Anne Brontë | Georgia L. Gilholy
Enter “Anne Brontë” into your search engine of choice and every few webpages you scroll past will express an urgent need to celebrate the ‘unsung’ of the famed literary trio. This surge in interest is at least in part, related to the slew of attention that accompanied the bicentennial of Anne’s birth last January, as much as it is to do with any grassroots groundswell of enthusiasm for her work. Much of this renewed acclaim predated last year’s landmark celebration of course; and the twilight of the twentieth century was characterised by increased academic reverence for her work, even if it is yet to rival the popular enthusiasm for Charlotte and Emily.
Anne was the youngest of the six Brontë children, and one of only four to survive to adulthood. Born on the outskirts of Bradford in 1820 to a Cornish mother and an Irish clergyman, she was in many ways forever fated to be an outsider. However in her 2017 work Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life Samantha Ellis highlights contemporary accounts that Anne was the prettiest and most ‘normal’ of herself, Charlotte and Emily. Do we simply not want to believe that Anne was attractive and sociable, while being just as talented as her sisters? Is it then, Anne’s perceived ‘normalcy’ relative to her sisters that has led many a sour critic to cast her as “a Brontë without genius”? Yet, that Anne exhibited her ‘genius’ by often exploring different subjects to her sisters ought not to diminish the greatness of either’s achievements.
Her poetry (though less celebrated than Emily’s) is delicate, didactic and moving: see her biting rebuke of the Calvinist dogma that an elect number of souls were predestined to be saved by God, and that one’s actions on earth did not impact their spiritual fate—who said the Victorians had no culture wars?
Or, her relish of deepest night, where in sleep she might feel closest to loved ones beyond the grave.
Not only was Anne’s imaginary life punctuated by grief, but her real one. In childhood, she lost her two elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth to tuberculosis. Her potential beau William Weightman died of cholera in 1842, the same year her live-in aunt and mother-substitute Elizabeth Branwell also passed away suddenly.
Like Helen Graham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s mother died too early for her to remember, and the energetic mother to Agnes Grey was probably written as a form of wish fulfilment. Surely infused with the brewing protofeminism of Christian activists like Hannah More (d. 1833), the eponymous protagonist’s mother upends assumptions of female docility and inferiority. She refuses to force her daughters into marrying for the sake of money and, upon being widowed, relocates her life to a different town to begin a school for young girls, just as Anne and her sisters once planned to.
Throughout this semi-autobiographical debut novel, Anne explored the precarious social status of Victorian governesses, who occupied an awkward spot in the class hierarchy. Governesses were mostly well-educated girls from families in want of income. Neither servants nor members of the family, the governess’ lot was generally lonely, underpaid and downtrodden. Anne displaced Victorian notions of class status when describing how the “thoroughbred” aristocrats mistreat Agnes as did her initial “upstart” employers – for which she was panned by the critics.
Where Emily and Charlotte are praised for exalting Byronic male leads like Heathcliff and Rochester, Anne’s radicalism lies in deflating the romantic cult entirely. When – spoiler alert – Edward Weston proposes to Agnes on the cliffs of a Scarborough-esque fictional town, Anne solidifies her romanticism of authentic, virtuous men and impresses on the reader the importance of not succumbing to naivety in relationships and marriage; a message developed upon in Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (albeit in a more destructive manner).
Unlike Agnes’ idealised proposal from a stoic clergyman with whom she has already established a friendship and mutual respect, Helen Graham—likely modelled on Lady Caroline Norton who fled her physically abusive husband, and was subsequently dragged to court over her alleged ‘criminal conversations’ with then-Prime Minister Lord Melbourne*— is whisked off her feet by the wealthy, swaggering Arthur Huntingdon. Helen ignores her aunt’s advice of caution and dismisses his debauched past.
Their relationship quickly descends into chaos, and Anne details the behaviour of a fictional alcoholic husband obviously modelled on her brother Branwell, who shared Arthur’s predilection for gambling, alcoholism and adultery. So heavily was the book rebuked for these dark themes that Charlotte smeared the novel as “a mistake”, and barred its re-publication until 1854. Yet Anne was performing the crucial role of holding a mirror up to the failure of society, and even her own family. It was not Anne’s fault that neither were quite ready to acknowledge her.
While progressive scholarship routinely misconstrues Victorian religiosity as a nefarious apparatus for reinforcing oppressive and damaging traditions, Helen’s faith functions as her principal source of strength, and as a young woman isolated from her family and whose resources are commandeered by an unworthy manager, her only method of survival.
After being accused of “wild [religious] fanaticism” for refusing to elope with Mr Hargrave, a friend of Arthur’s who consistently attempts to engage Helen in a flirtation, she gives an impassioned monologue to his rebuke:
“There is another life both for you and for me…If it be the will of God that we should sow in tears now, it is only that we may reap in joy hereafter. It is His will that we should not injure others by the gratification of our own earthly passions; and you have a mother, and sisters, and friends who would be seriously injured by your disgrace; and I, too, have friends, whose peace of mind shall never be sacrificed to my enjoyment, or yours either, with my consent; and if I were alone in the world, I have still my God and my religion, and I would sooner die than disgrace my calling and break my faith with heaven to obtain a few brief years of false and fleeting happiness – happiness sure to end in misery even here – for myself or any other!”
Initially, Helen trusts that through directing her husband’s moral self improvement she will save the marriage. Once it becomes clear that Arthur has no intention of cooperating in this mission, she sticks it out dutifully. However, it becomes clear that he intends to inspire their son to behave just as egregiously as himself and his debauched friends, upon which Helen meticulously engineers her plan to flee to safety with ‘Little Arthur’ in tow.
Wildfell is so much more than a story about brutality and vice, and despite the scalding of many contemporary critics, the book was a great success upon its initial publication. Helen’s faith, love for her son, the comfort permitted by her artistic talent, and her final forgiveness and care for Arthur allow her to reach a similarly blissful state of affairs as Agnes by the novel’s conclusion.
The shadow of her sisters’ achievements aside, it is just as likely that the reason for Anne’s subdued success with modern readers is her more overt piety. While Charlotte gets dewy-eyed over the adulterous Rochester, and Emily closes Wuthering Heights with the image of a decaying churchyard. As the late American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb outlined “It is this reluctance to speak the language of morality…that separates us from the Victorians.” Consequently, Anne’s place in literary history, alongside many others, can appear an outdated relic to the eyes of the modern reader. Hence The Guardian’s dismissal of Helen Graham as a “goody-goody bore” in a 2005 “reminder” of the novel. Her family-defying marriage, subsequent flight, and resilient personality are almost entirely overshadowed by the embarrassing fact of her Christianity.
Anne died the year after the publication of Wildfell, at just 29 years old. It is a testament to her genius and passion that she achieved so much in such a short life. Anne may have only left her beloved Yorkshire once, but her words have sent ripples across time and space. Now to repeat Anne’s closing line to Agnes Grey: “I think I have said sufficient”.
*Lord Norton’s case against Lord Melbourne was dismissed after a nine day court case, but the resulting publicity almost brought down his government, and Lady Caroline’s soured relations with her husband continued to cause her turmoil until his death in 1875.