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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Anne Brontë, Poet & Novelist

anne-bronteAnne Brontë, English poet and novelist, is born on January 17, 1820 in Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. She is the sister of Charlotte and Emily Brontë and author of Agnes Grey, A Novel (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

Brontë is the youngest of six children of Patrick Brontë, a poor Irish clergyman in the Church of England, and Marie Brontë. She lives most of her life with her family at the parish of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors and is taught in the family’s Haworth home and at Roe Head School. With her sister Emily, she invents the imaginary kingdom of Gondal, about which they write verse and prose, the latter now lost, from the early 1830s until 1845.

Brontë takes a position as governess briefly in 1839 and then again for four years, 1841–45, with the Robinsons, the family of a clergyman, at Thorpe Green, near York. There her irresponsible brother, Branwell, joins her in 1843, intending to serve as a tutor. Anne returns home in 1845 and is followed shortly by her brother, who has been dismissed, charged with making love to his employer’s wife.

In 1846 Brontë contributes 21 poems to Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, a joint work with her sisters Charlotte and Emily. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, is published together with Emily’s Wuthering Heights in three volumes, of which Agnes Grey is the third, in December 1847. The reception to these volumes, associated in the public mind with the immense popularity of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (October 1847), lead to quick publication of Anne’s second novel, again as Acton Bell, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published in three volumes in June 1848. It sells well.

Emily’s death in December 1848 deeply affects Brontë and her grief undermines her physical health. Over Christmas, she comes down with influenza. Her symptoms intensify and her father sends for a Leeds physician in early January. The doctor diagnoses her condition as consumption (tuberculosis) and intimates that it is quite advanced, leaving little hope of recovery. Anne meets the news with characteristic determination and self-control.

In February 1849, Brontë seems somewhat better and decides to make a return visit to Scarborough in the hope that the change of location and fresh sea air might initiate a recovery. On May 24, 1849, she sets off for Scarborough with Charlotte and Ellen Nussey. However, it is clear that Anne has little strength left.

On Sunday, May 27, Brontë asks Charlotte whether it would be easier if she returned home to die instead of remaining in Scarborough. A doctor, consulted the next day, indicates that death is close. Conscious and calm, she dies in the afternoon of Monday, May 28, 1849 at the age of 29. She is buried in Scarborough in St. Mary’s churchyard, beneath the castle walls, overlooking the bay.

Her novel Agnes Grey, probably begun at Thorpe Green, records with limpidity and some humour the life of a governess. George Moore calls it “simple and beautiful as a muslin dress.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall presents an unsoftened picture of the debauchery and degradation of the heroine’s first husband and sets against it the Arminian belief, opposed to Calvinist predestination, that no soul shall be ultimately lost. Her outspokenness raised some scandal, and Charlotte deplored the subject as morbid and out of keeping with her sister’s nature, but the vigorous writing indicates that Brontë found in it not only a moral obligation but also an opportunity of artistic development.

(Pictured: A sketch of Anne Brontë by sister Charlotte, circa 1834)


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Birth of Actress Margaret “Peg” Woffington

peg-woffingtonMargaret “Peg” Woffington, well-known Irish actress in Georgian London, is born of humble origins in Dublin on October 18, 1720.

Woffington’s father is believed to have been a bricklayer and, after his death, the family becomes impoverished. Her mother is obliged to take in washing while Peg sells watercress door to door. It is said that she is walking through a marketplace as a pre-teen and happens upon Madame Signora Violante, a famous tightrope walker. Violante is so immediately enthralled by Peg’s beautiful face that she accompanies her home and asks her mother permission to take her in as her apprentice.

Around 1730, Violante features Woffington as Polly Peachum in a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. This serves as a springboard for her fame in Dublin, and she continues dancing and acting in the area playing Dorinda in an adaptation of The Tempest at the Theatre Royal, Dublin in 1735 and joining the Smock Alley Theatre to perform with well known actor David Garrick.

Woffington dances and acts at various Dublin theaters until her success as Sir Harry Wildair in The Constant Couple leads to her being given her London debut at Covent Garden. She becomes well known as an actress thereafter.

Woffington enjoys success in the role of Sylvia in The Recruiting Officer. She performs at Drury Lane for several years and later returns to Dublin, appearing in a variety of plays. Her most well-received performances are in comic roles, such as elegant women of fashion like Lady Betty Modish and Lady Townley, and breeches roles. She is impeded in the performance of tragedy by a harsh tone in her voice that she strives to eliminate.

Woffington lives openly with David Garrick, the foremost actor of the day, and her other love affairs are numerous and notorious. She becomes friend and mentor to the socialite/actress sisters, Elizabeth and Maria Gunning, and also shares the stage with the likes of Charles Macklin, Kitty Clive, and the tragedienne Susannah Maria Arne.

Though Woffington is popular with society figures, she is not always favored by her competition. She tends to create rivalries with similar-type actresses at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Her fiercest rivalry is with “equally peppery” actress Kitty Clive. According to Garrick biographer Thomas Davies, “No two women in high life ever hated each other more unreservedly than these two great dames of the stage.” When she returns to Covent Garden, rivalries with these women and with the manager, John Rich, eventually send her back to Dublin, where she is unrivaled and celebrated at the Smock Alley Theatre.

Rich decides to start a Beefsteak Club in 1749, also known as the Sublime Society of Steaks or “the Club.” Some of its members include Garrick and William Hogarth, as well as many other London celebrities. Not only is Woffington the first female member of the all male dining club, in 1750 she becomes president of the club by election. She also educates and supports her sister and cares for and pensions her mother.

For whatever reason, Woffington leaves Garrick in about 1744 and moves to Teddington, into a house called Teddington Place. In 1754 she becomes the beneficiary of the will of the Irish impresario Owen Swiny. In 1756, she performs the part of Lady Randolph in Douglas, a part which finds a later exponent in Sarah Siddons.

On May 3, 1757, Woffington is playing the part of Rosalind in As You Like It when she collapses on stage. She rallies but would never act again, lingering with a wasting illness. She dies in Queen Square, Westminster on March 28, 1760. She is buried in St. Mary’s Church, the parish church in Teddington.