The Novels of Anne Bronte


To me, the Bronte sisters’ novels epitomize mid-19th century English literature.

You’ve not read any of their works? Intimidated by the length of most 19th century English novels, their flowery language, and the unfamiliar social settings? Well, I used to feel that way, but I’ve changed. Part of my resistance to 19th century English lit. was the fact that some truly worthless 19th century novels are taught in literature classes, each surrounded by a cloud of scholarly effulgence. Not good.

But there are some good books and interesting writers. Among the more interesting writers are the Bronte sisters. We’ve all heard of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but I find the works of Anne (the quiet little sister) to be equally intriguing. For example, Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte is a short, quiet, but nicely written, novel about a governess in Victorian England.

An easy, no-cost, way to try it is to go on-line and download a chapter (I recommend chapter 18 as a taster.) It’s free since all the Bronte books are now public-domain. This site also has the novels and poetry of Emily and Charlotte Bronte.

But before doing that, I recommend you get some background on the Brontes by watching the video “To Walk Invisible”, a 2016 PBS bio-pic, which is not free, but is fascinating.

Anne, when she was growing up, was babied by the family, so determines to go out into life and make her own way. At age 19 she takes a job as governess (one of the few occupations open to women.) She finds the reality of being a governess a nightmare. Isolated from neighbors, looked down on by the servants, tyrannized by her employer (an incompetent mother of three hostile and mean-spirited children) Anne grits her teeth and works literally day and night, seven days a week to try to teach the children something, anything. Despite her efforts, at the end of nine months she is fired.

But Anne is persistent She takes another governess position and this one proves to be better than her first. Anne continues to work for the Robinson family in York for three years. In 1842 while Anne was 22 and away from home, at York, the only man she had ever felt affection for, William Weightman, assistant curate to her father back home at Haworth, dies of cholera. Although Anne and William had never made overt movements toward becoming romantically involved, Anne knew he was the right man for her. It was heart wrenching, but perhaps also therapeutic, for her to write the happy ending she had dreamed of with William, and now would never have, into her book Agnes Grey.

In June 1845 Anne resigns from her second governess position ashamed of her brother Branwell’s flagrant affair with his employer’s wife.

Back home, Charlotte decides the three sisters will publish a book of poetry. They do so (at their own expense) but the book does not find an audience. Anne and Charlotte’s poetry is competent, though not great, but Emily’s poetry is exceptionally good. Emily’s poetry is back in print today, and well worth your time to read.

Next Charlotte decides the sisters will publish novels. (Does Charlotte sound like a bossy big sister or not?)

Anne completes her novel Agnes Grey, which along with a novel each by Emily and Charlotte, is submitted to publishers in 1847. Charlotte’s contribution to the three novel manuscript is rejected, but Emily’s and Anne’s novels are accepted. Charlotte is not overly concerned by this since she is just finishing her second novel, Jane Eyre, which she submits immediately as a stand-alone novel.

Jane Eyre is accepted, published, and instantly becomes a best-seller, overshadowing Emily and Anne’s books.

Anne, now 27 years old, and facing the fact that she will likely never marry and never have children (both of which she badly wanted) begins work on her second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The novel is sometimes considered the first true feminist novel since it portrays the dissolute life of men (acceptable, even lauded, by Victorian society) and the slave-like situations of their wives. It is based on her observations of the well-to-do families she worked for as a governess.

Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is published in 1848 and quickly becomes very popular, scandalizing some (including Charlotte, who hated the book.) The book goes into a second printing in July 1848.

I recently made a Powerpoint presentation about both the novels of Anne Bronte which you can download here.

But tragedy is closing in around the Bronte family. In September of 1848 Branwell dies of alcoholism, and in December 1848, Emily dies of tuberculosis. Five months later, in May 1849, Anne Bronte also dies of tuberculosis.

She was 29 years old.

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