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Acton Bell

The Three Brontë Sisters from Left to Right: Anne, Emily, and Charlotte

No family anywhere had three such eminent novelists, though they wrote at a time when women novelists were looked down upon. Consequently, they published under the names of Acton Bell (Anne), Ellis Bell (Emily), and Currer Bell (Charlotte).

I have read and enjoyed the work of the two elder sisters, but until this week I had never read anything by Anne Brontë. I was delighted to find that she was as competent a writer as her sisters and perhaps a bit more modern in her outlook. Her novel Agnes Grey tells the story of a young governess dealing with the spoiled children of the well-to-do.

When one of her former charges (Rosalie) denigrates her eminent husband in front of a footman, she shows Agnes exactly what she thinks of servants:

Oh, no matter! I never care about the footmen; they’re mere automatons: it’s nothing to them what their superiors say or do; they won’t dare to repeat it; and as to what they think—if they presume to think at all—of course, nobody cares for that. It would be a pretty thing indeed, it we were to be tongue-tied by our servants!

Four Images of Anne Brontë Drawn by Her Brother Branwell

Rosalie is nothing, however, compared to the little monsters of her first experience as a governess:

My task of instruction and surveillance, instead of becoming easier as my charges and I got better accustomed to each other, became more arduous as their characters unfolded. The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me: my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt. The habitual fear of their father’s peevish temper, and the dread of the punishments he was wont to inflict when irritated, kept them generally within bounds in his immediate presence. The girls, too, had some fear of their mother’s anger; and the boy might occasionally be bribed to do as she bid him by the hope of reward; but I had no rewards to offer; and as for punishments, I was given to understand, the parents reserved that privilege to themselves; and yet they expected me to keep my pupils in order. Other children might be guided by the fear of anger and the desire of approbation; but neither the one nor the other had any effect upon these.

This is quite different from the angelic Victorian children depicted in most novels, especially in those of Charles Dickens. So I was quite pleased to see that the youngest Brontë has some sand in her, and she was an excellent writer to boot—as good as her older siblings.

2 thoughts on “Acton Bell

  1. i’m inspired to read this, particularly in light of the very accurate depiction of the average child as an unprincipled savage…

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