Anne Other Bronte

Anne Other Brontë

A desired destination for international literary lovers, the West Yorkshire village of Haworth was home to one of the world’s most lauded writing families. On the 200th anniversary of sister Anne’s birth, Samira Ahmed visits a corner of the county that sparked much creativity and shares her thoughts on the inspirational and youngest Brontë.

Iam sitting in the Brontë Parsonage Museum archives with a small painting of Anne Brontë aged 16, drawn by her sister Charlotte. Anne is wearing a string of simple glowing amber beads, which had belonged to their mother; who had died when Anne was not even a year old. Thanks to the museum’s Lauren Livesey, I also have the real beads in front of me. She has dug out a selection of objects connected to “my favourite Brontë sister”.

I am still trying to process the impact of this young motherless woman with her brown curls and her few cherished possessions, on my life and on the long campaign for women’s rights. I didn’t visit the Parsonage or the landscape that Anne Brontë roamed till long after she’d captured my imagination. Her two novels are the works of a whistle-blower confronting the truth of Victorian womanhood. Agnes Grey recounts in documentary detail the grim reality of her own experience as a poor governess to wild children in a dysfunctional family.

Anne’s masterpiece The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a revolutionary novel recounting the degradations of a woman trying to escape with her young son from a marriage to a violent alcoholic. “Things that formerly shocked and disgusted me, now seem only natural,” her heroine Helen writes in her diary mourning her entrapment. It may have drawn some of its detail from observing the wretched decline of her brother Branwell, but the novel was campaign literature for all women. It challenged the right of men to own their wives entirely. Anne’s writing astounded me. It seemed to speak across the centuries.

For decades her reputation was damaged and overshadowed by Charlotte’s negative assessment of her work and character. But in the 20th century, Anne with her clear eyed passion for justice and equality was reclaimed by feminists and scholars. She seemed to be a modern woman in not modern times.

Winning a place at Oxford in 1986, I chose to study the new Women’s Studies option as part of my English Literature degree. Alongside reading the exciting new African American prose emerging from the likes of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Property and Possession: The Politics of Marriage in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, looking at connections with the eventual 1870 Married Women’s Property Act that finally granted women some rights – 22 years later.

After graduating I finally visited Haworth for the first time with my sister, herself then a schoolteacher in York. And most recently I’ve brought my own daughter to this breathtaking landscape on the spectacular moors for her to experience the ancient wild beauty that inspired the sisters.

In Haworth Parsonage (became the Brontë Parsonage Museum in 1928) I am mesmerised by the tiny dim parlour where the girls walked round the dining table sharing their stories of their elaborately imagined early fantasy worlds. In the archive I smile seeing Anne’s drawing of one of the strong Amazonian women of her imaginary island creation Gondal; standing tall and confident on the rocky seashore, looking out to the horizon and a world of adventure.

I look at the sketch portrait of William Weightman, the handsome young curate, who looks rather like the actor Toby Stephens, about whom Anne clearly had strong feelings. Did he know? His death from typhoid inspired in the natural poet Anne some of her most grief-stricken verse.

What moves me most about visiting Haworth, is the dramatic view from almost every room. In the Brontë home, so many overlook the church graveyard. In winter it is full of crows and the trees are towering and bare, but in summer the garden is in colourful bloom and the neighbouring moorland alive with a different wildness and magnificent open skies.

When I first visited Scarborough in my early twenties, it was summer. After the long drive through the heather covered moors, looking down from the cliff top by the blue plaque to her name where Wood’s Lodgings once stood, I saw Anne’s love of this spa town, the romantic view from the cliffs, the castle ruins, the excitement of the social scene, and the gorgeous curve of the sandy bay. And it is that sunny optimism that haunts me most about Anne. She loved life. She fought her illness. When she returned here it was in hope of a sea cure, yet it became her final resting place.

Back in the Parsonage archive Lauren hands me the black edged “cross” letter Anne wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey on mourning paper (it was just months after Branwell and Emily’s deaths), and just weeks before she herself was to die at just 29. The exquisite penmanship intersects as she turned the paper 90 degrees to maximise the number of lines, to save paper and postage.

“I have no horror of death,” she wrote. “If I thought it inevitable I think I could quietly resign myself to the prospect ... But I wish it would please God to spare me not only for Papa’s and Charlotte’s sakes but because I long to do some good in the world before I leave it. I have many schemes in my head for future practise, humble and limited indeed, but still I should not like them all to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose.”

It is a letter Lauren, warns me, that usually provokes tears. She is right. But there is a real joy in knowing Anne Bronte’s reputation has never been greater and continues to grow as more and more readers discover her work and ideas. I like to imagine her as that proud Amazonian, on the distant shore of Gondal looking out at us, and seeing us waving back.