If you’ve spent any time on my blog or over on my instagram (link) you’ll know that I am a huge fan of the Brontë sisters. And whilst Charlotte, or more specifically her characters, have captured my heart I adore all the works produced by these singularly brilliant women writers.
One thing that has fascinated critics and readers alike for centuries is how three women, raised in a parsonage surrounded by the Yorkshire moors, largely cut off from society, managed to write some of the most passionate and moving novels ever written? How did they create characters and stories which shocked and scandalised Victorian society, and continue to delight readers now? Why do women of all ages, through the ages, find their protagonists so familiar and captivating?
Many much more qualified people than me have attempted to answer this question so I won’t delve into that too much – instead I want to focus on the sister who was perhaps the most radical and yet is the one you are least likely to have come across.
Anne Brontë was the youngest of the sisters. Like her siblings she grew up writing short stories and poems. Alongside her sisters she published two novels under a male synonym. Yet Anne has never been as well known, or regarded, as Charlotte and Emily. All three poured over manuscripts around their dining table and spurred one another on with their writing. They published their poems together to little acclaim.
Her first novel, Agnes Grey, was criticised for being a lackluster imitation of Jane Eyre which had come out a few months before, despite it having been written before Charlotte’s cornerstone of feminist fiction. It crackles with a sense of injustice at the plight of women, where Jane Eyre only simmers. Whilst her characters might lack the cinematic qualities of Jane and Rochester they are quieter and more real. Based largely upon Anne’s own romantic disappointments and horrific experiences as a governess it reads as a searing indictment of the inequalities of societal attitudes towards middle class women and the limited options available to them.
Whilst critics felt that Agnes Grey was a little over the top in places they were in for a further shock when she published her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Like her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights it scandalised Victorian readers with its depictions of violence, vice, debauchery and passions. Dressed up as a domestic drama it owes much to Jane Austen’s works in its tone and moralising. However, it is unlikely that Miss Austen would have depicted the depravity of Arthur Huntingdon and his gang.
No doubt influenced by her brother’s own alcoholism and affair with a married woman, Anne shows the very worst characteristics of men. She bravely discusses domestic abuse, motherhood and gender relations. Our heroine Helen Graham is trapped in a loveless marriage with the awful Huntingdon, societal norms meaning she can neither leave nor divorce her husband.
This is not the stuff of the most novels of the time, and it is the feminist battle cries of Helen which mark Anne as a revolutionary. Many consider this to be one of the first feminist novels. Helen decries the fates of women and marriage:
Well, Esther, I pity you; but still, I repeat, stand firm. You might as well sell yourself to slavery at once, as marry a man you dislike. If your mother and brother are unkind to you, you may leave them, but remember you are bound to your husband for life.’
and points out the shocking inequalities in how the sexes are raised:
…You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others. Now I would have both so to benefit by the experience of others, and the precepts of a higher authority, that they should know beforehand to refuse the evil and choose the good…’
Anne herself acknowledges in the second edition of the novel the reaction which the novel was met with and she rather bravely sought to defend her editorial decisions:
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, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Anne gives us a heroine who takes control of her fate, seeking to live independently, using her talents to provide for herself and her son. Such freedoms were rarely allotted to women of the time and Anne, who tragically died at the age of 29, was never able to do so.
Much of the reason that Anne is so little regarded can be put down to Charlotte’s decision to prevent the re-publication of Anne’s novels after her death. She claimed this was to protect Anne’s good name and avoid the scandal associated with her salacious literary offerings. Scholars also ignored her works until feminist critics started to sing the praises of her heroines. And whilst her books lack the romance, gothic drama and hyperbole of her sisters’ much more famous offerings I’d like to encourage you to seek out Anne’s work.