This is a short post to wish Anne Brontë, the youngest member of our beloved Brontë family, a very happy birthday. Anne was born in Thornton, Yorkshire to Patrick and Maria Brontë on the 17th January 1820. It’s strange to think that the baby of the family would have been the ripe old age of 199 today. Anne is best known for her two novels, Agnes Grey, which documents the trials of the eponymous governess, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, an outstanding and unflinching look at alcoholism, violence, masculinity, and feminism in the 19th century. In fact, I believe Tenant to be the most powerful work produced by any of the Brontë siblings (yes, even more than Emily’s Wuthering Heights) due to its firm grounding in reality.
Anne was considered to be somewhat meek and mild due to her pleasant nature, as is documented in her correspondence and the testimonies of those who knew her, however, she was capable of producing extraordinary literature. Even in Agnes Grey, Anne’s stance on issues such as feminism and animal rights shine through what is a much tamer text by comparison to Tenant. But Tenant really is her masterpiece, and yet it still does not appear on the same lists of classics to be read that texts like Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights do. Perhaps it is too powerful, even for a 21st century audience.
In addition to her two novels, Anne also wrote some remarkable poetry that has seeped into a modern philosophy adopted by even those who are not familiar with her work. Many are familiar with the phrase, “But he that dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose” but are unaware that it comes from Anne’s poem, “The Narrow Way”. I think these lines are quite telling, and revealing of Anne’s true character, her steely nature, and inner strength. They are lines that could only have been produced by Anne.
Prior to the publication of her poetry and the success of her novels, Anne had a long literary apprenticeship during her childhood, initially collaborating with her older siblings Branwell, Charlotte, and Emily in their games, plays, and stories set in the world that would eventually become Glass Town. Fed up of their characters and plots taking second place to those of Branwell and Charlotte, Anne and Emily formed their own fantasy world of Gondal in 1831. Unfortunately, very little of the Gondal saga survives today. There are no extant prose pieces, although some of the sisters’ poetry remains in addition to a handful of vague references to Gondal and incomplete character lists in Anne and Emily’s diary papers. The surviving fragments tell us that Gondal is an island in the North Pacific, and its capital is called Regina. There are four parts to Gondal (Angora, Alcona, Exina, Gondal), and unlike Charlotte and Branwell’s Glass Town, it is reminiscent of the Yorkshire the Brontës knew and loved. Filled with beautiful, complicated, and incredibly powerful women rather than the type of lusty male libertines battling for control over their land and women in Glass Town and Angria, Gondal is a fascinating and mysterious setting and the place Anne first voiced her radical and feminist views.
Anne’s story had a tragic end, however, and she died aged just 29, robbing the world of a literary great and an extraordinary woman. She was buried where she died in Scarborough, and despite being laid to rest away from the rest of her family (who rest in Haworth), the many visitors who make the pilgrimage to her grave every year means that Anne will never be lonely or forgotten. Anne rests peacefully the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church, beneath Scarborough Castle and overlooking the sea. It’s a beautiful spot, chosen by Charlotte, and I think Anne wold have appreciated her choice.
Happy birthday, Anne Brontë.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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