Culture

Revealing Anne Bronte’s Love of Geology

Born in 1820, Anne Bronte lived most of her short life in Haworth on the Yorkshire Moors. She was the youngest of the Bronte sisters. As well as writing poetry her published novels were Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). She died at the age of 29 in 1849.

This was a time when many were thinking about the world around them and challenging ideas. Scientific writing and especially that about the formation of the Earth saw work on geology published by new thinkers like Hugh Miller, The Old Red Sandstone (1841), with many building on the extraordinary work the previous century by another Scot, James Hutton. There was increasing interest in fossil collection and of what the rocks of the Earth could tell us about our planet’s past.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, (1818) was republished, revised several times and was a very popular tale of its day.

It has now been revealed by researchers at the University of Aberdeen that Anne Bronte was an informed and skilled collector or rocks and of their study with the science of geology.

Using portable Raman spectroscopy, a technique used to identify the mineral composition of rocks and stones, researchers analysed Anne’s collection which is housed at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Howarth in Yorkshire.

They found that as well as carnelians and agates which she collected in Scarborough, where she worked as a governess, the collection contained flowstone (a kind of calcium carbonate that formed in a cave like a stalagmite), and a rare kind of red obsidian which originated outside of the UK.

The researchers also believe that Anne would have visited the Rotunda Museum close to where she stayed in Scarborough, which contained exhibits featuring the area’s geology.  

Sally Jaspars, a student at the University of Aberdeen’s Department of English, is studying Anne Brontë as part of her PhD and contacted Dr Stephen Bowden from the University’s School of Geosciences for assistance in analysing the collection. The results of their collaboration, which also involved Professor Hazel Hutchison of Leeds University and Dr Enrique Lozano Diz at ELODIZ, a company specialising in spectroscopy analysis, are published in Brontë Studies.

Sally said:

“When I learned of Anne Brontë’s collection I thought it a great opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary research combining science and literature. 

“Her interest in geology is mentioned in her literary works – indeed in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall she references the science and a book by Sir Humphry Davy directly.

“This is the first time that Anne’s collection has been systematically described and fully identified, and in doing so we add to the body of knowledge on Anne and show her to be scientifically minded and engaging with geology. She was an intelligent and progressive individual who was in tune with the scientific enquiry of the time.”

Anne Brontë’s collection of stones, as displayed at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Courtesy of the Brontë Society.

Dr Bowden added:

“Our Raman spectroscopy analysis which we undertook at the Brontë Parsonage Museum shows that Anne Brontë did not just collect pretty stones at random but skilfully accumulated a meaningful collection of semiprecious stones and geological curiosities.

“Anne’s collection comprises stones that are sufficiently unusual and scarce to show that they were collected deliberately for their geological value, and it’s clear that her collection took skill to recognise and collect. “

You can read the full report here: Anne Brontë’s collection of stones, as displayed at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Courtesy of the Brontë Society.

You may also be interested in: Alison Sutherland ‘Rocks’

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