English novelist Anne Bronte was born on this day in 1820. The youngest of the famous Bronte sisters, she remains the most unsung, though not due to any lack of talent. While gentle and unassuming in real life, her most successful novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall rocked Victorian society with its bold presentation of domestic abuse, substance addiction, and female independence.
Anne and her siblings—Charlotte, Bramwell, and Emily—were all artistically minded from childhood, devouring books and creating fictional worlds. While Bramwell would sadly squander his gifts as a painter due to a turbulent personal life, Anne and her sisters published poetry and novels under male pen names.
Charlotte's most famous novel Jane Eyre and Emily's only novel Wuthering Heights have long been considered classics and are still often adapted into other mediums today. Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, have comparatively been obscure despite selling well on initial publication, though they’ve garnered much more attention in recent decades. Anne’s novels lack the gothic tone and romanticism of her sisters’ most celebrated works. She preferred a more realistic and down-to-earth atmosphere in her books. However, like her sisters, Anne’s characters are vivid and her heroines strong-willed. Both of her novels are also suffused with strong social criticism.
Agnes Grey is a semi-autobiographical work. Like Anne, the titular heroine is the daughter of a clergyman who works as a governess for the unruly children of wealthy employers. Governesses occupied a precarious social standing, being considered neither servants nor the equals of their employers regardless of what class they originated from, and Agnes Grey showcases the awkwardness such women experienced. Published in a three-volume set with her sister Emily’s more dramatic and structurally complex Wuthering Heights, the comparatively calm Agnes Grey was overshadowed on initial release, but its pointed satire of class snobbery and religious hypocrisy make it a gem.
The word “calm” cannot be applied to Anne’s follow-up novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Its heroine Helen Graham was a truly radical character for Victorian readers. She not only stands up to her alcoholic and philandering husband, she also leaves him to start a new life as a painter with their young son in tow—an act which was technically illegal in Victorian England since women had so few rights within their marriages. The two anxiously live in hiding from Helen’s husband, a feat that grows difficult as the locals of her new town pry into Helen’s mysterious background. For some readers, Helen’s character and the unsparing depiction of substance abuse were too shocking to be stomached. While the novel sold well, Charlotte Bronte prevented its republication after Anne’s death, seeing it as an artistic misjudgment. Subsequent readers have disagreed with this assessment, applauding Anne for her brutal honesty and realism. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall would be rediscovered in the twentieth century and continues to astonish readers with its emotional power into the 21st.
Unfortunately, Anne would die of tuberculosis the year after The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published. She was only 29 years old. Regardless, her legacy shines brightly and fewer readers perceive her as the “lesser” Bronte.
Anne Bronte was the youngest of the three Bronte sisters, a trio of writers who shook up the Victorian literary scene with their novels. While Anne's work is less gothic than that of her sisters Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre) and Emily (author of Wuthering Heights), her novels are powerful in their sense of realism.