Poor Anne Bronte has always been the third wheel in the famous trio of sister-writers. In the introduction to my edition of her novel Agnes Grey, Anita Desai says Anne is the youngest, the palest, the most elusive and the most easily overlooked.
I couldn’t understand how that had happened when I read Agnes Grey. It shows us a governess hell that far outstrips the relatively mild experiences of Jane Eyre with Adele, her adorable but spoilt little charge.
Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte as painted by their brother, Branwell.Credit:
Agnes’ student, Tom, is a vile, cruel boy, clearly destined to grow up to be a sociopath, and to get away with it because he’s a privileged and overindulged male. Violence begets violence: Agnes is forced to destroy a nest of young birds because she knows Tom will torture them if she doesn’t kill them first. This is much stronger stuff than we’ve been led to expect in past impressions of a reticent, conventional writer.
Finally, Anne is having a moment that may release her from the shadow of Charlotte and Emily. For one thing, she has just had her 200th birthday, and the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire, has been leading the last of the five-year bicentenary celebrations for perhaps the most amazing family in literature.
Another reason to celebrate Anne is that readers are casting a new eye on her work in the #MeToo age. Cate Whittaker’s play The Lost Voice of Anne Bronte, which had its world premiere in Sydney, bills Anne as ‘‘the first whistleblower on wife abuse’’.
So the supposedly meek and mild Anne is a fierce crusader for feminism? How did we miss that? Samantha Ellis, author of Take Charge: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, says big sister Charlotte was partly to blame. After Anne’s early death, Charlotte blocked all reprints of her sister’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which she thought was an ‘‘entire mistake’’ in its subject matter. Critics also tended to accept at face value Charlotte’s faint praise of Anne’s writing.
Haworth parsonage, the home of the the Brontes.Credit:
The interest for contemporary readers is that unlike Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, which make romantic heroes out of seriously flawed and self-destructive men, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has a heroine, Helen, who is raped by her violent alcoholic husband and assaulted by another man who preys on her vulnerability and the fact that no one will believe her accusations. She runs away from her marriage with her son – an unheard-of solution in those times.
Ellis’ article for The Times Literary Supplement also argues that Agnes Grey could have been a piece of consciousness-raising for oppressed governesses, to show them they were not alone and to encourage them to push for change. But not a single critic saw the novel that way.
Another reappraisal of Anne comes from novelist Tracy Chevalier in her introduction to the Folio Society edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She argues that Anne was the equal of Charlotte and Emily in her writing. When Helen is first courted by the man who makes such a disastrous husband, Chevalier comments ‘‘Reading this section is like watching the proverbial car crash in slow motion, complete with the reader shouting ‘Stop! Don’t do it!’.’’
How was Anne Bronte able to write so accurately about bad marriages and substance abuse, Chevalier wonders. The answer might well be that she had an example of that kind of man right in front of her: her beloved brother Branwell, wrecked by alcoholism and dissipation. She wrote fearlessly and honestly, and we should celebrate that.
Jane Sullivan’s latest book, Storytime, is published by Ventura Press at $26.99.
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