On January 17, 1820 the highly literary (and tragically short-lived) Bronte family added its youngest member: a daughter named Anne. Anne was born in the village of Thornton in Yorkshire, where her father was curate, but when she was a few months old the family moved to Haworth, where she was raised. Her mother died when Anne was only a year old, and Anne and her elder siblings—Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick, and Emily—were raised by their maternal aunt, Elizabeth Branwell.
Anne’s elder sisters were sent away to school, but after Maria and Elizabeth died of consumption, their father decided to educate all the children at home. The Bronte children formed a close-knit little group, playing out on the bleak moors that would later inspire Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights.
Anne spent some time at Roe Head school after Charlotte took a teaching position there. After graduating, she became a governess for the Ingham family’s rather hateful children. She was dismissed after less than a year and rejoined Charlotte, Emily, and her brother Branwell back at home. The awful conditions of her employment would later be recreated in her novel Agnes Grey.
In 1845, Anne, Emily and Charlotte secretly paid to have a collection of their poetry published. Although they got some favorable reviews, the volume was a failure: they only sold two copies the first year. Anne, however, struck out on her own and started finding a market for her own poetry in Fraser’s Magazine and the Leeds Intelligencer. She also started work on her first novel: Agnes Grey, which was eventually accepted by a publisher in London (along with Emily’s first novel, Wuthering Heights). Agnes Grey sold very well but was outshone by Wuthering Heights. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was published at the end of June 1848 and was an instant success, selling out within six weeks.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a very different sort of novel than the romantic tomes of Anne’s sisters. Its depiction of alcoholism, debauchery, and the plight of women was shocking to Victorian audiences (who nonetheless lapped it up). Some critics considered the depiction of the heroine’s husband as being too graphic. Anne refused to back down and pointed out, in a rebuttal published in the second edition, that it’s pointless to depict something terrible in an inoffensiv way.
Sadly, the Brontes would have little time to enjoy their success. Branwell died in September 1848, aged just 31. Emily went next, deteriorating rapidly and dying at the age of 30 on December 19. Her grief-stricken sister Anne came down with influenza over Christmas. She lingered until May 28, 1849, dying with her sister Charlotte by her side.
Although Anne was an excellent writer, her achievements have been largely overshadowed by her sisters’ works, in part due to Charlotte’s refusal to allow re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death. Charlotte disapproved of the novel, the subject of which she considered “too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.” Charlotte’s novels, along with Emily’s, continued to be published, making those two sisters far more famous than their younger sibling. Thankfully, despite Charlotte’s rather bitchy attempts to quash it, Wildfell Hall was eventually rediscovered and, now available in the public domain, can be republished by anyone who wants it.