Anne Bronte

Photo: Rischgitz / Stringer via Getty Images, Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare

‘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.’

So wrote Anne Brontë, under the penname Acton Bell, in the preface to her second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Despite being lapped up by readers – its sales initially eclipsed that of her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights – the book, about a woman escaping an abusive marriage to find autonomy as an artist, was savaged by critics in 1848.

A review in Sharpe’s London Magazine took umbrage with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’s representation of women ‘as superior in every quality, moral, and intellectual, to all the men’ and characters which ‘appear at once coarse, brutal, and contemptibly weak, at once disgusting and ridiculous.’

It seems unlikely Anne would have been deterred – in the same preface she wrote: ‘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?’ – although we’ll never know for sure. She never wrote another novel, dying less than a year later from the same form of tuberculosis which killed her sister Emily and brother Branwell.

Frequently undervalued as ‘the other Brontë sister’, Anne, whose bicentenary is commemorated this week, was for a long time overlooked by critics and scholars, and as a result by many readers. I myself, having grown up reading Jane Eyre, Villette and Wuthering Heights, didn't pick up Wildfell Hall until I was 29 – the same age as Anne when she died.  

 

It was a revelation. There is a stoicism and an unflinching gaze in Anne’s work, as in her life (her reported last words, which also form the title of Samantha Ellis’s excellent 2017 biography, were ‘take courage’). Her 1847 debut, Agnes Grey – written before Jane Eyre but published later – brilliantly skewers the horrors and humiliations of her time working as a governess to landed gentry. 

But it is Wildfell Hall that stands strongest, as a nuanced and startlingly prescient study of domestic violence and coercive control. The story of Helen Graham, a ‘tenant’ fleeing a brutal marriage, was deemed so scandalous even Charlotte, the surviving sister, suppressed its republication until 1854, calling the book ‘a mistake.’ But we can now see it for what it always was: a radical work of protofeminism which chimes unerringly with contemporary debates around consent, gaslighting and society’s difficulty in believing the experience of women.

During her time as a live-in governess to the wealthy Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall near York, her brother Branwell, a tutor to the Robinsons’ youngest child and an alcohol and opium addict to boot, openly conducted a disastrous affair with their manipulative employer Mrs Lydia Robinson. She saw, at a relatively early age, the ugly side of human behaviour and fed it directly into her writing.

Unlike her sisters, so obsessed with the damaged heroes of Gothic literature which they reworked into questionable ‘leading men’ like the sadistic Heathcliff and duplicitous Mr Rochester, Anne refused to romanticise anything. ‘There is always a ‘but’ in this imperfect world’, she wrote in Tenant, laying bare the dilemma of a woman who was at this time still the legal property of her husband. Famously, the critic May Sinclair commented of Tenant in 1913 that Helen Graham’s slamming of her bedroom door against her husband ‘reverberated throughout Victorian England.’ 

In the work of the Brontës, it isn't just the ferocity of the Yorkshire moors which seeps into their books but the physical and psychological violence inherent in humans. The torturing of small animals, the starving of children, the domination of women by men are all explored across their fiction. The origins of this came not just from the inhospitable environment in which the Brontës grew up, or their brief forays into society, but in the world of their imagination. The miniature books containing the fantasy tales of the fictional Gondal and Angria, which all four Brontës had dreamed up in the intense, interminable hours of childhood, caught fire in the adult imaginations of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. The difference between Anne and her sisters is that she took the stories’ radicalism forward without remaining in thrall to their romantic illusions. 

It’s time, 200 years after her birth, to finally acknowledge the bravery and foresight of Anne Brontë. Much has changed and improved for women since the 1840s, in western democracies at least, but the #MeToo movement is a reminder that too many women’s stories still go unheard. As she says herself in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: ‘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?’

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