Tuesday, May 28, 2024

This Day in Literary History (Death of Anne Bronte, The Forgotten, Underrated Sister)

May 28, 1849— Anne Bronte, the youngest, quietest, and most religious of a trio of sisters who mined extraordinary fiction from the wild Yorkshire moors where they grew up, passed away from tuberculosis at age 29 in the seaside town of Scarborough, where she had begged to be taken for a last visit before she died.

The adjectives I used in the last sentence might conjure up a weepy, weak, wren-like woman accustomed to taking a back seat to sisters Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights). 

That image is reinforced by Anne’s physical appearance: a “long neck, thin features and pronounced mouth,” writes Bronte family biographer Juliet Barker.

But Anne was also the most bitingly satirical of the three sisters, and the one most unafraid to challenge Victorian mores about what constituted suitable fiction for women and children—so much so that after her death, Charlotte and early biographers did her an inadvertent disservice by softening her sharp edges.

Partly as a result, family biographers and critics didn’t plumb Anne’s life for clues to themes and characters in her poetry and two surviving novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has only had one TV adaptation, the 1996 BBC miniseries with Tara Fitzgerald in the title role, and Agnes Grey has had no TV or film versions at all—unlike for Jane Eyre (9) and Wuthering Heights (12, counting modern and Spanish-language versions).

Like Charlotte, Barker wrote in her epic 1994 biography, The Brontes, Anne had “a core of steel, a sense of duty and obligation,” which manifested itself in making the best of her time away in school, despite rampant homesickness; in how she looked after her parson father; in how she worked as a governess for five years, despite her growing dissatisfaction with the profession; and in an ironclad commitment to writing that was so intense, Charlotte worried, that she dreaded for her sister’s health.

Biographers face an unusual problem with the Brontes, for none more so than Anne. It is impossible to understand how they came to write at all without understanding their interactions.

But too much stress on that environment can also lead to a failure to understand the sisters’ differences from each other, as well as from their equally talented but troubled artist brother Branwell.

It was Branwell, for instance, who created one of the few likenesses of the three sisters together. (Emily—and Branwell--preceded Anne in death only months before.) But it was Branwell who seems to have brought Anne’s second job as a governess to an end when, as tutor to a son in the Robinson family, he engaged in a scandalous affair that led to his dismissal.

Branwell’s alcohol- and opium-spurred downward spiral when he went home, in turn, likely inspired Anne’s characterization of Arthur Huntingdon of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, whose alcoholic rages lead his wife to flee under an assumed name with her child to a remote village.

The novel’s description of the suffering caused by alcoholism (“I see that a man cannot give himself up to drinking without being miserable one-half his days and mad the other”) has the special insight of one who has watched a loved one undone by the disease.

Anne’s relationship with Charlotte, though not as troubled, was equally complicated.

Though it was Charlotte’s idea, for instance, to publish her and her sisters’ poems together, Emily and Anne compelled her to adopt pseudonyms to protect their identities.

Eventually, Charlotte saw the wisdom of the sisters’ not using female names, because “authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.”

These pseudonyms—Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell—feature gender-neutral first names, with the initials of the three authors corresponding to their actual names.

But it was other circumstances surrounding the publication of their books involving Charlotte that led the oldest sister to leave Anne as something of a cipher in the brooding family saga.

As Samantha Ellis’ January 2017 essay in the British paper The Guardian outlined, Anne had written a novel about her experiences as a governess, Agnes Grey, first. But it was Jane Eyre that was seen by British readers first, because, separate from Emily and Anne, Charlotte found a publisher more enthusiastic about issuing her book.

In addition, Anne’s challenge to conventional mores in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall led Charlotte to be overprotective of her sister’s image after her death.

It would have been bad enough that Anne, in defiance of the Anglican Church, opposed the idea of eternal damnation in favor of universal salvation.

But she also raised hackles with her depictions of a single woman (Huntingdon’s wife, adopting the name “Mrs. Helen Graham” in her new community) earning a living through her paintings, of domestic violence, and of the precarious legal position of women in Victorian England.

While Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights ultimately belong to romantic fiction with their raging but suffering chief male characters, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is unsparing in its realism. 

When contemporary critics took issue with this treatment, Anne responded, in a preface to the second edition of the book, with a ringing defense of gritty, unillusioned fiction that doesn’t cater to readers’ expectations:

“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? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of like to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.”

Anne also echoed John Milton’s denunciation of “a fugitive and cloistered virtue” in having her heroine directly challenge society’s encouragement of domineering boys while girls are supposed to be meek and mild:

“I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself.”

Anne’s death following months of depression over the death of Emily and her own ineffective medical treatment for tuberculosis left her posthumous reputation in the hands of Charlotte, who did not authorize a reissue of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in the remaining six years or her life—and who described her as a “gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer.”

That overprotectiveness led critics and English professors to overlook a writer with a contribution to literature every bit as distinct as her older sisters.

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