Friday, April 21, 2017

Anne Bronte: The Realist

I've never read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Or Agnes Grey. I've read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights a million times, but nothing by the youngest Bronte sister. But I plan on rectifying the situation by putting both novels on my summer reading list. 

Anne Bronte was the youngest of the three and published her first novel, Agnes Grey, in 1847 at the same time her sisters published Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Over the years, neither of her books have received the same acclaim as either of her sisters, although later critics called her prose "perfect" and suggest that had she lived longer, she would have written a novel to surpass Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

(Anne Bronte, public domain)

All three of the girls were deeply affected by their brother Branwell's alcoholism. His slow death and degradation could not have been pretty. Long bouts of sickness followed him as well as debt and disgrace. When drunk (which was most of the time), he was demanding and abusive to his father and his sisters. The domestic violence of their household was no doubt the fodder for Anne's depiction of such matters in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Whereas Charlotte and Emily used their experiences with Branwell to spin more romanticized tales of wild love for a dark hero whose sins can and will be redeemed by the end of the story, Anne's view was much more realistic. Alcoholism was tragic, violence was ugly, and sometimes there were no happy endings. Charlotte Bronte's view was most likely tempered with a heavy helping of romanticism from her time in Brussels when she fell in love with a married man, and Emily may have drawn upon the notion that bad boys, like her brother, could be changed by love. 

Anne did not shy away from the stark and disturbing depiction of a woman shackled to a man in this state of degradation. Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a commercial success, many criticized its blunt description and graphic storytelling about such matters. To this, Anne replied,

"...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. 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 life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O 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."*

I agree. This is profound wisdom. Although many of us prefer to read the romanticized version of the Byronic hero in Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff, the idea of saving a man fallen so far from grace has led many a woman down a thorny garden path and left her trodden in the mud.

Have you ever read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Agnes Grey?

*Quote from A Celebration of Women Writer's biography on Anne Bronte by Mary Mark Ockerbloom


  1. I have not read either one, but might have to soon. It is interesting the effect of alcoholism in one family member has on all the others in the family. Seemed like the sisters got some of their anguish about it out of their system perhaps through their words written.


    1. I really am going to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall this summer, since Anne is the only Bronte sister I haven't read. Also, my work-in-progress is a bit of a nod to that story. I think you're right that a lot of writers "get their anguish out" through their stories.