How sibling rivalry made Anne the ‘neglected’ Brontë

Anne Brontë's biographer, Samantha Ellis, reveals how the Agnes Grey author's older, better-known sister Charlotte helped to restrict her readership.

The 'neglected' Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall might have gone on selling, were it not for the fact that Anne’s sister, Charlotte, didn’t like it

If Anne had survived, she could have protected her work. She had already defended The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to her critics in a stonking, closely-argued preface to the second edition. But she died of tuberculosis at just 29. Charlotte was now the sole survivor of the siblings; lonely, grieving, and also horribly exposed because she had been pressured to give up her pseudonym.

As misogynist critics called the Brontë novels “coarse” and “unwomanly”, Charlotte reacted by presenting herself as a martyr whose work had been misunderstood. She characterised Emily as a naïve genius who hadn’t known what she was writing, and wrote that Anne was pure, innocent, not hugely talented, and a bit gloomy. This didn’t fit with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so she decided it had been “an entire mistake”, not at all what Anne had meant to write, and she refused to allow it to be reprinted.

Because of Charlotte, Anne’s best novel was nearly impossible to get hold of for many years, and anyone who wondered why could read Charlotte’s harsh verdict. For over a century and a half, her assessment has stuck. But perhaps, at last, things are changing. Maybe now we are ready for Anne’s bold, arresting books.

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