Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Brilliant Brontës: Anne Brontë and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Bronte (1820-1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 - Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 - Haworth, 1855), English writers, Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), ca 1834. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 5 Jan 2016.
2016 will mark the first bicentenary of the Brontë siblings with Charlotte's birthday on April 21st; Branwell's is next, in June 2017, followed by  Emily's in July 2018, and finally Anne's in January 2020. We thought we would get the party started this year with our Brilliant Brontës Challenge! Every month in 2016, we'll have one Brontë-related post. Feel free to join our celebration of all things Brontë with an item from the library catalog, and let us know what you've watched or read or listened to in the comments of our Brilliant Brontës posts! We're kicking it off with an homage to Anne.

Many years after Anne’s death her brother-in-law protested against a supposed portrait of her, as giving a totally wrong impression of the ‘dear, gentle Anne Brontë.’  ‘Dear’ and ‘gentle’ indeed she seems to have been through life, the youngest and prettiest of the sisters, with a delicate complexion, a slender neck, and small, pleasant features.  Notwithstanding, she possessed in full the Brontë seriousness, the Brontë strength of will.  When her father asked her at four years old what a little child like her wanted most, the tiny creature replied—if it were not a Brontë it would be incredible!—‘Age and experience.’  
~from Mary A. (Mrs. Humphry) Ward's preface to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.
~George Moore, Irish novelist

Anne Brontë is the least venerated member of the Brontë family; her life and work lives in the shadow of her famous sisters, and even, to a certain extent, in the shadow of her brother Branwell's addiction. Her persona has not the mystique of Emily; her literary talent less towering than what's exhibited in either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, and she was also slightly less prolific than her sister Charlotte, who ultimately outlived Anne. Her reputation was not helped by the fact that Charlotte blocked the re-publication of the "more overtly political" Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne's death - it was not re-published until just before Charlotte's death, and then with significant omissions that were kept in many subsequent editions. Still, she was the mysterious and reclusive Emily's partner in their fantasy world, Gondal, about which they wrote stories and poems - a friend said Emily and Anne were "like twins"; and, though overshone by her sisters during her short life, in 2013 a Bronte Society member said of Anne, "In some ways, though, she is now viewed as the most radical of the sisters, writing about tough subjects such as women's need to maintain independence, and how alcoholism can tear a family apart."

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Anne's second and final novel. The narrative unfolds first in epistolary form, but also includes diary entries. It's the story of the enigmatic Mrs. Graham, who rents Wildfell Hall (long empty and in some disrepair) for herself, her young son Arthur, and a servant. She pays her way by selling her paintings. Her story is told by Gilbert Markham, a local farmer who befriends her.  How and why Mrs. Graham came to Wildfell Hall is shrouded in mystery and the source for much gossip, much of it spiteful, by her neighbors. Little by little the reader learns the story of an abusive marriage and an alcoholic husband that have caused Mrs. Graham to flee her old life. Some of the scenes sound shocking even today, but what else can you expect in a world where a wife was property (the Married Women's Property Act was not passed until 1882) and where this exchange takes place about the differences in educating boys and girls about handling the vicissitudes of growing up:
‘I beg your pardon, Mrs. Graham—but you get on too fast.  I have not yet said that a boy should be taught to rush into the snares of life,—or even wilfully to seek temptation for the sake of exercising his virtue by overcoming it;—I only say that it is better to arm and strengthen your hero, than to disarm and enfeeble the foe;—and if you were to rear an oak sapling in a hothouse, tending it carefully night and day, and shielding it from every breath of wind, you could not expect it to become a hardy tree, like that which has grown up on the mountain-side, exposed to all the action of the elements, and not even sheltered from the shock of the tempest.’
‘Granted;—but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?’
‘Certainly not.’
‘No; you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant—taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil.  But will you be so good as to inform me why you make this distinction?  Is it that you think she has no virtue?’
I first read Tenant years ago, and was instantly drawn to it. Perhaps it was inevitable - I had spent my teen years reading the "female bildungsroman" of Louisa May Alcott, including Rose in Bloom, in which a character succumbs to vice with a tragic outcome. Alcott is known for "address[ing] women’s issues in a modern and candid manner" in her fiction, and Anne is a worthy precursor to Alcott, suppressed because her ideas were too modern for her time, and also due to mediation of Charlotte Brontë - it's been suggested that her treatment of her younger sister was colored by "an elder sister's disdain" [McDonagh, from the introduction to Tenant]. Bettina Knapp, in The Brontes: Branwell, Anne, Emily, Charlotte, says of Anne: "...her interests were ideologically oriented. Questions of conscience were uppermost in her mind: domesticity, the rights of working women, and abused wives. Anne sought truth and justice via the medium of the word." Tenant comes out strongly in favor of temperance; Anne's first book, Agnes Grey, used her experiences of oppression and abuse while working as a governess as source material (Anne was the most steadily employed of the siblings).  Knapp goes so far as to assert that "Anne's ambition, as we know, was not to produce 'a perfect work of art.'  Her goal was first and foremost evangelical: to teach what she believed to be the moral and loftly lessons of Christianity". Perhaps that accounts for some of Charlotte's disdain - Anne has chosen to err on the side of content over form, to use her literary talent as a tool. Anne was, in childhood, closest to Aunt Branwell, the children's caretaker after their mother's death; Anne's zealous nature, her commitment to service, were perhaps shaped by the older woman, a staunch Methodist.

Apart from content, I feel Anne's writing style is quite good.  Passages such as
And, upon the whole, our intimacy was rather a mutual predilection than a deep and solid friendship, such as has since arisen between myself and you, Halford, whom, in spite of your occasional crustiness, I can liken to nothing so well as an old coat, unimpeachable in texture, but easy and loose—that has conformed itself to the shape of the wearer, and which he may use as he pleases, without being bothered with the fear of spoiling it;—whereas Mr. Lawrence was like a new garment, all very neat and trim to look at, but so tight in the elbows, that you would fear to split the seams by the unrestricted motion of your arms, and so smooth and fine in surface that you scruple to expose it to a single drop of rain
show a charming turn of phrase that, frankly, I didn't expect to find in a book by a Brontë - I tend to expect discussions of soaring heights and dizzying depths, all taken with the utmost seriousness. Anne's characters seem realistic, from the catty neighbors to the jilted sweetheart, but there are missteps - Gilbert Markham explodes in an unexpected scene of violence that seems worthy of Heathcliff and not quite in character. Nevertheless, Bettina Knapp's biography praises the young author's writing overall:
Anne's unsentimental, skillfully built, and suspenseful scenes, the self-control in her writing, the smooth, ordered, classically constructed sentences, the subdued effects of rhetoric, and the insights into the psyches of her characters, drawn for the most part from observation were remarkable, given her age and experience.
Perhaps creating a work of art was not of the utmost importance to Anne, but she has still done more than create wholly didactic novels.

As with all the Brontës, Anne's was a voice silenced too soon. She died of tuberculosis, which had also claimed the lives on her older brother and sister, aged only 29. Her "audacious and courageous" heroines [Knapp] with their "stern and uncompromising" message [McDonagh] live on to "...rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense" [Anne Brontë]. In Anne's own Preface to the Second Edition, Anne was careful to distance herself from Currer and Ellis Bell (the pseudonyms her sisters wrote under), and bold to suggest that "if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be".

The physical copy of the book and the eAudiobook in the library catalog are the Clarendon edition, published in 1992, which is regarded as the canonical edition. If you attempt to read the book online, know that Project Gutenberg is using the 1920 John Murray edition, based upon the mutilated 1854 edition.

You can also find audio versions of Brontë novels, correspondence, and poetry on Spotify:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have never read any of Anne Bronte's books, but this post inspires me to give her as much attention as Anne and Charlotte.