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December 17, 2017

The Death of Anne Bronte

On this day in 1849 Anne Bronte died of tuberculosis, at age twenty-nine. This was the third death in eight months among the Bronte siblings, Emily's and Branwell's coming earlier. A total of six Bronte children were born in a six-year period, 1814-1820: the two eldest died of tuberculosis at age eleven and ten, and within six weeks of each other; the three youngest died of the same disease (along with alcohol and opium, in Branwell's case), all three in their late twenties or early thirties; Charlotte would die six years later, age thirty-nine, during the last stages of pregnancy and from an unclear cause.

The standard view of Anne is that she had less talent than her siblings, and was cut from a plainer cloth: Charlotte was dominant and ambitious, Emily was odd and reclusive, Branwell was mercurial; Anne was meek, normal, and churchy. Compared to the opposite dramas of Branwell's and Emily's deaths -- Branwell indulgent, Emily a picture of "ruthless stoicism" -- Anne's death, as described by Charlotte, was almost a non-event:
    She died without severe struggle -- resigned -- trusting in God -- thankful for release from a suffering life -- deeply assured that a better existence lay before her.... Anne, from her childhood seemed preparing for an early death....
A more recent biography by Juliet Barker (The Brontes, 1995) makes a different case for Anne, seeing not so much resignation as a desire to avoid making an egotistical fuss, or to provoke Charlotte's tendencies towards hysteria. There is nothing passive about the heroine of Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, nor about Anne's defense of her book in the face of critics who found it to contain "disgusting scenes of debauchery" which ought not to be "obtruded by every circulating library-keeper upon the notice of our sisters, wives and daughters." In her preface to the second edition, Anne assures her readers that the alcoholism and adultery of one of her main characters is all too common, and better talked about than ignored:
    But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he that does so will be likely to incur more scorn and obloquy for the mud and water into which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures; as, in like manner, she who undertakes the cleansing of a careless bachelor's apartment will be liable to more abuse for the dust she raises than commendation for the clearance she effects.
We get a picture here of Anne being obligated not only to watch Branwell's dissolution but pick up after it. She was in no mood for a scolding from her readers.

There are few personal documents which can give us a sense of the real Anne, though her scribble of "sick of mankind and its disgusting ways" on the back of her prayer book seems to indicate a fiery spirit. Perhaps there is more than devotion and compliance in her "Last Lines," written several weeks after Emily's death and with her own in view:
    . . . Thus let me serve Thee from my heart,
    Whate'er may be my written fate:
    Whether thus early to depart,
    Or yet a while to wait.

    If Thou shouldst bring me back to life,
    More humbled I should be;
    More wise, more strengthened for the strife,
    More apt to lean on Thee.

    Should death be standing at the gate,
    Thus should I keep my vow;
    But, Lord! whatever be my fate,
    Oh, let me serve Thee now!

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