The Sheffield University archives contain a series of diaries from a woman whose grandson became a Professor there, and who then gifted them to the institution. The entry from exactly a hundred and ninety eight years ago today reads as follows: ‘Ann [sic] Brontë born – the other children spent the day here.’
The writer of the diary was Elizabeth Firth of Kipping House in Thornton, near Bradford, and on that cold January day, her home was filled with the five children of the local minister: Maria Brontë, Elizabeth Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Patrick Branwell Brontë and the little Emily Jane Brontë, then just a year and a half old. Just a few hundred metres away, a climb up to the centre of the moorside village of Thornton, a rather different scenario was being played out as Maria Brontë, once Maria Branwell of Penzance, was giving birth to her sixth and final child. This child of course is much loved by me and many others, for in adult life under the guise of Acton Bell she would give us the masterpieces ‘Agnes Grey’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall‘.
Looking out of my window I see that snow is now covering the ground of South Yorkshire, and I know that the hills and moors around Thornton and Haworth in West Yorkshire are buried under an even thicker white blanket. This is appropriate as records show that it was also snowing on the day that Anne was born 198 years ago. As was the customary in those days, it’s likely that a local midwife would have helped with the birth and it would have taken place in front of the large fireplace that still forms the centre point of the building today – now the excellent Emily’s bistro!
The other Brontës, as we have seen, were under the eagle eye of Elizabeth Firth, then only 22 herself. She is a central figure in Anne’s story as she was chosen to be Anne’s godmother, along with her school friend Fanny Outhwaite. These kind hearted women never forgot their goddaughter. Just 29 years later, on 14th February 1849, Fanny Outhwaite died, and left Anne the considerable sum of £200 in her will. It was from this money that Anne, by then herself dying, paid for her final journey to Scarborough in the company of Charlotte and their kind, loyal friend Ellen Nussey.
Elizabeth could have had an even more pivotal role to play in the Brontë story, as just months after the death of Maria Brontë senior in 1822, Patrick proposed marriage to the young woman of Kipping Hall. Elizabeth was horrified at the timing of this and considered the match entirely unsuitable. She later married Reverend James Franks, and eventually she and Patrick rekindled their former friendship.
If we could travel back to the January day in 1820 and take a look at the baby Anne at Thornton Parsonage or the Brontë children at Kipping House just what would we see? We would see children just like any others, for when we look upon any infant in its cradle who can say what they will turn out to be or do? Baby Anne would grow up to be a very special woman indeed, one whose achievements are only now starting to be recognised. Wherever you are, stop to raise a glass of something cold or warm and say ‘Happy 198th birthday, Anne Brontë!’