A sisterly fight for the youngest, overlooked Brontë
I confess, with some shame, that the youngest Brontë, Anne, is the one I have never explored. Clearly, I surrendered to the fake news floating around for nearly 200 years which dismissed Anne as being lesser than her more respected siblings, Emily and Charlotte.
Anne has been championed in more modern times for her more realistic, less romantic, heroines, as the sister who more clearly reflected the way society was weighted against women, and, moreover who explored a journey towards independence for her heroines, a self-actualisation free from the lures of ‘the Byronic romantic hero’ which renders Emily’s and Charlotte’s books so very alluring to impressionable minds.
Anne might just be the writer for the woman wanting to make a journey out of myth.
And Ellis is a perfectly placed writer to explore this territory.
I adored Ellis’ first book, How to be a Heroine, which engagingly, intelligently, passionately, thoughtfully and entertainingly explored the various ‘heroines’ of literature whom female readers might internalise as aspirational role models. This was, and is, a book a strongly recommend to all of my literary minded sisters, as a feisty book which provokes much enjoyable debate. And THIS book will be another, and is certainly heading me over to explore Anne’s two novels.
Ellis writes exactly the kind of literary non-fiction which I most enjoy. Forget dry, cerebral, academic theory, which pins its subject matter like a chloroformed butterfly, so that it will never fly again. Without losing any ability to analyse, or being any less intelligent in analysis, what Samantha Ellis brings is dynamism, a whole-hearted, gut-felt, lively intellect engagement with her material. Literature MATTERS to her, it is a living thing, and she observes the flying butterfly of a book, a life, a society on the wing, and observes herself observing it, rather than pretending a book, a life, a society are something outside our observation. The observer is always also having subjective responses.
Ellis takes (of course she does!) an interesting approach to her analysis of Anne, her life and her books. Rather than a linear approach, she looks at the seminal influences on Anne, with a chapter devoted to each influencing person. And also chapters devoted to the central characters of her two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – there must, surely, always be a kind of symbiotic relationship between a writer and their creations. The writer (well, the depth writer, anyway) will create characters from their own ‘stuff’, but what is also happening is that written character is also potential, offering an ability for writer (and reader) to have something fed back to them, by the imaginative invention.
And I was pleased to discover (so Ellis, so Anne!) that the positive influence of less obvious individuals were allowed to take their places in Anne’s formative sun – not only her missing mother, Maria, who died in Anne’s infancy, but Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, Maria’s older sister, who moved from her beloved Cornwall to be the motherly presence in the Haworth household. Tabby, who served the family all her life, also provided stability and love. The often harshly vilified father, Patrick, is also shown to be far more positively formative, with his commitment to education, and a strong sense of class inequality, and its unjustiice.
…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? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? Anne Brontë, preface to Tenant of Wildfell Hall
It must be said that the person Ellis is most censorious of is the best known, most successful sister – Charlotte, and her proper champions, Mrs Gaskell and Ellen Nussey. It was Charlotte who prevented, initially, the re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death. In writing a realistic novel about alcoholism and about violence within marriage, Anne had written too modern, too truthful a book. And one, moreover, ‘unfeminine’ The book was considered by some, coarse, because it showed truth, and held a mirror up to society. Charlotte rather presented the sanitised image of the youngest sister, shy and sweet, and what the youngest actually wrote, conflicted with the docile image :
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. Charlotte Brontë
At this time of course Charlotte is a literary sensation. There is no doubt she loved her sister, but it seems she may have found it easier to love the idea of a weak, ineffectual angel (possibly an unhealed loss of her eldest sister, Maria, who it seems WAS that child), but found a more tough-minded, truth, rather than romantic illusion, facing sister, too tough a prospect. A more modern, psychologically driven analysis also has to wonder about any role played by sibling rivalry. Despite being seen by some as ‘coarse’, BECAUSE it did not romanticise, Wildfell Hall did sell well, on first publication.
Samantha Ellis, in offering us a wonderfully complex, interesting person, challenging-of-pre-conceptions writer, in her Anne Brontë biography, does the reader a service by clearly indicating where she is ‘imagining’ from her own perspective how Anne might have felt, or thought this and that, with also backing up some of her assumptions by textual evidence from the books, from social history documents of the times, as well as Bronte-and-friends letters and other documents
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 Brontë, preface to Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Woven into the book, in a way I find wonderful, is a kind of life-story, journey, of Ellis as artist and woman. This is a harking back to her first book ‘How to Be A Heroine’ as she uses Anne’s writing, Anne’s complex, struggling heroines, Agnes and Helen, to help her reflect on her own journey. Reminding me (who needs no such reminder) of the power of literature to shape lives. We learn and are inspired by a multiplicity of stories – our own, those of others we know personally, also figures in our own times on world stages, figures from other times – but, also, the inspiration of imagination itself, and that most ancient, and most potent of teachers – story.
I received this as a digital copy for review purposes from the publisher via NetGalley