18 January 2017

When Anne Brontë died in 1849, her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was a bestseller. Her debut, Agnes Grey, was selling well too, and her poems were still being published in magazines.

So what happened? How did she become “the other Brontë”, the neglected Brontë, the least read of her sisters, both underrated and suppressed? And what does this say about what women still are and aren’t allowed to say?

Perhaps the biggest reason that Anne didn’t get her due in the 1840s was that she was just too radical. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’s heroine, Helen, starts out like all the Brontë heroines - falling for a sexy, dangerous cad. But he turns out to be an abusive alcoholic, and she leaves him. In 1848, this wasn’t just unusual; it was illegal.

Critics were even more shocked because they suspected that the novel, published under a pseudonym, might have been written by a woman. But despite the moralising reviews, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was selling, and might have gone on selling, were it not for the fact that Anne’s older sister, Charlotte, didn’t like it either.

Charlotte had always underestimated and patronised her littlest sister, and they were often in competition. It was only after reading Agnes Grey, Anne’s exposé of what it was like to be a governess, that Charlotte sat down to write Jane Eyre - also about a governess; also about a heroine who was not beautiful.

Unfortunately, Charlotte’s novel came out first, so Anne looked like the imitator, when in fact she had been the pioneer. Perhaps Charlotte then felt a little miffed by the way Anne’s second novel critiqued both Jane Eyre and their sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne argued that women should steer clear of tortured, self-destructive men like Rochester and Heathcliff; men her sisters had written as heroes.

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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