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by Bamber Gascoigne

Anne Brontė (1820-1849) - pseudonym Acton Bell


English writer, sister of Charlotte Brontė and Emily Brontė. Anne Brontė is best-known of her Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of the Wildfell Hall (1848), which are generally considered more conservative works than her sisters. The close-knit Bronte family have inspired many studies, in which Charlotte, the oldest child, is characterized as the most ambitious writer, and Emily the greatest genius. Anne has been described mild and the less-talented youngest sister although, but her novels were sharp and ironic.

'If you loved as I do,' she earnestly replied, 'you would not have so nearly lost me  these scruples of false delicacy and pride would never thus have troubled you  you would have seen that the greatest wordly distinctions and discrepancies of rank, birth, and fortune are as dust in the balance compared with the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathizing heart and souls.' (from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall)

Anne Brontė was born in Thornton, Yorkshire. She was the youngest of six children of Patrick and Maria Brontė, and educated largely at home. After the death of her mother in 1821, and two other children, Maria (d. 1825) and Elizabeth (d. 1825), Anne was left with her sisters and brother to the care of their father. Other members of the family were Elizabeth Branwell, a Calvinist aunt, and the family servant, Tabitha Aycroyd, who knew many folk-tales. The girls most effective education was at the Haworth parsonage, in which Mr. Brontė settled the year before his wife's death. They read the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Scott, and many others, and examined articles from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Fraser's Magazine, and The Edinburgh Review.

In the upstairs of the parsonage, a small house, was two bedrooms and a third room, scarcely bigger than a closet, in which the sisters played their games. The front door opened almost directly on to the churcyard. In Haworth, life expectancy was much lower than in surrounding.

Inspired by a box of 12 wooden soldiers, the children wove tales and legends associated with remote Africa. With these tales the children broke the monotonous daily routines, like they later poured their joys and disappointment in their novels. Emily and Anne created their own Gondal saga, and Charlotte and Branwell recorded their stories in minute notebooks.

In 1839 Anne worked for a short period as a governess to the Inghams at Blake Hall and later in same position to the Robinsons at Thorpe Green Hall near York from 1840 to 1845. Her brother Branwell joined her there as a tutor to Edmund, the only boy in the family, in 1843. He fell unfortunately in love for Mrs Robinson – or some other reason annoyed their employers – and Anne had to leave the work. Thorpe Green appeared later as Horton Lodge in her novel Agnes Grey. This sacking was a heavy blow to Anne's ambitions. She had enjoyed her life outside Haworth and she had a good reason to feel disappointend and bitter. Branwell drank himself into physical decline and died suddenly in September 1848 – in the same year also appeared Anne's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which one of the central characters, Arthur Huntingdon, is an alcoholic.

In 1846 Anne Brontė published with her sisters a collection of poems, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. In 'The Captive Dove,' using the pseudonym 'Acton Bell,' she expressing her longing for freedom: "Poor restless dove, I pity thee; / And when I hear thy plaintive moan, / I mourn for thy captivity, / And in thy woes forget mine own." Her first novel, Agnes Grey, a story about the life of a governess, came out in 1847. It was based on Anne's recollections of her experience with the children of the Ingham family and the Robinson family. In the story Agnes Grey is employed by the Murray family. When Agnes hears from home that her father is dangerously ill, she asks permission to go on vacation from Mrs. Murray. One can her in words Anne's own bitterness: "Mrs Murray stared, and wondered at the unwonted energy and boldness with which I urged the request, and thought there was no occasion to hurry; but finally gave me leave: starting, however, that there was "no need to be in such agitation about the matter – it might prove a false alarm after all; and if not– why, it was only in the common course of nature: we must all die some time; and I was not to suppose myself the only afflicted person in the world..." At the end of her story, after series of humiliations, Agnes becomes the wife of Edward Weston, a curate, and states soberly and optimistically in her diary: "We have had trials, and we know that we must have them again; but we shall bear them well together..."

The novel did not gain similar success as Emily's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte's Jane Eyre. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was published in 1848 in three volumes and sold well. One critic considered it "utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls," which of course only arose more interest in the work. In the story the young and beautiful Helen Graham has taken a refuge at Wildfell Hall from her irresponsible, drinking husband Huntingdon. He believes that his brains are composed of more solid materials than is normal and thus they will "absorb a considerable quantity of this alcoholic vapour without the production of any sensible result". Wildfell Hall is the property of Helen's brother, a mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark grey stone, cold and gloomy. Gilbert Markham, a local farmer and the first narrator, falls in love with her. In her diary Helen offers another point of view in the story and reveals the disintegration of her marriage and adopted disguise as Mrs Graham. When Helen's husband dies, the way is clear for Gilbert to marry her.

The frank depiction of Huntingdon's alcoholism and Helen's struggle to free herself was considered by some critics inappropriate subjects for a woman. Also Charlotte, in her 'Preface' to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, wrote of Anne's second novel: "The choice of subject in  that work is a mistake." In her revised edition of Wuthering Heights  she softened  the servant Joseph's dialect to make it easier to understand. She also suppressed the republication of The Tenant of the Wildfell Hall.

Anne Brontė fell ill with tuberculosis after the appearance of her novel. To become well again, she tried quack remedies, including Godbold's Vegetagle Balsam, which was advertised for the cure of consumptions, asthmas, scrofula, coughs, and colds.  She died on May 28, 1849, in Scarborough, where she was buried in St Mary's churchyard.  "Take courage, Charlotte, take courage" were her last words. The official cause of her death was given as "consumption – six months" – at that time tuberculosis was also known as phthisis and consumption.

Her final resting place was away from her home, the other sisters were buried at Haworth. On the headstone of Anne's grave the age shown is incorrect – she wasn't 28 when she died but 29. Five of the six Brontė children died of of tuberculosis. 

For further reading: The Brontė's Web of Childhood by Fannie Ratchford (1941); Anne Brontė: A Biography by W. Gérin (1959); Their Proper Sphere by Inga-Stina Ewbank (1966); The Brontės and Their Background by Tom Winnifrith (1973); Myths of Power by Terry Eagleton (1975); The Poems of Anne Brontė by E Chitham (1979); Anne Bronte: A New Critical Assessment by P.J.M. Scott (1983); Brontės of Haworth by Brian Wilks (1986); Anne Bronte: The Other One by Elisabeth Langland (1989); The Brontės by Juliet Barker (1994); The Brontes by Juliet Barker (1995); Anne Brontė by Maria H. Frawley (1996); The Brontė Myth by Lucasta Miller (2001); The Strange World of the Brontės by Marie Campbell (2001); Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler (2011); A Companion to the Brontës, edited by Diane Long Hoeveler and Deborah Denenholz Morse (2016); In Search of Anne Brontë by Nick Holland (2016) - Museums and places to visit: Brontė Society and Brontė Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Keighley; Brontė Way; a forty mile walk in four section to sites associated with the Brontės; Oakwell Hall County Park, Nutter Lane, Birstall; the house features as "Fieldhead" in Charlotte's Shirley; The Red House Museum, Oxford Rd, Gomersal, Cleckheaton ; the house appears as "Briarmains in Charlotte's Shirley; Wuthering Heights Walk, a six mile walk to Top Withins, the setting for Wuthering Heights. Patrick Branwell Brontė (1817-1848). Collaborated with Charlotte in creating the imaginary world of Angria. After failing as a painter and writer he took to drink and opium, worked then as a tutor and assistant clerk to a railway company. In 1842 he was dismissed and joined Anne at Thorp Green Hall as a tutor. His affair with his employer's wife ended disastrously. Patrick Brontė returned to Haworth in 1845, where he rapidly declined and died three years later.

Selected works:

  • Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, 1846
  • Agnes Grey, 1847
    - Agnes kotiopettajatar (suom. Kaarina Ruohtula, 1971)
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848
    - Wildfell Hallin asukas (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1971)
    - films: TV series 1968-69, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), starring Janet Munro, Bryan Marshall and William Gaunt; TV mini-series 1996, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), WGBH, dir. by Mike Barker, starring: Tara Fitzgerald, Rupert Graves, Toby Stephens, Cathy Murphy
  • The Complete Poems of Anne Brontė, 1920 (edited by Clement Shorter, introduction by Charles W. Hatfield)

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