Anne Bronte was the youngest of six children born to Maria Branwell and Patrick Bronte, on January 17th 1820 in the village of Thornton in Yorkshire. When Anne was a few months old, Patrick, a clergyman, was given the post of perpetual curate of the Church of Haworth a few miles away. The family moved into the parsonage in April. Less than a year later Maria fell ill, and her sister Elizabeth Branwell moved in to nurse her. Maria died in September 1821, quite possibly from uterine cancer. Anecdotal recollections by members of the Bronte circle have stated that Maria’s main concerns knowing her condition was terminal were for her children, The eldest, Maria being just seven years of age. Following her sister’s death, Elizabeth stayed on to help raise the children her position within the family as ‘Aunt Branwell’ being permanent.
In 1825, Maria and Elizabeth, the two oldest girls, died at their school, Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, a boarding school for the daughters of the poor clergy, a month apart, in May and June, quite probably of consumption. Charlotte was later to have said to base her character Helen in Jane Eyre on the experience of losing her sisters. As a result of their sisters’ deaths, Charlotte and Emily were brought home by their father. From that point, Patrick and Aunt Branwell taught the girls at home. It has been said that Patrick couldn’t bear to be separated from his daughters again.
Anne was according to family tradition, the quiet sweet one of the family, the favourite of their aunt. After their sisters deaths, the girls and Branwell had turned to each other and developed an insular relationship to the exclusion of external social interaction. As she grew older, particularly when Charlotte went to Roe Head School in Huddersfield, in 1831 to finish her education, Anne grew particularly close to Emily, so close that Charlotte’s lifelong friend, Ellen Nussey commented when she visited that the two were almost like twins, such was their closeness.
When Charlotte returned a few years later, she continued to teach her younger sisters, and in 1835 when she returned to Roe Head as a teacher, took Emily with her as a pupil. Emily was unable to settle and became physically sick. After a few months she returned home and Anne was sent in her place. Anne was 15 at this point, and although she did quite well at the school, even earning a good conduct medal, she made few friends, quite possibly as a result of her years spent within the company of her siblings. Although Charlotte and Anne don’t appear to have been particularly close during this period, Charlotte grew concerned enough about her sister’s health towards the end of 1836, and wrote to her father. Patrick brought Anne home.
Following her time at Roe Head, In 1839 Anne went to work as a Governess, first to the Ingham family in Mirfield, who had several unruly children. Anne struggled to maintain control of them and their education was unable to commence. Her employers seemed unwilling to assist Anne with discipline, but refused her permission to chastise them herself. After a few months, Anne’s employment was terminated, although exactly how, or by whom remains very much a contended subject. Her time with the Ingham’s was to provide Anne with a good basis for her characters in her later highly acclaimed novel Agnes Grey.
Shortly afterwards, In 1840, as a result of her time at Roe Head, and the Bronte relationship with Ellen Nussey, Anne was able to secure a similar position with the Robinson family, another clergyman, at Thorpe Green near York. Again in the beginning, the four children were a handful and difficult to control, despite their ages of 15, 13, 12 and 8, but Anne’s patience and steely determination eventually made a difference. Anne was to stay with the family for five years, and continued her relationship with two of the daughters in particular, until her death.
Only returning home for Easter and Christmas, Anne appeared to be very much a favoured employee, perhaps even a member of the Robinson family. As part of her employment terms, each year she holidayed with them for five weeks during the summer at the very elite Wood’s Lodgings on St Nicholas Cliff, now the plot is the site of the Grand Hotel. Her holidays in Scarborough also lent themselves to ‘Agnes Grey’. Anne still suffered dreadfully from home-sickness but despite this continued to return to the Robinsons. In 1842, Aunt Branwell passed away, leaving the girls with an inheritance of £350 each, around £30,000 in today’s terms.
In 1843, Anne arranged a position for her brother Branwell as young Edmund Robinson’s tutor, as he was considered of an age where Anne was no longer considered a viable teacher for him. Unfortunately it was following this engagement that Branwell began a secret relationship with Lydia Robinson, their employer’s wife. The relationship continued for around two years, at which point Anne realised she could no longer continue her position with the family. She resigned and shortly afterwards, Mr Robinson discovered the affair and Branwell was dismissed. He chose to stand by his wife. Branwell returned home in disgrace and soon turned to drinking heavily and using ever increasing amounts of Opium. He took up almost permanent residence in the Black Bull pub opposite the Parsonage, and his life slowly went downhill. The relationship with Lydia Robinson has often been blamed for Branwell’s decline and eventual death.
In 1846, Anne, Emily and Charlotte decided to put together a compilation of their poems and use their Aunt’s bequest to pay for its publication. Their venture, published under their assumed pen names of Currar, Acton and Ellis Bell proved a failure with only two copies being sold in the first year. They had chosen to assume masculine names on the basis of what amounted to a discriminatory attitude towards female authors at the time. Before the failure of their poetry was realised, Charlotte had already initiated further publications by sending one each of the girls manuscripts to their publisher, with a request that they were either published as a compilation in one volume, or three separate novels. The publisher declined the offer, on the grounds that they did not deal with fiction, but sent a list of recommended alternative publishing houses which may be interested. The manuscripts were Charlotte’s ‘The Professor’, Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Anne’s ‘Agnes Grey’.
Although initially rejected by a number of other publishers, (you may have later recognised them from the bruises where they were kicking themselves) Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights were eventually accepted by Thomas Newby of London. The Professor was rejected at every turn. Undeterred, Charlotte soon finished Jane Eyre, and sent this as an alternative. This novel was accepted immediately by Smith, Elder and Co of London, and was quickly in print and circulating. Jane Eyre was an instant success, prompting Newby to hasten their publication of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, which were also a huge success. Anne quickly followed up with ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’. 1848 saw the Bronte sisters become a literary success.
Sadly a few months later, in September 1848, tragedy hit the family once again, with the death of Branwell, aged just 31. His official cause of death was Chronic Bronchitis although Consumption (Tuberculosis) has since been thought to be a factor in his demise. Just a month later, Emily too was in the grip of consumption, and as a result of her ‘delicate constitution’ weakened quickly. Emily also refused to seek any medical assistance until it was too late. On the morning of 19th December, 1848, Emily finally asked for a doctor. When he arrived he quickly ascertained that there was nothing he could do. At two o clock that afternoon, Emily too passed away, aged 30.
But the trauma was not yet over. Anne had begun with a cold at this time, and over the next few weeks, battled to shake it. Her cough grew worse, and by the end of January it became obvious that she too had consumption. As more is known about the disease, it is now recognised as highly contagious. It is thought that both Emily and Anne caught the illness from their brother Branwell.
Anne, unlike Emily was willing to take all the medical advice and remedies she was offered and battled hard with the illness, having good periods and bad. By the beginning of May it was obvious she was weakening, however she wasn’t willing to give up so easily. Knowing the supposed benefits of the sea air, she consulted with her doctor and persuaded Charlotte that a trip to her old favourite Scarborough could provide her with enough healing air to promote a recovery.
Charlotte was unconvinced but after writing to Ellen Nussey, the two agreed to accompany Anne. Arrangements were made, and the three ladies set off, overnighting in York, where they took in the Minster, a favourite haunt of Anne’s and doing a little shopping before continuing to Scarborough where they checked into the Wood’s Lodgings on the Friday afternoon. Wheeling Anne around in a wheelchair, they took in some sights, and on the Saturday Anne convinced her sister to allow her to the indoor baths at the Spa. They later returned to find Anne driving a donkey cart on the sands. Anne sat on a bench and persuaded Charlotte and Ellen to walk on for a while. When they returned it was clear Anne was exhausted. They returned to their rooms, where Anne sat by the window watching a glorious sunset, then admitted to Charlotte that she believed it was too late for a cure of any sort, and that she perhaps might like to return home.
The next morning, 28th May, 1849, Ellen carried Anne downstairs and she managed a small bowl of warm milk for her breakfast, then took her to the lounge. A doctor was summoned. He examined Anne and concluded that her time was fast approaching. As Anne’s strength left her, she was carried to a sofa, where she uttered a small prayer and begged Charlotte to take courage, before passing away shortly after two o clock. Charlotte, in her grief, and knowing how devastated their father would be at having to officiate at another of his children’s funerals so soon, made the decision to have Anne buried quietly at St Mary’s church on the cliff overlooking the sea in Scarborough. Charlotte, Ellen and Anne’s former Roe Head school mistress, Miss Wooler, who happened to be visiting Scarborough, were the only mourners.
Charlotte later appears to have slated her sister’s work, calling it amateur and unrealistic, from someone with Anne’s background. Charlotte seems very much to have thought herself the superior novelist. However, it has often been argued that despite its raw quality, and quite revolutionary delivery, Agnes Grey is one of the masterpieces of literature of all time. Anne’s success at her age far out-shined that of her older sisters, however when more copies of each masterpiece were required, Charlotte blocked a second publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. A move which consigned Anne’s genius to the background in favour of Emily and Charlotte’s two greatest works, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Had the second print been approved, Anne would clearly have been the greatest of the three.