Anne Brontë: The First Feminist Novelist?

In her classic novels, Anne Brontë fearlessly championed women’s issues, challenging not only Victorian social mores but English law and Church of England theology.

May 4, 2024By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

anne bronte first feminist novelist


In just two novels, Anne Brontë took on the plight of governesses and married women’s legal rights (or lack thereof), as well as putting forward her own theory of universal salvation, which, at the time, was considered blasphemous and highly controversial. Yet today, her fame has yet to reach the heights of her two older sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Here, we will look into why that is the case – and why it is an unfair reflection on Anne as a writer – by exploring her life, work, and values.


Early Life

anne bronte writer
Detail of Anne Brontë from Branwell Brontë’s 1835 Pillar Portrait. Source: IMDb


Anne Brontë was born on January 17, 1820 in Thornton, West Yorkshire, though in April of that year, the family moved to the parsonage at Haworth. She was the youngest child born to the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Brontë (née Branwell), who had already had four children by the time Anne was born: her eldest sisters Maria (born late 1813 or early 1814), Elizabeth (born 1815), and Charlotte (born 1816), as well as her brother, Branwell (born 1817), and another sister, Emily Jane (born 1818).


The children’s mother, however, developed uterine cancer. A year after their move to Haworth, her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, traveled from Cornwall to the parsonage to nurse her. She died later that year on September 15, 1821. Her sister, known to the children as Aunt Branwell, remained at the parsonage to care for them.


Between July and November 1824, all four of Anne’s sisters had been sent to board at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. Charlotte would later immortalize the school as Lowood in her 1847 novel Jane Eyre, and conditions at the school were as brutal as Charlotte depicted. In addition to (and, most likely, due to) the already poor conditions, in 1824-5, there was a typhoid epidemic at the school, which killed many pupils.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


It was not typhoid, however, but tuberculosis that Anne’s two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, caught. Maria was sent home to Haworth in February 1825 to recover but died on May 6. Three weeks later, Elizabeth returned to Haworth, also with tuberculosis, and died on June 15. Charlotte and Emily were then recalled home the day after Elizabeth returned to Haworth.


Creating Imaginary Worlds

bronte sisters walk invisible
To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Brontë Sisters, a 2016 BBC dramatization of the lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. Source: IMDb


With all four remaining siblings back at home, they were educated together at the parsonage. Anne therefore received little formal education, though her father’s evening oral lessons in history and religious teachings were far more advanced than the education typically afforded to middle-class girls of the period. They read writers such as John Milton, William Shakespeare, and Lord Byron from their father’s library. In 1829, the children also received art lessons from John Bradley.


On June 5, 1826, Patrick returned home from a clerical conference in Leeds with presents for each of his children: ninepins for Charlotte, a toy village for Emily, a dancing doll for Anne, and a box of toy soldiers for Branwell. It was the latter present, however, that most delighted all four siblings. The sisters each chose their own soldiers from the box and developed personas and stories about them.


Anne’s toy soldier went on to be known as Ross – after John Ross, the Arctic explorer – and Emily’s became Parry, after Sir William Edward Parry, John Ross’ companion-turned-nemesis and fellow explorer who led five expeditions to the North-West Passage. Emily thus made Parry King of Parry’s Land, which geographically resembled the wild moors of West Yorkshire and was one of the four islands that made up the siblings’ fictional Glass Town, the capital city of Angria.


Charlotte and Branwell, however, being the two oldest children, tended to dominate in the stories the siblings played out about Angria. Therefore, when Charlotte left Haworth to attend Roe Head School in January 1831, Emily and Anne created their own imaginary kingdom of Gondal. From childhood, Anne and Emily enjoyed an especially close bond. Ellen Nussey, a lifelong friend of Charlotte, described Emily and Anne as “inseparable companions.”


Going to School

bronte sisters dramatisation walk invisible
Photograph of Chloe Pirrie (who played Emily), Charlie Murphy (who played Anne), and Finn Atkins (who played Charlotte) in the 2016 BBC dramatization of the lives of the Brontës, To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Brontë Sisters. Source: IMDb


Charlotte remained at Roe Head until June 1832, later returning as a teacher and taking Emily with her as a pupil on July 2, 1835. Margaret Wooler, who ran the school, offered Charlotte the position on the suggestion that her wage would subsidize Emily’s tuition fees.


However, after spending three months at Roe Head, Emily returned to Haworth in October, and Anne took her place at the school. Though Anne lasted two years and three months at Roe Head, it was not an altogether happy time for her – or for Charlotte, who described teaching as “wretched bondage” and who “loathed” her students.


As Charlotte’s wages were used to subsidize Anne’s fees, she could not afford to pay the postage on her letters (which was instead paid by the recipient), and, Samantha Ellis argues, this led her to resent Anne. “Charlotte resented sacrificing herself for Anne,” Ellis states, “but it was a sacrifice Anne had never asked for” (see Further Reading, Ellis, p. 132). Charlotte rarely mentioned Anne in her letters from this period.


After enduring two years and three months, Anne fell ill. Though Edward Chitham argued in 1991 that Anne was suffering from a “psychic crisis” or breakdown, the Moravian Reverend James La Trobe – who, at the invitation of Anne, visited her multiple times during her illness – described her illness as gastric fever. Once Charlotte realized how ill Anne was, she arranged for her to return home to Haworth.


The Life of a Victorian Governess

wuthering heights agnes grey
Title page of an 1858 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Source: Jonkers Rare Books


Anne, however, did not remain at home for too long. In April 1839, she took up a post as a governess for the Ingham family at Blake Hall, near Mirfield. Anne was not permitted to discipline the spoiled Ingham children for their disobedience and unruly behavior, so she struggled to properly fulfill her role. After the children made little progress, she was dismissed and returned home in late 1839. Anne would later use this experience at Blake Hall as inspiration for her first novel, Agnes Grey, which tells of the plight of a nineteenth-century governess.


After a brief stay at the parsonage, she was the governess to the children of the Reverend Edmund Robinson and his wife, Lydia, at their home, Thorp Green Hall, near York from 1840 to June 1846. Here, Anne came to be valued by her employers and befriended her pupils. Her pupils, Elizabeth and Mary, corresponded with her and visited her at the parsonage in December 1848. She also accompanied the family on their summer holidays to Scarborough – a place Anne came to love.


While Anne was in service to the Robinson family, her Aunt Branwell passed away on October 29, 1842, leaving each of her nieces an inheritance of £350. In January of the following year, she obtained a position for her brother, Branwell, with the Robinson family as their son Edmund’s tutor.


During his employment by the Robinson family, however, Branwell and Lydia Robinson began a secret relationship. When Anne and Branwell returned to Haworth for their summer holidays in 1846, Anne resigned from her post. Though she gave no reason, it is believed that she felt she could no longer maintain her position after becoming aware of the relationship. When Reverend Edmund Robinson discovered the affair, Branwell was dismissed.


Career as a Writer

anne bronte tenant wildfell hall
Title page of an 1858 edition of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Source: Jonkers Rare Books


In May 1846, before Anne resigned her post at Thorp Green, 21 of her poems were included in Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, a volume of poetry published by (and at the expense of) the three Brontë sisters under pseudonyms. The book, however, sold poorly. In December 1847, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were published in a single volume by Thomas Cautley Newby. Though the volume sold well, Agnes Grey was somewhat eclipsed by Emily’s novel.


This, however, would change with the publication of Anne’s next novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in June 1848. The novel tells the story of Helen, a woman on the run from her abusive, alcoholic husband, bringing up her son alone and supporting herself by the sale of her paintings. In her portrayal of addiction, Anne drew on her brother, Branwell. Following his dismissal from Thorp Green and Reverend Edmund Robinson’s death in 1846, Lydia informed Branwell that she had no intention of marrying him. This turn of events left Branwell hopeless, and he became addicted to alcohol and opiates.


The novel is considered by some to be the first feminist novel, and it caused a furor upon publication. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the scandalized reviews of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it was the bestselling Brontë novel in her lifetime, outselling Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The first edition sold out in just six weeks, and Anne wrote a preface to be published in the second edition, in which she defended her novel and, in defiance of her critics, stated that “if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.”


Illness, Death, & Posthumous Legacy

pulmonary tuberculosis anatomical drawing
Anatomical drawing of the lungs of a patient who died of pulmonary tuberculosis, Plate V, by Samuel George Morton, 1834. Source: Wellcome Collection


The year 1848 also saw the deaths of Branwell (September 24) and Emily (December 19). While Branwell’s death certificate lists the cause of his death as “Chronic bronchitis” and “Marasmus” (that is, emaciation), it is likely that both he and Emily died of pulmonary tuberculosis.


Anne, too, fell ill with tuberculosis. On January 5, 1849, Dr. Teale, a lung specialist from Leeds, was summoned to the parsonage to examine Anne. He discovered that the tuberculosis was too far advanced to be cured.


Yet Anne, who proved a diligent patient, appeared to get better in February. She then asked Charlotte (and later Charlotte’s friend, Ellen Nussey) to take her to Scarborough in the hope of a “sea cure.” After a few months, Charlotte consented to the plan, and she and Nussey accompanied Anne to Scarborough for one last visit. However, her condition did not improve. On May 28, 1849, a doctor was called to their lodgings in Scarborough. She asked if she should return home and was informed that she was too ill to travel and did not have long left to live. The doctor, in turn, was impressed by how calmly she accepted this. She died later that day at two o’clock and is buried in Scarborough.


Anne Brontë was (during her lifetime, at least) the most commercially successful of the famous three sisters and, arguably, the most radical. Her work tackled political issues of the day, particularly those affecting women, and she was undeterred by her critics in her pursuit of greater justice. Yet today, she is the least famous Brontë sister, all too often dismissed as “the other Brontë.”


brontes walk invisible
Photograph of Charlie Murphy (who played Anne), Chloe Pirrie (who played Emily), and Finn Atkins (who played Charlotte) in the 2016 BBC dramatization of the lives of the Brontës, To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Brontë Sisters. Source: IMDb


Following Anne’s and Emily’s deaths, Charlotte wrote a “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell,” in which she sought to defend her sisters. However, Charlotte also “damned Anne’s work with faint praise,” as Ellis states, by writing that Anne “wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister, but was well endowed with quiet virtues of her own” (see Further Reading, Ellis, p. 141).


This portrayal of Anne takes no account of the radical political dimension of Anne’s writing. Rather, Charlotte stated that “[The Tenant of] Wildfell Hall” was “hardly […] desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.” Yet, as Anne’s own preface for the second edition attests, she herself did not regret writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, nor did she consider it “a mistake.”


With Charlotte’s embargo placed on further publications of the novel, the publishing house Thomas Hodgson brought out a mutilated version of the text in 1854. After Charlotte died the following year, her publishers took the opportunity to reprint Anne’s last novel but used the defective Hodgson text. To this day, Hodgson’s version is in circulation.


Anne’s reputation, then, has suffered through unfair criticism, neglect, and poor editorial decisions, the effects of which can still be seen in accounts of the Brontë family. However, since the 1990s, biographies of Anne have helped question the narrative of Anne as “the other Brontë” and there has been a concerted effort to reevaluate her work in a manner that recognizes its radical politics. Through her classic novels, Anne Brontë sought to challenge social injustices and to improve the lives of others, and it is as such that she deserves to be remembered.


Further Reading:


Ellis, Samantha, Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 2017).

Author Image

By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.