11 Enlightening Facts About Anne Brontë

A drawing of Anne Brontë by her sister, Charlotte Brontë.
A drawing of Anne Brontë by her sister, Charlotte Brontë.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are an iconic literary trio—but of the three sisters, Anne has been the least read and, arguably, the least understood. The English critic George Saintsbury once deemed Anne a “pale reflection of her elders”; her own sister, Charlotte, dismissed her as a “gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer.” But such perceptions of Anne as bland and inferior are changing. She worked hard to earn a living, spun vivid tales of an imaginary kingdom, and wrote forcefully about the social oppression of women. To mark the 200th anniversary of her birth in 2020, here are 11 enlightening facts about this underappreciated Brontë sister.

1. Anne Brontë was the youngest of six children.

On January 17, 1820, Anne Brontë was born to Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria Branwell Brontë in the English village of Thornton. She was the couple’s sixth child, and shortly after her birth, the family relocated to the industrial town of Haworth, near the windswept Yorkshire moors so often associated with the Brontë sisters. When Anne was just 20 months old, her mother died, probably of uterine cancer. Maria’s sister, Elizabeth, stepped in to raise the children; Anne was said to be her favorite.

2. Anne and Emily Brontë created a mystical, imaginary realm called Gondal.

Around four years after the death of their mother, the two eldest Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, also died. The four surviving children immersed themselves in the creation of fictional kingdoms that became the basis for hundreds of prose and poetry works. Charlotte and her brother Branwell crafted tales about the world of Angria, while Emily and Anne—whom one contemporary described as being “inseparable companions”—collaborated on the saga of Gondal.

No prose stories of Gondal survive, but extant poems have allowed scholars to piece together numerous details about this imaginary world. The realm was situated on a large island in the north Pacific, dotted with moorlands, mountains, and woods. Its characters were often swept up in wars and love affairs. Augusta Geraldine Almeda, a beautiful and ruthless heroine who had many lovers, ruled as Gondal’s queen.

3. Anne Brontë worked as a governess—and hated it.

In 1839, hoping to contribute to her family’s strained finances, Anne took a position as a governess for the Ingham family at Blake Hall, a stately mansion in West Yorkshire. She was put in charge of the Inghams’ two eldest children, 6-year-old Cunliffe and 5-year-old Mary. Anne appears to have found the job difficult; summarizing one of Anne’s letters, Charlotte wrote to a friend that her sister’s pupils were “desperate little dunces” who were “excessively indulged and [Anne] is not empowered to inflict any punishment.”

Anne was ultimately dismissed from her job, and she moved on to a position at Thorp Green Hall, where she served as governess for the Robinsons, another wealthy family. Though she worked there for five years, Anne does not appear to have been entirely happy. “[D]uring my stay,” she wrote cryptically in 1845, “I have had some very unpleasant and undreamt-of experience of human nature."

4. Anne Brontë had a dog named Flossy.

In spite of her apparent dissatisfaction at Thorp Green, Anne had a friendly relationship with the three Robinson daughters—Lydia, Elizabeth, and Mary—placed under her instruction. The girls gave Anne a “silky-haired, black and white” dog named Flossy, who, by 1848, was “fatter than ever but still active enough to relish a sheep hunt,” Anne observed in a letter to Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey. Kindness to animals was important to Anne; the way her fictional characters treat animals is often a sign of their moral quality.

5. Anne Brontë published poems under the pseudonym Acton Bell.

The interior of Haworth Parsonage MuseumLisa, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1846, the three Brontë sisters published their first work—a collection of poetry titled Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Charlotte had pushed her sisters to make their writing public, and Emily and Anne agreed to do so only if their names remained secret. They deliberately chose androgynous pseudonyms (Charlotte was “Currer,” Emily was “Ellis,” and Anne was “Acton”) because, as Charlotte once noted, “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” But the “Bells’” poetry book was still a flop; it sold only two copies.

6. Anne Brontë’s experiences as a governess inspired her first novel.

Though Agnes Grey, published in 1847, is not strictly autobiographical, it draws on Anne’s early career struggles. The novel’s protagonist, who is also a governess, faces degrading treatment from her employers and abuse from her unruly, violent young charges (one of her pupils enjoys torturing baby birds). With this narrative, Anne sought to highlight the plight of a growing class of governesses, many of whom had little choice but to accept demanding, poorly paid posts because few other professions were considered socially acceptable for middle-class women.

7. Critics were shocked by Anne Brontë’s following book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Anne’s second novel, published in 1848, tells the story of a woman’s calamitous marriage to an alcoholic husband and her efforts to escape with her son—a daring plotline for a time when women had no legal status independent of their husbands. The book sold well, and a second edition was published just six weeks after the first. But reviewers were appalled by the novel’s frank depictions of debauchery and marital strife. Wildfell Hall was deemed “coarse,” “revolting” and “brutal.” In her preface to the second edition, Anne pushed back against these criticisms, which she claimed was “more bitter than just.” Her purpose in writing the novel, she explained, was simply “to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.”

8. Anne Brontë shut down speculation about Acton Bell’s gender.

Concluding her preface to Wildfell Hall, Anne noted that some of her critics “profess[ed] to have discovered” that the author of the novel was a woman. She would not confirm or deny the rumors because, she explained, the subject was irrelevant. “I am satisfied that if a book is a good one,” Anne wrote, “it is so whatever the sex of the author may be.”

9. One of Anne Brontë’s last acts was defending a donkey.

In 1849, Anne was diagnosed with tuberculosis—the same illness that had recently killed both Emily and Branwell. Anne, Charlotte, and Ellen Nussey subsequently set off for Scarborough, a seaside town that Anne had visited and grown to love while accompanying the Robinsons on their holidays there. Upon their arrival, Anne took a ride across the sands in a donkey carriage. “[L]est the poor donkey should be urged by its driver to a greater speed than her tender heart thought right, she took the reins and drove herself,” writes the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, a 19th-century biographer of Charlotte Brontë. Two days later, Anne died at the age of 29.

10. Charlotte Brontë prevented the republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

When Charlotte’s publisher proposed reprinting some of the Brontës’ work in 1850, the last surviving sister agreed to the republication of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. But Wildfell Hall, she opined, was “hardly ... desirable to preserve.” The book’s “choice of subject is a mistake,” Charlotte argued, one that was not consistent with Anne’s “gentle” nature. A publisher nevertheless opted to proceed with the reprint in 1854, shortly before Charlotte died, but Anne’s narrative was extensively edited and rearranged.

The so-called “mutilated texts” of Wildfell Hall underwent a major restoration in 1992, when a complete scholarly edition of the novel was published. Rather than frown upon the unpalatable elements of Anne’s narrative, critics today praise Wildfell Hall’s unflinching depiction of vice and violence—a depiction that contrasts with her sisters’ more romantic portrayals of stormy male characters.

11. It took 164 years to correct an error on Anne Brontë’s grave.

Anne was buried in Scarborough, the only Brontë not to be interred at the family’s vault in Haworth. Charlotte, in spite of her often-patronizing opinions of Anne, was devastated by her sister’s death—and was upset to discover that there were five errors on Anne’s gravestone inscription. Charlotte ordered the stone to be refaced and relettered, but one mistake remained: Anne’s age of death was listed as 28, not 29. In 2013, the Brontë Society corrected the error with a new plaque, which was installed alongside the original and unveiled during a dedication service.

The Mental Floss Store Is Back!

Mental Floss Store
Mental Floss Store

You've been asking about it for months, and today we can finally confirm that the Mental Floss Store is back up and running! Simply head here to find dozens of T-shirts with all sorts of unique designs to choose from, whether you’re in the market for a pi pun, a risqué grammar joke, or something only your fellow bookworms will appreciate. You can even use your new Mental Floss shirt to teach your friends all about scurvy.

Mental Floss Store

If you’re just in the mood to express your love of all things Mental Floss, you can also get our darling little logo on phone cases, tote bags, mugs, baby bibs, and more.

Mental Floss Store

Head on over to the Mental Floss Store to see our entire collection. And if you use the code FLOSSERS at checkout by end of day Sunday, you'll get 20 percent off your order. 

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

Remembering Rebecca: 11 Facts About Daphne du Maurier's Enduring Novel

Lily James as Mrs de Winter and Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (2020).
Lily James as Mrs de Winter and Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (2020).

“Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca,” laments the second Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s beloved 1938 novel Rebecca. Mention the title to any bibliophile and they will no doubt give you many reasons why the novel has charmed and captivated so many generations over the years. So it's hardly surprising that this gothic thriller about a nameless young woman—who is swept off her feet by a wealthy widower, taken to live in his estate off the Cornish coast, and haunted by memories of his first wife—is the subject of Netflix’s next big-budget original.

The film, which stars Lily James (Downtown Abbey) and Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) arrives on Netflix on October 21, 2020. As you wait for the new adaptation to drop, here are a few facts about this enduring novel to keep you curious. **Warning: Spoilers below!**

1. Rebecca was first published in 1938 and has never gone out of print.

Selznick International Pictures, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Since it was published in 1938, Rebecca has never gone out of print [PDF], selling 2.8 million copies between 1938 and 1965. Over time, the novel has transformed from bestseller to cultural classic, with many stage and screen adaptations, including an Oscar-winning film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, and a 1993 book sequel by Susan Hill titled Mrs de Winter. In 2017, English bibliophiles voted Rebecca their favorite book of the past 225 years.

2. The heroine of Rebecca, Mrs de Winter, remains unnamed throughout.

Rebecca, after whom the novel is named, is dead when the story begins. She is brought to life via the impressions and memories other characters have of her and her lingering presence in Maxim de Winter's estate, Manderley, via her scent, her handwriting in books, and the carefully preserved clothes that remain in her wardrobe. Mostly, we see her through the eyes of the new Mrs de Winter, the "heroine" of the novel who, paradoxically, remains unnamed—a choice that surprised many fans of the book, including Agatha Christie [PDF].

3. Daphne du Maurier struggled with writer’s block while writing Rebecca.

Daphne du Maurier circa 1947.Ben van Meerendonk, AHF, IISG, Amsterdam // Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Du Maurier struggled with a serious case of writer’s block when she began writing Rebecca. She discarded the first 50 pages of an early draft, telling her publisher: "The first 15,000 words I tore up in disgust and this literary miscarriage has cast me down."

4. Once she got past her writer’s block, Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca in four months.

Once she got past her early writing challenges, du Maurier wrote quickly and completed the manuscript for Rebecca in four months. Her secret? Arranging to spend time away from her children. “I am not one of those mothers who live for having their brats with them all the time,” du Maurier later wrote.

5. Rebecca has been celebrated as an important piece of feminist literature.

Initially marketed as a romance novel with Rebecca as the villainous, menacing wife, feminist interpretations of du Maurier’s novel now see it as a critique of gender power dynamics and a sexist society’s fear of powerful women. Some feminist critics suggest du Maurier intended for Maxim de Winter to be the real villain—the controlling husband who not only murders Rebecca when she refuses to play the obedient wife, but also oppresses and alienates the second Mrs de Winter, marrying her after the most unromantic of proposals: “I am asking you to marry me, you fool.”

6. In 2007, to mark the centenary of Daphne du Maurier's birth, the BBC produced two documentaries on the author.

Daphne, directed by Amy Jenkins, was based on Margaret Forster's biography of du Maurier which revealed, for the first time, du Maurier’s bisexuality. For the second documentary, The Road to Manderley, director Rick Stein set off in search of the author's world in Cornwall.

7. Some scholars believe Rebecca's second Mrs de Winter reflected Daphne du Maurier's sexual fluidity.

Some critics have wondered to what extent the character of the second Mrs de Winter was influenced by the author’s complicated and fluid sexuality. As Margaret Forster points out in her 1993 biography, du Maurier didn't think her desire for women made her a lesbian. The word transgender was not yet in common use then, but the author saw herself as female on the outside “with a boy’s mind and a boy’s heart.”

In the novel, the narrator casts herself as an androgyne, a friend and companion to Maxim, "a sort of boy," and obsessively wonders about Rebecca’s absent body, how she wore her coat, the color of her lipstick, her scent “like the crushed petals of azaleas."

8. Rebecca’s Manderley was inspired by two real-life estates.

A photo of Milton Hall.Julian Dowse, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

The secretive mansion which lends the novel its famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," was partly inspired by Milton Hall [PDF], an estate near Cambridge that du Maurier spent time at as a child. When she wrote Rebecca nearly 20 years later, du Maurier told Milton Hall's owner that she based Manderley's interiors on her memories of the "big house feel" [PDF] of Milton during WWI.

The other estate du Maurier had in mind when imagining Manderley was the Menabilly estate in Fowey, Cornwall. Du Maurier fell in love with the house when she was 21 years old. Five years after Rebecca was published, she convinced its owners to lease her the home. But just like Manderley is forever lost to Mrs de Winter in a fire, du Maurier was forced to move out of Menabilly in 1969.

9. Daphne du Maurier has been accused of plagiarizing parts of Rebecca from Brazilian author Carolina Nabuco's book The Successor.

Brazilian critics have long argued that du Maurier plagiarized Rebecca from Brazilian author Carolina Nabuco's 1934 book, The Successor. While the two novels do share striking plot similarities, the allegations were never proven one way or another. Du Maurier also faced a lawsuit in 1947 for allegedly plagiarizing Edwina DeVin McDonald’s novel Blind Windows and the short story "I Planned to Murder my Husband." Du Maurier denied any charges.

10. During World War II, a copy of Rebecca was discovered among the possessions of two captured German spies.

British intelligence officers determined that a copy of Rebecca had been used by the Germans during World War II as a code key.

11. Rebecca has been adapted to a variety of media.

Rebecca had been adapted for film several times, but the best-known adaptation is Hitchcock’s 1940 film of the same name. It’s also been adapted to television a number of times, as a radio play, and an opera.