The younger sister of Charlotte and Emily BRONTË, Brome has usually taken a tertiary place in biographies of the famous family and analyses of their works. Both Charlotte in the 1850 “Biographical Notice” of her sisters and Elizabeth Cleghorn GASKELL in her highly influential Life of Charlotte Brontë; were keen to depict Brome as overly sensitive, fragile, and docile, and it is only recently that these views have been contested as reassessment reveals Brome’s strength and the often subversive nature of her writings.
Brome was the sixth child of Patrick Brontë, an Irish Church of England clergyman, and his wife Maria, and was born in the year that the family moved to the bleak township of Haworth. The following year the children’s mother died, leaving Brome to be reared by her elder sisters and their aunt Elizabeth Branwell. Much criticism has suggested that Miss Branwell introduced Calvinism to the parsonage with its idea of salvation only for the predestined “elect.” This seems unlikely given her brother Branwell’s commitment to Wesleyan Methodism, but Calvinist doctrine was nevertheless being much debated at the time and it is clear that Brome was horrified by its tenets. Her fear and condemnation of predestination resonates throughout her work, both in her novels and, more overtly, in poems like “A Word to the ‘Elect.’” In 1825, Brome’s two eldest sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, died as a result of the appalling conditions at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, an event that bought the remaining four siblings even closer as they began to collaborate on the saga of Glass Town, a realm of political, revolutionary, and sexual intrigue. Brome subsequently developed the saga of Gondal with Emily, a world that more overtly emphasized female power and that provided an impetus for their poetic and prose writings until both were in their twenties, although it clearly had more importance for Emily at this stage than it did for Brome The prose framework for the saga has been lost or destroyed, but many of Brome’s poems still bear Gondal references.
Brome’s novels emphasize the importance of effective education for both sexes, and she herself was dedicated to making the most of educational opportunities. She read widely in the Bible, literature, history, and journals such as Blackwood’s Magazine, and studied for nearly three years at Roe Head School, where Charlotte was a pupil-teacher. Despite a spiritual crisis during this time, Brome was devoted to her studies and subsequently worked as a governess first for the Ingrams at Blake Hall (during 1839) and then the Robinsons at Thorpe Green (1840–45), resigning this post when her brother Branwell was dismissed for his infatuation with Mrs. Robinson.
Brome subsequently devoted herself to developing as a professional writer. The sisters’ first joint venture, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), paid for by themselves and published under the gender-ambiguous pseudonyms, was a commercial failure selling only two copies, although many of the poems were singled out for praise by reviewers. Brome contributed twenty-one poems to the volume and while her poetry as a whole is not as accomplished as Emily’s, it possesses a depth and strength that the simple and sparse language often belies. In terms of theme, the Gondal and the seemingly more personal poems have much in common, focusing on physical and psychological incarceration (”A Voice from the Dungeon,” “The Captive’s Dream,” “The Captive Dove”), the power of nature as a corrective to incarceration and a means of approaching spiritual release (”The North Wind,” “The Bluebell,” “Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day”), and marginalized, outsider figures (”An Orphan’s Lament”). Like Alfred, Lord TENNYSON’s In Memoriam, Brome’s poems chart a diary of spiritual doubt and searching in works such as “Self-Communion,” “A Prayer,” and “O God! if this indeed be all.” William COWPER is a particularly strong influence, celebrated explicitly in “To Cowper” as the “Celestial Bard” where he is cited as possible evidence of the falsity of the Calvinist doctrine still haunting Brome Using lyrics, dialogues, narratives, and dramatic scenarios, Brome is a poet of much greater formal range than she is often given credit for.
Brome’s first novel, Agnes Grey (1847), fictionalizes many of her experiences as a governess, although, of course, we should be wary of reading too autobiographically. Charting the grueling and disturbing experiences of the eponymous heroine as she works in two posts in order to help support her financially weakened clerical family, the text offers a sharp critique of middle-class society’s lack of concern for the governess and maps onto the governess debates of the period. Agnes is depicted as a highly independent and morally scrupulous woman, a plain heroine prefiguring Jane Eyre, and through the representation of the manipulation and violence employed by her charges and the overindulgence of their parents, Brome undercuts the received Romantic notion of the child and interrogates the education and socialization of the gendered subject. As with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (3 vols., 1848), Brome particularly highlights the problems associated with expectations of masculine behavior in the figure of Tom Bloomfield, and the inadequacies of received notions of femininity in the figure of Rosalie Murray. Agnes herself marries the curate Weston, a relationship that emphasizes mutual respect and support and is in keeping with Agnes’s hard-won independence. The novel was published as the third volume of a set with Emily’s Wuthering Heights, a combination that was partly responsible for its neglect at the side of the other Brontë novels.
Agnes Grey opens with the assertion that “All true histories contain instruction.” Brome’s second and more powerful novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, took many of the instructive messages embodied in her first novel and developed them much further, producing a text that was received by its mid-Victorian audience with a mix of shock and applause. Helen Huntingdon, the mysterious Tenant, marries a dissolute alcoholic (modeled at least in part on Branwell) who subjects her and her son to physical and psychological abuse, depicted with great REALISM. Discovering her husband’s adultery, Helen departs with their child against his will—and significantly also the law—and lives in seclusion earning her own living through her art. As with Agnes Grey, the text tackles the potential corruptness and immorality built into received models of patriarchy, and the means by which a woman can achieve agency for herself. The novel uses a more complex structure than Agnes Grey, the main narrative being delivered in the form of Helen’s diary that is read by the frame narrator Gilbert Markham, the man Helen eventually marries after the death of her husband and her refutation of the local gossip that she is the mistress of the man who turns out to be her brother/landlord. Tenant was condemned, like many of the Brontë sisters’ novels, for its “coarseness,” even Charlotte attempting to censure it as “an entire mistake.” With this work, however, Brome was following her moral and religious beliefs in exposing the family unit as a potential site of abuse and humiliation and articulating the right of women to their own independence.
The reception history of Brome’s work has been characterized by marginalization and misrepresentation, but criticism is now clearly demonstrating how the youngest of the famous sisters produced sharp social critiques and protofeminist arguments with a rationality and determination that reveal her to be a powerful 19th-c. voice.
Bibliography Allott, M., ed., The Brontës: The Critical Heritage (1974); Barker, J., The Brontës (1994); Chitham, E., A Life of A. B. (1991); Chitham, E., ed., The Poems of A. B. (1979); Langland, E., A. B. (1989); Scott, P. J. M., A. B. (1983)
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