Every part of man’s mind should be made captive to the obedience of Christ. And that includes the imaginative faculty (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Travel down the centuries and see John Bunyan in Bedford gaol. That crushing confinement fails to confine his mind. Escaping in spirit, he creates a world of wonder and takes us on the journey of journeys in his Pilgrim’s Progress. This has been described as the first English novel.
But as the real novel writing age later began to gather momentum, many have condemned its effects as mind polluting, and time wasting. But we must never lose sight of the fact that some took up their pens with a different agenda, aiming at the glory of God and lasting good of others.
Anne Brontë was one of this number. Apart from reading Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre several years ago, my knowledge of the Brontë family was almost non-existent, until one day last summer we climbed above the teeming crowds on Scarborough’s sands, through narrow streets, to reach Scarborough Castle and take in the view.
Near us stood St Mary’s Church, and, just beyond, a neat, well tended graveyard and a weathered headstone, with the words ‘Here lie the remains of Anne Brontë, daughter of the Rev. P. Brontë, Incumbent of Haworth, Yorkshire. She died aged 28, May 28th, 1849’.
It was an arresting moment, high above the shimmering summer sea, with only birdsong to break the silence, far from the din below.
Further investigations in the church revealed that Anne had sought the healthy, seaside airs of Scarborough, in a last attempt to escape the death sentence of advanced and untreatable tuberculosis. But the item which really interested me was a booklet containing her last poem, composed in the previous January when her condition had been diagnosed.
Within minutes I realised that the writer was a graciously exercised and godly young woman, assailed by many doubts and fears, but most anxious to have what Charles Wesley describes as:
A heart resigned, submissive, meek;
The great Redeemer’s throne;
Where only Christ is heard to speak,
Where Jesus reigns alone.
To be told that you are terminally ill is just about the most alarming thing you may hear. Her poem opens with the words:
A dreadful darkness closes in
On my bewildered mind
O let me suffer and not sin
Be tortured yet resigned.
And yet the quiet resignation and gracious reasoning of a child of God shine through the gloom:
Shall I with joy thy blessings share
And not endure their loss
Or hope the martyr’s crown to wear
And cast away the cross?
These weary hours will not be lost
These days of passive misery
Those nights of darkness anguish tossed,
If I can fix my heart on thee.
By the time she has reached the end of her last, long, 16-versed poem, which took the better part of January to complete, her mind was now resolute and purposeful.
Thus let me serve thee from my heart
Whate’er be my written fate
Whether thus early to depart
Or yet awhile to wait.
If thou shouldst bring me back to life
More humble I should be
More wise more strengthened for the fight
More apt to learn from thee.
Should death be standing at the gate
Thus should I keep my vow
But Lord whate’er my future fate
So let me serve you now.
Anne Brontë was born into a family reared in evangelical piety. Her father, Patrick, held the perpetual curacy of Haworth, high on the Yorkshire moors.
Anne shone among her siblings as one who was no stranger to the saving grace of Christ and died in great peace with God. Apart from her poems, she left two novels to her name, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, both Christian in outlook.
The children of Rev. Patrick Brontë possessed, by any standards, extraordinary literary gifts and talents. The parsonage at Haworth became a crucible of creativity as they grew up under the overall care of their widower parent, himself no mean achiever considering his humble origins in County Down.
Interested readers are recommended The Brontës by Juliet Barker and Veins running fire by the late Derick Bingham, especially Barker’s work of over 1000 pages. Barker is a respected, judicious and painstaking historian, a lady neither insensitive to nor unsympathetic with a conservative-evangelical view of things.
The Brontë nest was composed of colourful characters, with lives cut short by weakness and disease. Anne shines out among them all as a genuine trophy of saving grace. None of her siblings seemed to know the ‘peace of God which passeth all understanding’ in their hearts and lives.
Brother Branwell becomes a dissolute wreck. Sister Emily exhibited a dark restlessness, disturbingly depicted in her own Wuthering Heights. Charlotte was far more respectable, an intensely religious woman, with the strictest moral code. This is well evidenced in her greatest achievement Jane Eyre. But a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ as Saviour, and the pardon and peace which accompanies that, are difficult to trace.
Anne’s hauntingly peaceful death at Scarborough was completely misinterpreted by her sister Charlotte as weariness with life. On the contrary, Anne was soberly resigned to the inevitable, with a sure and certain hope of eternal life to come.
Anne could calmly say in her last hour that ‘soon all will be well through the merits of our Redeemer’, with loving thoughts for others rather than herself. She said to her distraught sister, ‘Take courage, Charlotte, take courage’.
The doctor called to attend her remarked that ‘in all his experience he had never seen such a deathbed and it gave evidence of no common mind’.
Anne’s novel Agnes Grey was her first attempt. It is refreshing if only for the fact that Mr Weston, the curate, is not the ineffective, simpering or effeminate specimen we are treated to in so many stories, but rather a cheerful, winsome and strong young man, with decidedly evangelical convictions!
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a weighty and moving drama, depicting the tragic progress of sin in a heart forever closed to God. It well illustrates the Scripture ‘the wages of sin is death’ — ‘death’ in every sense of the word.
The story inspires with the triumph and reward of true, pure and selfless love. Where romance is concerned, we should never confuse eros with agape. Nevertheless, the serious reader of this book is made aware of the unmistakeable supremacy of the latter, which ‘never faileth’ and ‘beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things’.
Towards the end of chapter 49 we have in one conversational exchange the most solemn and searching presentation of the gospel to a dying man, with urgent tender words.
But this presentation is marred by one serious aberration in Anne Brontë’s theology, for which there is no scriptural warrant, that ‘the erring spirit’ may pass through ‘purging fires’, introducing a doctrine of potential purgatory for all.
As the nineteenth century wore on, this error took deeper root and was espoused by, amongst others, the writer George MacDonald, who very belatedly began to see some of the morally ruinous effects of such teaching. The false comfort encouraged by this illusion has only served to weaken the vital importance of being right with God this side of the grave.
But, in spite of this, Anne had truly been brought to the Lord. James La Trobe, a Moravian minster from Mirfield, was used in bringing her into gospel liberty. He says how he ‘found her well acquainted with the main truths of the Bible respecting our salvation, but seeing them more through the law than the gospel, more as a requirement from God than his gift to his Son.
‘But her heart opened to the sweet views of salvation, pardon, and peace in the blood of Christ, and she accepted his welcome to the weary and heavy laden sinner, conscious more of her not loving the Lord her God than of acts of enmity to him, and, had she died then, I should have counted her his redeemed and ransomed child’.
Edited by kind permission from the Gospel Advocate, magazine of the Gospel Advocate Relief Fund.