When ever I think of writing a post like this I usually talk myself out of it because I don’t have an English degree or 50 years of reading experience. However, I realized I am a reader and I share my thoughts on the books I read so why not share my thoughts on the prefaces of the books I read. So keep in mind this is my own internal dialog as I finished reading Agnes Grey and started reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Agnes Grey and couldn’t figure out why Anne Brontë’s novels weren’t as talked about as Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Emily’s Wuthering Heights and then I came across a quote in the preface of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Mary A. Ward that riled me up. See for yourself:
Anne Brontë serves a two fold purpose in the study of what the Brontës wrote and were. In the first place, her gentle and delicate presence, her sad short story, her hard life and early death, enter deeply into the poetry and tragedy that have always been entwined with the memory of the Brontës, as women and as writers; in the second, the books and poems that she wrote serve as matter of comparison by which to test the greatness of her two sisters. She is the measure of their genius—like them, yet not with them.
And Ward continues later in the introduction,
Their brother’s fate was an element in the genius of Emily and Charlotte which they were strong enough to assimilate, which may have done them some harm, and weakened in them certain delicate or sane perceptions, but was ultimately, by the strange alchemy of talent, far more profitable than hurtful, inasmuch as it troubled the waters of the soul, and brought them near to the more desperate realities of our ‘frail, fallen humankind.’ But Anne was not strong enough, her gift was not vigorous enough, to enable her thus to transmute experience and grief.
Now as I said, I have no literary background other than being an avid reader, but are both of these statements so vitally true that Anne Brontë’s works must be relegated to solely being a measurement of her sisters’ genius and not a harkening sign of where her writing may have gone if she’d lived? And what about comparing Anne’s work to those of other non-Brontë authors, does she stand up or does she fall flat? I don’t know – I wish I did, because everyone hates being compared to their more successful relatives.
I will be the first to say that I felt Agnes Grey‘s subject matter was light and fluffy when compared to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. However, in response to that, Anne’s writing style was much more approachable and the story showed a different side of the stormy North of England. Anne also provided hope for her readers throughout the novel.
And from rereading the introduction, the largest part of Mrs. Ward’s critique deals with the “real” aspects of Anne’s work. She has issues with the tangible, with the scenes that are envisioned without difficulty and without struggle to one’s morals or imagination. Personally I appreciate when a writer writes what they mean and doesn’t cover it up in similes or allusions.
I realized how long this post was getting, so I’ve split it in half. Keep an eye out for Part 2 where Anne responds to her readers.