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Crave the Rose: Anne Brontë at 200

by Nick Holland

The Search for Anne Brontë’s Last Words

Following Anne Brontë’s death, a deep depression fell again upon Charlotte, leaving the ever faithful and dependable Ellen to comfort Charlotte and arrange her departed friend’s funeral and headstone at the same time. It is perhaps for this reason that a number of errors were initially made on the memorial that stands next to Anne’s grave at St. Mary’s churchyard, in the shadow of Scarborough Castle: the timeless building that Anne had earlier chosen as the setting for Weston’s proposal to Agnes Grey (reflecting possibly the author’s own greatest wish of a proposal from William Weightman) now stands guard over her final resting place, with the waves below rushing across the sands of the South Bay.

Visitors still come on a daily basis to pay their respects to the youngest Brontë sibling, often leaving flowers, and sometimes touching tributes including folded up scraps of paper bearing personal messages and thank you notes addressed to Anne. The original headstone, arranged in haste by Ellen, is now largely worn away, but a horizontal slab below, placed there by the Brontë Society in 2011, repeats the words carved upon it: ‘Here lie the remains of Anne Brontë, Daughter of the Revd P Brontë, Incumbent of Haworth, Yorkshire, She died Aged 28 May 28th 1849.’

In fact, as we have seen, Anne was twenty-nine when she died, but whilst this error remains for all to see, Charlotte had others corrected. She could not bring herself to re-visit Anne’s final resting place at Scarborough until 1852, and on that visit she found a total of five errors on the headstone. We know that Charlotte had four of them corrected, but not what they were, although a nineteenth century newspaper report states that the date of Anne’s death had been left blank in order that it could be filled in later.

The failure to correct this particular error and the three years in which she kept steadfastly away from Scarborough shows the trauma that her last surviving sibling’s death brought Charlotte, but on 21st June 1849 she managed to pay tribute to Anne in what is probably her finest poem, ‘On the Death of Anne Brontë’:

‘There’s little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I’ve lived the parting hour to see,
Of one I would have died to save.
Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O’er those beloved features cast.
The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me;
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank him well and fervently;
Although I knew that we had lost
The hope and glory of our life;
And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,
Must bear alone the weary strife.’

This was, of course, the terrible end of a nine month period where Charlotte had also lost her only brother Branwell, with whom she had been incredibly close in childhood, and the sister she had looked up to with something akin to hero worship: Emily. After the death of Emily Brontë at the end of 1848, Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey, saying, ‘She has died in a time of promise – we saw her torn from life in its prime.’

These lines could be said with even more pertinence about Anne Brontë. Emily wrote very little after completing her masterpiece Wuthering Heights, in fact her sole creation in this period was a reworking of an earlier poem. Whilst a letter from her publisher Thomas Cautley Newby intimates that there had at least been talk of a second novel, it could be that even if Emily had gone on to enjoy a long life she had already lain down her pen forever, intending her one, great, novel to be her definitive statement to the world.

Anne, on the other hand, was continuing to write and it seems almost certain that had she been spared the curse of consumption she would have created further poems and novels. Anne was truly in a time of promise, and in her prime as a writer, as recognised in the early twentieth century by the celebrated Irish novelist George Moore who, along with his praise for Agnes Grey, wrote: ‘If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer, she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.’

As we saw in the previous chapter, Anne’s final letter, to Ellen showed that she was far from afraid of death, and her only regret was that she was going to die having ‘lived to such little purpose’, without accomplishing the ‘humble and limited’ schemes that she had had in her head. The question of these humble plans has exercised my mind since I first read Anne’s letters. Humility was one of Anne’s chief characteristics, so it is unsurprising that she described them that way, even if they would have seemed grand to others, but just what could they have been? The short answer is that Anne’s plans must have related to another work of literature. She was self-aware enough to know that this was where her true talents lay, and the phenomenal success, with the reading public more than the critics, of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had given Anne a chance to write about the things that really mattered to her, confident in the knowledge that her voice would be heard.

This plan seems evident if we look once again at her preface to the second edition of her final novel, in which she lays down her own manifesto by stating, ‘My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it… Let it not be imagined, however, that I consider myself competent to reform the errors and abuses of society, but only that I would fain contribute my humble quota towards so good an aim, and if I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense.’

There seems no doubt that from that moment on Anne began to plan her next book, and that she would use it to discuss a subject that was very close to her heart, however controversial it may be. It is commonly believed that Anne’s last work of creative writing was the long poem she began in dejection on 7th January 1849 and completed in a mood of stoic acceptance on 28th January, the ‘Last Lines’ that we saw earlier. One question remained however: what if these were not Anne Brontë’s last lines at all? I don’t believe they were.

As proven by Anne’s letter to Ellen Nussey dated 5th April 1849, her ability to write beautiful and expertly-crafted prose was undiminished, and from this letter and the poem referenced above we can see that Anne was all too aware of time’s winged chariot drawing near. In these circumstances, the always hard-working Anne would have continued to write for as long as she was physically able, especially as it was an activity which had been second nature to her since her earliest days, as revealed in Charlotte’s ‘biographical notice’ of her sisters: ‘The highest stimulus, as well as the liveliest pleasure we had known from childhood upwards, lay in attempts at literary composition.’

It is an undisputed fact that the extant writing we have for Anne Brontë is only a fraction of what she actually wrote. We know, for example, that in their youth she and Emily created a huge prose output relating to their created world of Gondal. In her diary paper of 1841, Anne stated that, ‘I am now engaged writing the 4th volume of Sofala Vernon’s life.’ Sofala, from all we know, was a relatively minor character in the Gondal sagas, and as Anne had written four volumes on her life story, we can calculate how fulsome her writing on this world as a whole must have been. Unfortunately, whilst we have some of their Gondalian poetry (particularly in Emily’s case) not a scrap of their prodigious prose juvenilia is now known to survive.

Similarly, Charlotte reported that by July 1848 Anne continued to hear from her old pupils, the Robinsons, almost every day. Quite clearly Anne was writing back to these former charges, Bessy and Mary Robinson, on an almost daily basis too. If we had even some of this sizeable correspondence it would provide an invaluable insight into Anne’s time at Thorpe Green Hall, including the reasons for her resignation and the termination of Branwell’s employment there, but, alas, not one single letter’s whereabouts is known.

I have often asked myself what became of the lost writing of Anne Brontë, whether it be poems, prose or letters. Some, of course, will have crumbled into nothingness in the two centuries since Anne’s birth; some will doubtless have been destroyed after Anne’s death, which was not an uncommon practice in the Victorian era (Arthur Bell Nicholls asked Ellen Nussey to burn his wife Charlotte’s letters, for example, but thankfully for posterity she failed to comply with his demand.) It is also known that some Brontë artefacts, letters and writing were sold around the world during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, whether from private collector to private collector, or via keenly anticipated auctions.

It is also undoubtedly true that there remain Brontë writings in private collections that the wider world knows nothing of, but I and many others have long clung to the hope that even now some of these works will emerge once more into the light. Legacies may be left to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the true identity of heirlooms may be discovered, and Brontë treasures may even be discovered under floorboards or hidden away, Bertha Rochester-like, in an attic.

Sometimes they may be hiding in plain view within archives, and when it comes to Brontë archives few places, outside of the Brontë Parsonage Museum itself, can be more rewarding than the Brotherton Archives of Leeds University’s library. Sir Edward Brotherton, later Lord Brotherton, was a philanthropist who helped a number of enterprises throughout Yorkshire in the first part of the twentieth century. Sir Edward’s story is a remarkable one itself; coming from very humble origins he educated himself, and by the age of twenty-two he had progressed from working in a chemicals factory to owning it. He soon became a leading industrialist, but one noted for his beneficence to his workers, in sharp contrast to some of the mill owners known to the Brontës during their time.

He was also a keen patron of literature and the arts, and his greatest legacy was the gift of one hundred thousand pounds (then a huge sum) made to Leeds University in 1927 for the creation of a Brotherton Library. It is a beautiful building, and it also houses the late Lord Brotherton’s private collection of books and manuscripts, including an incredibly rare and valuable first folio of Shakespeare’s plays. He was also, as befits a man who had made his home and fortune in the West Riding of Yorkshire, despite being Lancashire born, a Brontë enthusiast, which is why the library’s special collection now houses a magnificent collection of Brontë writings, including letters, sketches and poems by Branwell Brontë and the highly illuminating correspondence of Ellen Nussey.

In 2017, I visited the library to examine a volume which had a very intriguing catalogue record. It contained a number of poems by Charlotte Brontë which had been copied out in hand by her widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls, but it was also recorded as containing an essay by an unknown author, possibly a Brontë.

After seating myself in the Special Collections Research Centre and being brought the requested manuscript, itself contained within a cardboard folder, I withdrew the notebook and opened its cover carefully. As promised, I was greeted by the sight of Charlotte’s verse in her husband’s hand, which was then followed by a succession of blank pages. Interesting as these were, I turned the notebook over, transforming the back into the front, opened the cover again, and was hit by an electric charge of excitement, as if I had suddenly been plugged into the middle of the nineteenth century.

Turning the pages eagerly, I discovered ten of them filled with fine black ink which had faded with age to an almost pencil-like appearance. The opening line was unfamiliar to me, ‘What! Have I actually caught you poring over your Bible,’and as I calmed my excitement and read on, I knew I had found what I had long suspected was out there: a work by Anne Brontë that had never been published in a book, that had remained hidden and virtually unheralded since it came into the collection upon the passing of Lord Brotherton.

I had encountered Anne Brontë’s handwriting previously on a number of occasions, at the Brontë Parsonage Museum Library and at the British Library in London. Once seen it is easily remembered; she was a fastidious and neat writer, particularly when compared to her sister Emily, with regular spacing between words and lines, and the use of long straight writing throughout. The subject matter of the piece was also fully in keeping with Anne’s temperament and character, providing as it did a frank discussion on religious and philosophical matters.

The form of the manuscript, however, was completely different to anything else that I had seen from the pens of the Brontës, as it was not in the form of poetry or prose, but rather a dialogue between two characters – a dramatic discourse of sorts. There was little doubt that this was an unknown work by Anne Brontë, but I needed expert corroboration, so I contacted Jean Elliott of Elliott Analysis, one of Yorkshire’s leading handwriting analysts with a wealth of experience in her field.

Without revealing the specific purpose of my enquiry, or the identities of any of the authors, I sent Jean three images from pages within the Brotherton Library document, and three samples of writing which, unbeknownst to her, were verified examples of the writing of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. After studying the samples, Jean confirmed that without doubt the samples from the Leeds archives were by the same hand as my sample B – an extract from a letter written by Anne Brontë to Ellen Nussey.

What we undoubtedly have then is a ten page essay by Anne Brontë, unfinished for reasons that we will look at later, and unlike anything else she wrote, but still fascinating and revealing. I believe that this is the last piece of prose that Anne produced in her life, perhaps the last writing of any kind that she committed to paper, and this gives it immense value when we think of Anne’s life, and what might have been if she had not been taken away with such untimely haste.

—> To read Anne's essay, plus further analysis, see Crave the Rose: Anne Brontë at 200, published in January 2020 by Valley Press.

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