Anne Brontë’s Guide To Being A Mother

Mother’s Day has arrived here in the UK, allowing us all to pay tribute to the woman who shaped our lives forever. The Brontë children had little chance to know their mother Maria, who died in 1821 when the oldest sibling was seven and the youngest just one. Charlotte Brontë was later presented with a selection of her mother’s letters, which led her to say:

‘It was strange now to peruse, for the first time, the records of a mind whence my own sprang; and most strange, and at once sad and sweet, to find that mind of a truly fine, pure, and elevated order… There is a rectitude, a refinement, a constancy, a modesty, a sense, a gentleness about them indescribable. I wish she had lived, and that I had known her.’

Maria Bronte
Maria Branwell. later Bronte, drawn in 1799

Anne Brontë, the youngest of the family, would have no recollection of the mother who died when she was a one year old infant, although her Aunt Branwell became a mother figure to her. Nevertheless, Anne had strong opinions on what a mother should be and do, as we can see from references in her great novels ‘Agnes Grey‘ and ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall‘.

A Mother Must Be Affectionate To Her Children

‘In my childhood I could not imagine a more afflictive punishment than for my mother to refuse to kiss me at night: the very idea was terrible.’ (AG)

A Mother Should Be Loved By Her Child

‘“Even at his age, he ought not to be always tied to his mother’s apron string; he should learn to be ashamed of it.”

“Mrs. Markham, I beg you will not say such things in his presence, at least. I trust my son will never be ashamed to love his mother!” said Mrs. Graham, with a serious energy that startled the company.’ (TTOWH)

Helen and Arthur in 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall'
Helen and Arthur in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’

A Mother Should Tell Stories To Amuse Her Children

‘Sometimes our mother would amuse us with stories and anecdotes of her younger days, which, while they entertained us amazingly, frequently awoke – in me, at least – a secret wish to see a little more of the world.’ (AG)

A Mother Should Be Financially Astute

‘In vain my mother assured him she was quite satisfied; and if he would but lay by a little for the children, we should all have plenty; both for time present and to come: but saving was not my father’s forte. He would not run into debt (at least my mother took good care he should not).’ (AG)

A Mother’s First Duty Is To Do Good For Her Child

‘“By what I have done for you, you may judge of what I will do – if it be not incompatible with the higher duty I owe my son (higher, because he never forfeited his claims, and because I hope to do more good to him than I can ever do for you)”’ (TTOWH)

A Mother Should Not Spoil Her Child

‘I must beware of my own weakness too, for I never knew till now how strong are a parent’s temptations to spoil an only child.’ (TTOWH)

A Mother’s Love Is All A Child Needs

‘But this should not continue; my child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far than he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence with such a father.’ (TTOWH)

A Mother Should Risk Everything For Her Child

‘But I trust these trials are now over: I have laid him in my bed for better security, and never more, I trust, shall his innocent lips be defiled by their contaminating kisses, or his young ears be polluted by their words. But shall we escape in safety? Oh, that the morning were come, and we were on our way at last!’ (TTOWH)

Helen, the eponymous tenant of Wildfell Hall, is to us a perfect mother – she risks everything, and is prepared to withstand scorn, poverty and scandal to protect the one thing she loves more than anything in the world – her son Arthur. Anne did not have far to look for an example of a woman like that – for she had one in her very own family, a woman who escaped her husband’s clutches and started a new life as a single mother with her daughter. That’s a tale for another day and another post!

A Victorian 'Mother's Day' card
A Victorian ‘Mother’s Day’ card

As we can see from her writings, Anne Brontë would have been a loving and affectionate mother, and she also had practical experience of raising children thanks to her governess roles. It’s the most important job of them all, so to mothers everywhere, I wish you a very happy and healthy Mothering Sunday!

Anne Brontë, Suffrage & International Women’s Day 2018

8th March 2018 is a very special International Women’s Day, when we remember the contribution that women have made throughout history, as well as the continuing fight for the equality they deserve. What makes this particular day so special here in Great Britain is that this year marks the centenary of the first votes being awarded to women, although universal suffrage was still some years away. Nearly a hundred years after the Brontës were born, working class women of the West Riding of Yorkshire, like Annie Kenney, were at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement, something the sisters in Haworth would surely have been proud of.

Annie Kenney
Annie Kenney was imprisoned alongside Christabel Pankhurst in 1905.

The move to equality is still under way, but as the revelations over unfair gender gaps in pay at the BBC and other institutions, and the ‘Me Too’ movement shows, there’s still a long road to travel. Women have made, and continue to make, incredible contributions to modern life. Few women have contributed more to the world of literature than the Brontë sisters, and yet they wrote under male pseudonyms. Let’s take a look why.

The names of Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Brontë are now globally famous, but at the time they were all writing together, they remained unknown. The sisters had chosen to adopt seemingly male pseudonyms, with Charlotte choosing Currer Bell, Emily choosing Ellis Bell, and Anne choosing Acton Bell. As Charlotte herself was to explain, in her ‘Biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’ of 1850, the prejudices against women in Britain at this time meant that only men could be taken seriously as writers:

“We veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; we did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are likely to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”

Charlotte Brontë herself had encountered this prejudice. From her late teenage years onwards she sent some of her early poems to famous writers of the day, little expecting a reply. One who did reply was the poet laureate Robert Southey, and his answer is illuminating of the attitudes of the time. He wrote:
“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it.”

Despite the pen names, there was to be some speculation over the identity of the Bells, with some critics suggesting that they may, scandalously, be a woman or women. Anne Brontë, under her guise as Acton, addressed this in her courageous and defiant preface to the second edition of ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’:

“Little can it matter whether the writer is a man, or a woman as one or two of my critics profess to have discovered. I make no effort to refute it, because, in my own mind, I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.”

This enlightened attitude, and refusal to be bound by convention, is typical of Anne Brontë, and is borne out by ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ itself. The book was seen as shocking in its time, not just because of the frank depictions of alcoholism and cruelty, but because the heroine, Helen, is a free thinking woman who considers herself the equal of any man. She leaves her husband, and takes on a new identity unencumbered by society’s expectation that she should be married and subjugated to a man.

May Sinclair
May Sinclair pictured in 1898

Anne Brontë has been seen as one of the first proto-feminist writers, and in 1913 the writer and suffragist May Sinclair wrote that the noise of Helen slamming the bedroom door in Arthur’s face had reverberated throughout Victorian England. At the end of the twentieth century, Anne’s feminist credentials were again examined, this time by Elizabeth Langland in her brilliant book ‘Anne Brontë: The Other One.’ In it she declaims that: ‘Thematic innovations place her in the forefront of feminist thought in the nineteenth century even as her formal and technical innovations demand that we look again at her contribution to the English novel.’

Today is a day when we celebrate everyday women and women of genius and Anne Brontë, more so even than her sisters, is a fitting icon for International Women’s Day 2018.

Anne Brontë In York, Yorkshire’s Eternal City

There are many places associated with Anne Brontë and her sisters: Haworth, of course, where they lived the majority of their lives and which is now a place of literary pilgrimage; Thornton near Bradford, where the last three Brontë sisters, and their brother Branwell, were born; Scarborough, the coastal resort where Anne Brontë lies buried; Mirfield, where Charlotte, Emily and Anne went to school, and where Anne gained her first job as governess; Penzance, home of the Branwells, and of the Brontës’ mother and aunt. There is another location that is particularly worth visiting: the capital city of the Brontës’ home county, York.

York is a beautiful and historic city, full of Roman walls and Viking artefacts, not to mention more museums than you can shake a stick at. Today it draws tourists from across the world, and streets like the higgledy-piggledy Shambles are thronged with camera snapping folk, but in the 1840s those same cobbled streets were often walked by the feet of Anne Brontë.

The Shambles, York
The Shambles, York

In May 1840 Anne took her second governess position, to the Robinson family who owned the grand Thorp Green Hall at Little Ouseburn. The Robinson family were very different to the Inghams of Mirfield near Huddersfield who Anne had originally worked for, and they are represented in ‘Agnes Grey’ as the Murrays. Anne, despite bouts of homesickness and some may say love sickness in her early days there when William Weightman was in Haworth, by and large enjoyed her time at Thorp Green Hall. It came to an acrimonious end of course, as did so much in Anne’s life.

Recent research shows the original hall was demolished by its then owner in the early 20th century, rather than being destroyed by a fire as is commonly thought, and only a building known as ‘The Monk’s Lodge’ now remains of what once stood. This lodge was for a time home to Branwell Brontë after his sister had found a position there for him that was to prove less than propitious. It was Branwell’s behaviour with mistress of the house Lydia Robinson that led to Anne quitting the post she had held for over five years, reporting later that ‘during my stay I have had some very unpleasant and undreamt-of experiences of human nature.’

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall, where Anne was governess

Little Ouseburn itself is around a dozen miles from York itself, and Anne would occasionally travel there in company with her charges the Robinson girls. She fell in love with it’s even then ancient and haphazard architecture, and she would also enjoy visiting the shops where she sometimes spent her spare money on sheet music that she delighted in playing upon the piano, whether at Thorp Green or on her returns to Haworth.

There was one York building in particular that she was drawn to as if by some magnetic force: York Minster. Home to the Archbishop of York, in Anne’s time the aristocratic octogenarian Edward Venables-Vernon-Harcourt, it was first built in the 11th century, and expanded upon greatly in the centuries that followed.

The huge, imposing York Minster
The huge, imposing York Minster

York Minster remains an awe inspiring building today, one of the largest cathedrals in Europe and with beautiful façades whichever side you approach it from. The interior is even more breathtaking, with its intricate bosses and ornate carvings, and spectacular stained glass windows. It would always be a building that Anne Brontë cherished above all others, and she saw fit to name it as one of the two highlights in her diary paper of 1841:

‘Four years ago I was at school, since then I have been a governess at Blake hall, left it, come to Thorp Green and seen the sea and York minster.’

By May 1849 Anne was dying of tuberculosis, and about to embark on her final voyage to Scarborough, the coastal town she loved so much and where she lies now. This also gave her one last chance to see York, and she, Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey arrived there on May 24th. They stayed at the George Hotel on Coney Street, across the River Ouse from the railway station. The hotel is now gone, but in its place is a mobile phone repair shop, and the original archway and bay window of the hotel can still be seen.

In York, at Anne’s insistence, they did some shopping to buy the clothes they would need for Scarborough, and Charlotte noted down the acquisition of items including bonnets and ‘ribbon for neck’.

There was one place above all that Anne wanted to see one last time; York Minster was drawing her back again. By that time too weak to walk any distance, Charlotte and Anne pushed her there in a bath chair they’d hired. Seated in a back pew Anne gazed up silently and lovingly at the magnificent surroundings. She whispered one half finished sentence: ‘If finite power can do this, what is the…’, before Charlotte wheeled her back to the hotel, worried that this rush of emotions might finish her sister off forever. It was clear what Anne was thinking – if weak man’s powers can create something so magnificent, how magnificent will be the creation of God that I am soon to see?

This was indeed Anne’s last visit to York, but the city today, despite the ever present throng of tourists, retains much of its old world charm. It is a timeless city, effortlessly beautiful. A city walked by Romans, vikings, later the birthplace of infamous Guy Fawkes, and now our generation walks its streets in awe and wonder. As we do say, we may imagine we see the shade of a bonnet wearing women walking ahead of us; small and diminutive, she is yet a literary giant to those who know and love her.