Read an Excerpt
From Fred Schwarzbach’s Introduction to Agnes Grey
It is impossible for any of us to approach the Brontës without calling up the Brontë myth. We are all familiar with its outlines. The isolated family house on the edge of a bleak Yorkshire moor. The four young children, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, their mother and elder sisters all dead, now in the care of a stern Calvinist aunt. The Reverend Patrick Brontë, a failed writer himself, reclusive, brooding, and subject to periods of dark rage. Then, through the agency of a present of toy soldiers, the children begin writing sagas in which the soldiers come to life. All four are gifted, though Branwell drinks himself to an early death, while the three young women precociously develop writing careers—Emily dying young of the family curse of tuberculosis, and Charlotte living longer, only to die shortly after her marriage. Anne, the youngest, is also the quietest and least talented; modest, religious, and industrious, she too dies of TB at an early age.
The narrative, like any myth, partakes of some truths but embodies a great deal of fantasy—and a great deal of that linked to the famous Wyler-Olivier-Oberon film of Wuthering Heights (1939). To begin: The parsonage was at the edge of a large, bustling mill town; the aunt appears to have been loving and kind and an evangelical Methodist, a far cry from Calvinism; Patrick Brontë was actively engaged in the affairs of the parish and the community, and clearly much concerned with the education and welfare of his children; and so on. But the myth is probably most unfair in its relegation of Anne Brontë to a bit player in the family drama—in fact, she was, though the youngest, probably the most precocious of them all as a writer, producing two novels and a substantial body of poems by the time she died at twenty-nine.
Anne’s relegation to a minor role within the family happened not long after her death. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—the story of a wife who abandons her husband to live under an assumed name and who commits the even greater moral crime of falling in love with another man while her husband lives—was nothing short of scandalous in its subject matter. By contemporary standards, no young woman could write about immoral acts without either knowing of them firsthand or by being tainted by having imagined them—in either case, her reputation was tarnished beyond repair. After Anne died, Charlotte tried to defend her sister against charges of moral impropriety by controlling the public representation of Anne’s character (and, similarly, that of Emily, whose reputation suffered from her authorship of Wuthering Heights), and it was she who began constructing the image of a quiet, passive, deeply religious (and by implication not as talented) Anne. Deeply religious she was, but far from quiet and passive—and she was very talented.
A useful starting point will be the facts of her life, which shed some considerable light on her character and her interests. The circumstances of the family are somewhat exceptional: Anne’s father was very much a self-made man, even making of his humble Irish surname (Prunty or Brunty) the rather more impressive, aristocratic, and vaguely French-sounding Brontë. The son of a farmer, and at first a blacksmith’s assistant, he was by age seventeen a village schoolmaster, but in 1802 his prospects changed dramatically when he managed to secure a scholarship to St. Johns College, Cambridge, where he prepared for a clerical career. He rose through the ranks of the church, acquiring along the way, in 1812, a respectable and mature wife, Maria Branwell. By 1820 they were settled in Haworth, where Reverend Brontë was perpetual curate (that is, he held the office for life) of a large, populous parish. Anne, the sixth and last child, was born on January 17, 1820, three months before the move to Haworth.
Not long after, in 1821, Mrs. Brontë died. Her sister Elizabeth joined the family to superintend the children and the household. But further tragedy was in store, when the two eldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, returned from school ill in 1825 and soon died. (Charlotte and Emily had followed their sisters to the same school but now were brought home.) This may have been due to the arrival of what would, sadly, be their only lasting legacy to the family—tuberculosis, which many years later would carry off Emily and Anne, and possibly Branwell, too. One effect of this was Patrick’s determination that he would educate the remaining children at home, at least for the major part of their schooling; another effect was that the remaining children became extremely close emotionally, tied to each other, to their aunt, to their father, and to Haworth itself.
Still, though none of us can choose our parents, it was a great stroke of luck for any girl at this time to be the daughter of a clergyman. Young women of the lower ranks of the professional and middle classes rarely were allowed any education beyond music, drawing, and the smattering of general knowledge deemed sufficient to entertain prospective husbands by the distaff side of the hearth. But a clergyman’s daughter had access to both a learned father and his library, and the Brontë girls were luckier still in that Patrick seemed ready to teach them fully much as he did Branwell. Certainly it was also fortuitous that Patrick was an author himself, a writer not only (necessarily) of weekly sermons, but a published poet and essayist of some genuine local repute. They read widely in the standard works of English literature; they subscribed to leading periodicals; and they had access to a lending library an easy walk away in the next town, Keighley. Anne could not have known this at first, but she was receiving excellent training to be a governess, learning music, drawing, and even Latin along with more general studies in literature, history, and geography.