charges, but gradually became close to the children (two of the daughters still wrote to her after she left the house, and even visited her in 1848). One of the perks of the job was going on holiday with the family to Scarborough, which Anne loved. She also managed to procure a job for her brother Branwell there, as tutor to the son, but he embarked on a scandalous affair with Mrs. Robinson and was sent home in disgrace, where he sank into alcoholism and illness. Anne herself left Thorp Green in June 1845.

That summer all the Bronte siblings were together again, and the sisters came up with a plan to publish a collection of their poetry, which they paid for themselves. It was not a success, but "Fraser's Magazine" published two of Anne's poems, and a new plan was hatched to write novels (under the more masculine names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell). Charlotte wrote The Professor, Emily Wuthering Heights, and Anne Agnes Grey. Charlotte's book was rejected, but Emily's and Anne's were accepted. It proved to be Charlotte who was published first though--her second novel, Jane Eyre, came out to great success and Emily and Anne's publisher (who had been dragging their feet) finally released their books as well, which sold well. (Agnes Grey was rather overshadowed by the scandal of Wuthering Heights!)

Anne's second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, came out in June 1848 to a scandal of its own, in its honest depiction of alcoholism and sexual depravity, and a heroine who left her husband. It was very shocking (though successeful!) and Anne wrote this in defense of her book:

"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."

The Bronte family seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, but 1848 was a year of tragedy. Branwell died on September 24, and Emily followed on December 19. By February 1849 Anne herself was very ill. She traveled with Charlotte to Scarborough, in hopes that the sea air and the nearness of doctors would help her, but she died on May 28, a "calm and quiet" death. She was buried at St. Mary's church there at Scarborough.

Some sources on her life:
Juliet Barker, The Brontes
Edward Chitham, A Life of Anne Bronte
Rebecca Fraser, The Brontes

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