“I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man”- Anne Bronte, Second preface to ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”
It was only until I studied ‘Wuthering Heights’ at A-Level that I realised there even was a third Bronte sister. Even so, she received a passing mention, and it wasn’t until the summer before I started university that I investigated her novels. I watched the Tenant of Wildfell Hall and was incredibly surprised that this incredible story had never gained my attention beforehand. The 1996 adaption wasn’t perfect, but the brave and feminist character of Helen Huntington shone and compelled me to buy the book and bring it with me on holiday. The book far surpassed my expectations and left me with one nagging question. Why and how has Anne Bronte been forgotten?
Charlotte and Emily wrote ground-breaking, wonderful novels and are justly remembered for them. Anne on the other hand is the ‘other Bronte’ and those who may have heard of her aren’t familiar with her novels or poetry. Her novels are viewed as not reaching the same literary heights that Charlotte and Emily’s did, but to me, and to those who have read her work it’s clear Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are equal to anything Charlotte and Emily wrote, and surpass them in ways too.
Anne’s devotion to the truth is evident in all of her works, her unflinching honesty in Agnes Grey written before Jane Eyre details the harsh reality of being a governess, Anne writing about the hardships she herself experienced while being a governess. Anne shed light on a life that numerous women experienced in Victorian England, and while it doesn’t reach the gothic greatness of Jane Eyre, the novel is unwavering in its account of the tough life of a young governess. Agnes ends up with the sweet Mr Weston, and finds companionship and love, in a healthy and caring marriage. Unlike Charlotte and Emily, Anne herself persevered and managed to make her career as a governess a success after her turbulent experiences, becoming close friends with her employers the Robinson’s, and gaining her brother Branwell a position as a tutor, until his subsequent affair with Lydia Robinson caused Anne to resign and move home.
It is Anne’s brutal depiction of marriage however, that dominates her second and best novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While examining Victorian marriage, Anne also addresses the true nature of the mysterious and damaged men that her sisters, and readers have idolized. The Byronic, brooding figures of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester have been heavily romanticized, especially in TV and Film, despite characters like Heathcliff behaving awfully, and while being a captivating and complex character to study, I question whether his actions warrant the rose-tinted view the media seems to enjoy.
Many Victorian novels end in marriages to these kind of figures, Jane with Mr Rochester, young Cathy with Hareton. The marriage of Helen and Arthur Huntington however, happens early in Helen’s life, Anne raising the question of: What is marriage actually like to one of these men? Arthur at first appears attractive and charming compared to the other dull marriage prospects that Helen faces, and she believes that her love can change him and make him a better husband and father. However Arthur soon descends into alcoholism, resulting in him being emotionally abusive, having an affair and negatively influencing their son. This stark and violent illustration of alcoholism and its consequences on a marriage had not been written in such an intense nature before, let alone by a female author. As she did with Agnes Grey, Anne channelled her own life experiences into Tenant, the Bronte family dealing with their brother Branwell falling to alcoholism, eventually resulting in his death in 1848. While her novel was criticised, Anne defended her work, claiming
“When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest?”
Helen leaves her husband and takes her son, and moves to a new town under her maiden name where she meets Gilbert Markham, who takes an interest in the mysterious new woman. It’s evident why the novel is considered one of the first sustained feminist texts, Helen breaks the law by running away from her marriage and slamming the door in the face of her husband despite the persecution she faces, because she knows it’s the right thing to do for herself, and to protect the future of her child. The novel ends with her second marriage to Gilbert, after she’s secured her independence and financial security. While Gilbert isn’t the best dashing romantic hero, he loves and respects her. This time, she proposes to him, having an assurance that she will have a happy marriage on her terms of devotion and respect.
However since then, Anne’s work has fallen off the public’s radar and seen as a lesser version of her sisters. It didn’t help that Agnes Grey was published in the same volume as Wuthering Heights, or that despite being written first, was published after Jane Eyre. However after Anne’s death in 1849, Charlotte chose not to republish The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, stating that
“Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake – it was too little consonant with the character – tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer”
As the novels dark themes were too radical it sees that this didn’t fit with Charlotte’s view of who her sister was, thus leading to its suppression. Charlotte didn’t appear to take Anne’s work seriously, and while partly it may have been to do with the negative critical response and Charlotte wanting to protect the memory of her sister, to suppress a work that was ground-breaking and important, disappoints me greatly.
The lack of television or film adaptions for her novels has contributed to the lack of recognition of Anne’s work, not receiving the Hollywood treatment like Wuthering Heights or the number of adaptions like Jane Eyre. Sadly without a captivating romantic lead, it seems no one believes an adaption could be a success, maybe Anne’s refusal to sugar coat reality doesn’t leave a stereotypical period drama that producers believe will draw in viewers. The 1996 version of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is worth watching, but it’s definitely dated in parts and an update for the novel is desperately needed and its feminist themes and Helen’s struggle to escape a toxic marriage are just as relevant in society today.
However this last year, it seems everyone is catching onto the brilliance of Anne Bronte, with at least two new books published on her, a BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Agnes Grey, and the BBC’s brilliant television drama, To Walk Invisible which looks at the three years in which all sisters wrote and published their novels while dealing with the decline of their brother. Anne’s portrayal was fantastic, highlighting her strength and honesty, her close relationship with Emily and her integral role in the family.
In September I’ll be starting my third year of my English Literature degree, and I’ve planned to focus my dissertation on Anne and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, something I’m nervous but excited to start researching. I hope this spotlight of Anne continues, because she deserves far more than to be seen as the ‘other Bronte’, I hope that people continue to write about her, adapt her novels and talk about her courage and bravery, and that she claims her place in the literary canon with her sisters, as she rightfully earned with her feminist, radical views that proved she was far ahead of her time.
I’ve wanted to write about literature for a while, and I’ve decided to take a break from television reviews for now, so expect more book related posts coming up soon!