A lot has been and will continue to be said about Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Their masterpieces, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, respectively, are both revolutionary, albeit in different ways. But there’s another Brontë you may not have heard about – Anne. And it’s not because she didn’t write anything. She did. She wrote two novels (twice as many as Emily) as well as poetry. And it’s also not because her writing wasn’t good, because the more critics pay attention to Anne, the more agree that she was a talented writer just like her sisters. So why is she is stuck in her sisters’ shadows?
The answer may be that she was too radical. More specifically, her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was…well…
Anne’s novels dealt with Victorian society without the elements of melodrama that mark Jane Eyre, with its madwoman in the attic, and Wuthering Heights, with its ghosts and increasingly insane protagonist. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, faithfully reflects her first-hand experiences as a governess, while The Tenant of Wildfell Hall depicts a strong woman who escapes with her child from an abusive, alcoholic husband. Describing life as a governess is one thing, but a woman running away from her wretch of a husband? This was intolerable.
If you think I’m kidding, consider that at the time the novel was written, it was illegal for a woman to take her child away from her husband, even if he was clearly dangerous. Women had no right to divorce their husbands, and a woman who did take her child away from her husband would be charged with kidnapping. Besides, the uncomfortably realistic portrayal of alcoholism was outrageous in its own right. And it wasn’t just snooty male members of the patriarchy who felt this way – Charlotte, yes Charlotte Brontë, Anne’s big sister – was also against the publication of Anne’s second novel. That’s why, despite the fact that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a wild success upon its release, Charlotte prevented it being reprinted after Anne’s death at 29. This was because, in Charlotte’s own words, “Wildfell Hall…hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring experienced writer.”
We can only hope that we all have a sibling who will suppress our own work after we’re dead and unable to do anything about it.
Fortunately, today there are plenty of readers willing to ignore Charlotte’s opinion. Anne’s work is sometimes included in collections of the works of the sisters these days, though there is still a long way to go. Now, it’s debatable whether Anne’s novels are as good as her sisters, but it’s undeniable that Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall offer something quite different than the more famous works of Charlotte and Emily. They may not be as dramatic as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but they are unflinchingly honest. And if we allow books to be forgotten just because they’re honest, well, that says more about us than it does about the author.
So go read it (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). Or at the very least, remember Anne.
Fun Fact #1: If you’ve ever wondered why Charlotte, Emily, and Anne have a not-very-British sounding name, it’s because their father, Patrick Brontë, changed his last name to Brontë. Originally, it was Brunty.
Fun Fact #2: I happened to find out there was a third Olson sibling around the same time as I found out about Anne Brontë. Irrelevant? Maybe, but this is my blog, so back off.