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Five reasons why Anne should be your favourite Brontë


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So we all know about Charlotte Brontë: small, ambitious, Jane Eyre and Villette. And we all know about Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights, shy, a bit weird really.

The Pillar Portrait - CC free

But what do we know about Anne Brontë? You might very well be wracking your brain for some fact, some little snippet of information about this, the youngest of the Brontë family who died 169 years ago today.

That Anne is easily forgotten is perhaps due to several reasons. Her books rarely appear on school curriculums, whilst her siblings’ works are ubiquitous to the point of tedium. She doesn’t have the mythical stories of tortured unrequited love like Charlotte, or the association with the wild Yorkshire Moors like Emily. Even her brother Branwell, despite his own publishing failings, has immortalised himself in tales of drink, debauchery and the famous ‘Pillar Portrait’.

In contrast, Anne is the quiet one, the peaceful one, the one who, basically, just got on with things. There isn’t much romance in that.

But Anne’s time as the forgotten Brontë needs to come to an end. In academic circles, more interest has been shown in the third sister in recent years, as her novels Agnes Grey and particularly The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have been added to the syllabus, and her own life has been explored. For the lay-person, however, she’s still in the shadows.

Here’s precisely why she shouldn’t be.

1. The literature
It’s only right we should start with thinking about Anne’s work, specifically how her style deviated from that of her sisters. We think Brontë, we think Gothic, right? Well, Anne was a bit different. Anne liked to show how things were, really, in the world she knew. Emily’s debut (and only) novel plunged into tortured romances, revenge and some frankly rather disturbing acts of necrophilia. In contrast, Agnes Grey, published alongside Wuthering Heights in 1847, was heavily based upon Anne’s own experiences. It’s one of the frankest revelations of what life was like for women forced to live with other families in the strange position of governess, and is told unflinchingly. What it lacks in drama, it makes up for in reality, and the love interest, Mr Weston, is probably the most palatable Brontë hero of all.

2. Her life
All of the Brontës were forced to go out to work, and in the nineteenth century, few avenues were open for women. The Brontë sisters all tried teaching of one sort or another, but where Emily found life away from home to be impossible, and Charlotte’s ventures abroad ended in heartache, Anne just kept going. She lasted 8 months at Blake Hall in 1839, but her next employment, at Thorp Green, went on for five years. She grew fond of the Robinson girls she cared for, maintaining lifelong friendships with them.

Anne really was a worker and a trier: she even secured her brother a position as tutor to the Robinsons’ son – a favour he repaid by entering into an affair with the lady of the house. It is thought that Anne was so ashamed of her brother that, when he was dismissed, she felt she had to resign too, returning home and giving up a job she was both good at and seemed to enjoy.

3. Her love
Mr Rochester. Heathcliff. M. Paul. We can name lots of fictional Brontë heroes, but not many from their actual lives. Yet Anne is thought to have harboured her own secret passions, not for the troubled men of her sisters’ stories, but for someone much like her own creation, Mr Weston. William Weightman, her father’s curate, was adored by the family, and some of Anne’s poetry suggests that she may have been his biggest fan of all. Kind, caring, generous, he’s a clear prototype for the character she writes for Agnes in her first novel.

Like so many Brontë stories, though, it ends badly: Weightman died of cholera in 1842, giving Anne a tragic backstory of her own, however apocryphal.

4. Her death
People love a death scene, with great final words and noble final deeds: just look at Shakespeare, because the man knew what he was doing. And so did the Brontës, from Bertha leaping from the battlements in Jane Eyre to Cathy’s deranged ramblings in Wuthering Heights. Their own lives, too, read like an obituary column, with their mother and two eldest sisters dead before Anne had even turned six. Then, in a fateful six months from September 1848 to February 1849, Branwell, Emily and Anne herself all followed their relatives into the grave. As ever with this family, stories of all kinds surround their demise, from Branwell supposedly dying standing up to Emily’s final reluctant ‘If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now’, two months into a battle with tuberculosis and hours before she finally died.

Anne, typically, was much less dramatic than her siblings. Upon realising she too probably had tuberculosis, she was willing to try any remedies. When away from home in a last-ditch attempt to cure herself with the sea air at Scarborough, a doctor agreed that she was near death. Rather than thinking of herself, Anne urged Charlotte to ‘take courage’. She died in Scarborough and is buried there, the only member of the family not to be buried at Haworth. Even in death, Anne stands out.

5. But seriously, the literature
After her death, Anne’s works were reissued, although Charlotte had serious concerns over The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, calling it ‘a mistake’ which she didn’t want associated with her beloved sister. History has proven that this was a mistake of Charlotte’s own. First published in 1848, Anne’s second and final novel has been called the first feminist novel, dealing as it does with a woman who leaves her drunken husband to save herself and her child. Reading this doesn’t feel like reading a nineteenth century novel, but something much more modern, exploring addiction and women’s rights in a way which pre-dates much of our current understanding.

The contemporary critics, however, were scandalised, and Anne felt compelled to address them in a foreword to the second edition. Her intent in writing the novel seems to have been to present characters ‘as they really are than as they would wish to appear’, a course of action she believed would save real people from making the same mistakes as drunken Arthur Huntingdon and his naïve wife Helen. Far from being a novel designed simply to entertain, Anne went further than her sisters’ veiled feminism to address real social issues, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall remains inspirational even now.

So, the next time you hear people discussing the Brontës, talking of ambitious Charlotte and weird Emily, spare a thought for Anne, the quiet sister who started a revolution.

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