Anne Bronte: The Courageous Sister

Those born on the the seventeenth of any month are said to be strong in spirit throughout the difficulties of life.

Anne Bronte was born on January 17, 1820, the youngest surviving child of the family.   One day, her older sister, Charlotte, watched over Anne’s wooden crib.  She cried out to her father to come, for she had seen an angel hovering over Anne.

This angelic image still lingers over Anne Bronte.  She has long been thought of as the “sweet, shy” sister.  The sister that would be all but forgotten if not for her surname.

As is often the case, Anne’s gentleness  was mistaken for weakness.  Anne’s sweet smile belied a will of iron.

By the age of  five she’d lost her mother and her two eldest sisters.  The remaining siblings: Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne formed an  enduring bond.  Encouraged by their father, they read voraciously and created their own magical worlds which they set down on paper.  While Charlotte and Branwell continued working on Angria,  Emily and Anne branched off with their own  kingdom of Gondal which was inspired by tales from Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott.

Charlotte’s best friend, Ellen Nussey, noted Anne and Emily were, “like twins, inseparable companions in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.”  Indeed, it was only to Anne that the reclusive Emily ever opened up.

Deeply religious and ambitious, Anne was determined from an early age to succeed at all she set out to do.   While all of her siblings had failed at their career attempts away from home, Anne used her faith to survive her two tenures as a governess.   First, at the age of eighteen, for the Inghams of Blake Hall, Mirfield; and later with the Robinson family of Thorp Green.  Governesses were not only paid less than the general servant or lady’s maid, but they found themselves in very lonely situations.  They were not part of the family and the other servants usually shunned them.

Anne depicted these experiences as a governess in Agnes Grey.   Written in a simple, down-to-earth style, it was deeply overshadowed by Charlotte’s Jane Eyre.   In 1848, The Atlas critiqued, “Perhaps we shall best describe it as a coarse imitation of one of Miss Austen’s charming stories.”  Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Paper, while dismissing  the character Agnes as being inferior to Jane, did commend the authoress on her extraordinary powers of observation.

Anne used these powers on her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.   Inspired by the horrors she’d witnessed of  Branwell’s addiction  to liquor and drugs, she wrote an unflinching account on alcoholism.   The general public and reviewers were outraged at the story of a woman who “steals” her child,  runs away from her alcoholic  husband, and finds love with another man while in hiding.   Realistic, sharp, and unsentimental, the novel was years before its time.  

It  proved as controversial as Emily’s, Wuthering Heights.

Anne was branded immoral.   Undaunted,  she set out to write a third novel.    However,  in September of 1848, Branwell died after years of alcohol abuse.   Only three months later, Anne’s beloved companion, Emily, succumbed to tuberculosis.

One year later, Anne was diagnosed with the same disease.    She begged Charlotte to bring her to Scarborough (a seaside resort that Anne had first visited with the Robinsons).  Anne always loved the sea and hoped for its curative powers.   Charlotte and her father eschewed the idea for Anne was barely able to walk by now.

Seeking support for her plan, Anne wrote to Ellen Nussey: “I have a more serious reason than this for my impatience of delay: the doctors say that change of air or removal to a better climate would hardly ever fail of success in consumptive cases if taken in time, but the reason why there are so many disappointments is, that it is generally deferred till it is too late. Now I would not commit this error; and to say the truth, though I suffer much less from pain and fever than I did when you were with us, I am decidedly weaker and very much thinner my cough still troubles me a good deal, especially in the night, and, what seems worse than all, I am subject to great shortness of breath on going up stairs or any slight exertion. Under these circumstances I think there is no time to be lost… I have no horror of death: 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 practisehumble and limited indeedbut still I should not like them all to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose. But God’s will be done.”

Anne and Charlotte set off for Scarborough on May 24, 1849.   Anne spent her final days enjoying the horizons of her beloved sea.

Anne Bronte died on May 28, 1849.   Her last words to Charlotte were, “take courage.”

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Writing: Physical Character Description

An oft asked question by writers is, “How much character description do you like?”

Here’s a bit of advice:  Don’t bother asking it.  Save yourself a migraine.  For every person who replies, “I love a very detailed description.  I want to see the character as painted by the author.”  You’ll get another person who says,  “Ugh.  Give me little-to-none.  I like to envision the character the way I want.”

Some readers prefer none, others medium, others love a full Rembrandt.

You can’t please everybody.

Decide how much character description you like.   Then, study how to handle it with a deft touch.

First, let’s look at things to avoid:

1. The “laundry list” :  Mary Sue was really beautiful.  She was five feet eight inches tall and weighed one hundred and twenty five pounds.  She had long blond hair and cornflower blue eyes.  Her lashes were long and thick.  Her brows were thin and arched.  She had peaches and cream complexion, a small perky nose, and pouty lips.    Zzzz………….

2. Purple prose: “long raven hair that fell down her back in silken ripples”, “azure eyes that sparkled like glittering stars- blue as the shiniest sea.”

3. mirror technique- This refers to protagonist sitting down in front of their mirror and studying their reflection as though they’ve never seen themselves before.  In fact, the paragraph usually begins that very way:  “I sat down in front of the mirror and studied my reflection.  My eyes were large and soft brown.  My curly brown hair was horribly frizzy….”

4. waiting too long to describe a character.  If Sarah Collins first appears on page 5- don’t wait until page 40 to describe her.  By then, readers will have imagined her appearance by themselves.  If one has envisioned her as small, petite with red hair it will jar them to discover she is a tall brunette.

So how does one use a deft hand?

Here are some examples from different novels that utilize different techniques:

1. James Cain’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain was master of spare prose.  This is Frank’s first sighting of Cora:  “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” -This not only gives the reader a pencil drawing of Cora, it adds insight to Frank’s character.  The mashing them in part indicates roughness and brutality.

2. From Wilkie Collin’s, The Woman in White. Here is a very detailed description:  “The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache.  She had a large firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing resolute brown eyes, and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.  Her expression- bright, frank, and intelligent, appeared- while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete.”  If Cain’s sketch was a line drawing, here we have an oil painting.

3. Anne Bronte’s, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. “Mrs. Graham darted upon me- her neck uncovered, her black locks streaming in the wind.

“Give me the child!” she said, in a voice scarce louder than a whisper, but with a tone of startling vhemence, and seizing the boy, she snatched him from me, as if in some dire contamination were in my touch, and then stood with one hand firmly clasping his, the other on his shoulder, fixing upon me her large, luminous, dark eyes- pale, breathless, quivering with agitation.”

Here, Anne Bronte breaks up the physical description of Mrs. Graham througout the action.   Anne actually reveals very little regarding Mrs. Graham’s appearance.  We don’t know her height, body type, etc..  Anne instead pinpoints on specific elements.  Mrs.  Graham has dark hair and eyes, and pale skin.    From her behavior, one clearly pictures Mrs. Graham with a strong, intense look about her.

What are some of your favorite physical character descriptions from books?  Whether they be raw, medium, or well-done.  Serious or humorous.  What authors brought their characters’ appearance alive to you? Please give examples!