Anne Brontë’s Bicentennial
January 17, 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of poet and novelist Anne Brontë. Anne, the youngest child in the Brontë family, was particularly close to her sister Emily, who was two years older. Anne was too young to attend the Cowan Bridge school where the eldest Brontë girls died (immortalized as Lowood School in sister Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre). She was largely educated at home alongside Emily by their aunt and later by Charlotte, Anne’s senior by four years.
Emily and Anne’s imaginary kingdom of Gondal, invented when the sisters were in their early teens, became an important creative force for both girls. Though none of the tales survive, many of Emily and Anne’s poems were written as part of their Gondal saga and Emily’s Wuthering Heights seems to have origins in the Gondal stories. Charlotte angered Emily by discovering her private poetry notebook in the autumn of 1845. To keep the peace, Anne revealed her own poems and helped Charlotte persuade Emily to publish a selection of all three sisters’ verse. The sisters chose masculine-sounding pseudonyms – Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell – to deflect gender-based criticism. Though they only sold two copies, favorable reviews fed the Brontës’ ambitions to become authors.
Anne, like Charlotte, earned a living as a governess; the difficulties she encountered inspired her first novel, Agnes Grey (1847). Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) shocked and enthralled Victorian audiences with its portrayal of a woman fleeing an abusive marriage. Both novels proved popular in spite of (or perhaps because of) criticism of their coarse realism, but Anne was not able to enjoy her success. She succumbed to tuberculosis in May 1849, only a few months after Emily’s death from the same disease. After her death Charlotte suppressed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in an attempt to protect her sister’s reputation, and over time, Anne’s work was compared unfavorably to that of her sisters. Today, both novels are regarded as major works of art for their expression of women’s independence and integrity, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is seen as a major feminist literary text.