In Search of Anne Brontë: On Charlotte's birthday, revisiting the life of the sibling rival of the "Queen of Yorkshire"

By Nick Holland | 21 April 2016

In Search of Anne Brontë is the first biography of the youngest Brontë in over half a century. Author and historian Nick Holland reveals the sincere woman behind Action Bell – and her short life of both light and loss

A black and white drawing of the Brontë sisters
The Brontë Sisters (left to right: Anne, Emily and Charlotte), also known as the pillar portrait, by Branwell Brontë (circa 1835)© National Portrait Gallery, London
“Charlotte Brontë was born on the 21st of April 1816, and died during pregnancy on March 31st 1855. It may sound like a shockingly young exit to us, but in that time Charlotte outlived all five of her siblings, including her fellow literary greats Anne and Emily Brontë.

Tragedy arrived in triplicate for the Brontës, with the death of Charlotte's mother in 1821 being followed by the deaths of her eldest and beloved sisters Maria and Elizabeth in 1825. Just as tragically, Charlotte was to witness her brother Branwell and Emily and Anne die within an eight-month period in 1848 and 1849.

This had a major impact on Charlotte Brontë's life and character, and while it meant that she suffered from depression throughout her life, it also led to the works of genius such as 'Jane Eyre' that the world has come to know and love. While researching my biography of Anne Brontë I learned a lot about Charlotte as well, and the complex relationship between the two sisters is at the heart of my book.

Flossy, an unfinished portrait of a black and white dog by Anne Brontë
Flossy, an unfinished portrait by Anne Brontë© Courtesy Brontë Society
We generally have an image of the Brontë sisters as one harmonious unit, sharing poems and laughter around their dining room table. The truth, as I found, could be very different. For a start, Charlotte was jealous of Anne's looks.

Anne was described thus by their great friend Ellen Nussey: 'Her hair was a very pretty, light brown, and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, fine pencilled eyebrows, and clear, almost transparent complexion'. Charlotte, on the other hand, was very small, with a bad complexion, missing teeth, and severe short-sightedness that necessitated the use of little round spectacles.

Her publisher, George Smith, famously opined that 'she would have given all her genius and fame to be beautiful.' More surprisingly to a modern audience is that Charlotte may well have been jealous of Anne's writing too.

A photo of a black and white portrait showing Sunrise Over the Sea by Anne Brontë
Anne Brontë, Sunrise Over the Sea (1839)© Courtesy Brontë Society
The three sisters had worked together on a novel each that they hoped to have published together. The problem was that while the publisher Thomas Newby accepted Agnes Grey from Anne and 'Wuthering Heights' from Emily, Charlotte's 'The Professor' languished unloved and unpublished.

Charlotte Brontë was nothing if not determined, and so she soon rectified matters with her second novel 'Jane Eyre' which, in 1847, became an overnight sensation.

Anne Brontë's second novel, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, sold equally well at first, but it was almost consigned to the literary dustbin forever by one person – her sister Charlotte. After the untimely deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte was asked by her published to prepare their works for a new edition. Charlotte responded with: 'Wildfell Hall it hardly appears desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake.'

A photo of a black and white portrait by Anne Brontë showing a woman next to a tree
Anne Brontë, What you Please (1840)© Courtesy Brontë Society
Afraid to fall foul of their star writer, the novel was suppressed, and wouldn't see the light of day again until ten years after Anne's death, by which time it had been largely forgotten.

Thankfully, today it is being reclaimed as the masterpiece that it is, but just why did Charlotte Brontë prevent its republication? Was she jealous of its success, scandalised by its feminist doctrine, or horrified of its thinly veiled depiction of her alcoholic brother Branwell? The truth is that it was probably all three.

Charlotte and Anne Brontë were sisters like any other, full of sibling rivalry, and yet they did undoubtedly love each other. In another sense, they, with Emily, were sisters like no other, conjuring magic from their own imaginations. As we celebrate Charlotte Brontë's 200th birthday, let's watch the films and TV adaptations, read the amazing books, and toast Charlotte Brontë, the Queen of Yorkshire.”

In Search of Anne Brontë: An extract from the book

A photo of a collage by Amanda White and Dave Zdanowicz showing the Brontes
Brontë Moon - a collage by contemporary artist Amanda White© Amanda White
“Charlotte, having just turned nine, became the oldest child, and she changed from that moment. Despite being close to her brother and sisters in age, she herself acted like a mother as well as a sister, with all that entails.

Charlotte made decisions for them, always doing what she felt was best, however others may judge her actions, but the cost to her was too great. Anne would see how she suffered and understand why. Charlotte's wild flashes of temper, the dark moods that often overtook her, were the external symptoms of the grief that had been growing within her since she last the three people she loved most in such quick succession.

She had to sit through lessons, suffer chastisement and punishments, while nearby her sisters were perishing before her eyes.”


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A photo of Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire
Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire© Nick Holland
A photo of Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire
Brontë's Roe Head School© Dave Zdanowicz
More from Culture24's coverage of the Brontës

The Brontës, War and Waterloo shows the influence of the Napoleonic era on the literary family

"Very rare and extremely cool": X-rays to begin on thousands of 17th century letters which were never read
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This is not the first biography of Anne Brontë in over half a century; Edward Chitham's Life of Anne Brontë was published in 1990 and Elizabeth Langland's short monograph on Anne Brontë's life and work was published in 1989.
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