Most people with any exposure to the 19th century English novels will have heard of the Bronte sisters. And most of them will have read (or will know of) Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. But while Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s work remains celebrated and acknowledged — taught, discussed, referenced — that of the youngest Bronte sister, Anne, has remained (in Charlotte’s words) “in the shade”.
But there now seems to be a resurgence of interest in Anne Bronte’s work, and a move to restore her to what some people consider her rightful place in the hall of fame of the 19th century English novelists.
This interest has been fuelled in great part by a new book on Anne, Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis, and by a television biopic To Walk Invisible written by Samantha Wainwright and aired on the BBC over Christmas holidays.
The tv drama is fairly bleak as it covers a period of the sisters’ lives when they join forces to try to get their work published, when their father is losing his sight and when the whole family is being severely tested by their brother Branwell’s alcoholism and addiction. Even though the drama was commissioned to mark the bicentennial of Charlotte’s birth, it is her who emerges as the least likeable of the sisters. Anne, on the other hand, emerges as the calmest and most thoughtful.
Ellis sheds further light on Anne and her work by pointing out how much this quiet young woman was ahead of her time and how her fame was in fact thwarted by the social hypocrisy of the time she lived in. After Anne’s death (at the age of just 29 and within months of the deaths of Branwell and Emily), her sister Charlotte refused to sanction a third edition of Anne’s bestselling novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as she disapproved of the content and held that the book’s shocking subject matter was not consistent with Anne’s “reserved and timid” nature.
The book itself is certainly not reserved or timid as it deals with alcoholism, domestic violence and debauchery. And it is markedly different from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in that the heroine does not settle for a dark and dangerous hero; instead when she determines that he is too destructive to tolerate — she leaves him and supports herself and her child on her own and, as Ellis writes, “eventually finds love on her own terms”. Anne’s heroines do not settle for or fixate on violent and cruel men (like Heathcliff or Rochester) but in Ellis’s words, “while Anne’s sisters created heroes who were dark, brooding and malevolent, Anne provided her heroine with a hero who was actually nice to women”.
This is the case too in Anne’s first novel Agnes Grey, the story of a governess. Even though this was actually written before Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, in twist of fate Charlotte’s book was published first and so became known as the governess novel.
Through the character of Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte expresses the aspiration of women — as they struggle (even today) in a male-dominated society: she says that she wants “to go out into the world; to act for myself; to exercise my own unused faculties; to try my own unknown powers”.
Anne Bronte is an interesting and largely overlooked writer, but the tv biopic of the Brontes along with Samantha Ellis’s book on her have now refocused attention on her and her work. As her two novels are read or re-read, it is likely that there will also be some reassessment of the literary importance of this largely forgotten Bronte sister.