As you’ve read in Part 1 and Part 2 of this random mini-series, I had a visceral reaction to Mary Ward’s preface of The Tennant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. It has however inspired me to do a bit of research to read up on the life of Anne and her sisters, and to reflect more on Anne’s books and writing than I probably would have without the preface.
Upon digging further I found a pretty solid (and somewhat revealing) biography of Anne based at the University of Pennsylvania Digital Library. And it definitely shed light on a few things. Living to only 29 years of age, (photo of her grave in Scarborough, North Yorkshire right) Anne was not the ethereal non-entity she has been made out to be throughout history, and she certainly wasn’t as meek or as quiet as her sisters’ would have us readers believe. She has been ‘left out in the rain’ because her works are so starkly different in comparison to her sisters, however I don’t believe this is solely due to the public or even her publishers – a large portion of this rests upon Charlotte’s shoulders.
As the last surviving member of the Brontë family, Charlotte became the de facto literary executor of her work and severely limited Anne’s posthumous success.
“‘Wildfell Hall’ it 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 inexperienced writer.”
– Charlotte Brontë, upon reprinting The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
And this was not limited to Anne, Charlotte edited poetical works of Emily as well upon their republication. There are plenty of rumors out there as to why she would have done this, the predominant being jealousy. Could she have been jealous of the fact Anne and Emily’s first published works received greater notice than her’s? Could it be that both Anne and Emily wrote their great works at a younger age than Charlotte? Or was it less malicious and she did it only out of a desire to preserve the picture of childish innocence and inexperience as seen in the quote above. Regardless of the reason, it was disgraceful and I am glad Anne has begun to receive her fair share of literary support and ‘stardom’ as seen in the following quote,
“Anne portrays her characters and their surroundings with the minute attention to detail of a camera eye. Focusing on the direct experience of daily life in a constrained environment, and recognizing the importance of subtle impressions. Anne’s writing is reminiscent of Jane Austen. Anne’s understated humor and occasional satire also remind the reader of Austen. (Given these similarities, it is worth noting that Charlotte Brontë disliked Jane Austen’s writing.)”
– A Celebration of Women Writers – Mary Mark Ockerbloom, Editor
So it seems that after a century, Anne is finally receiving her just dues, which is great! In looking back at Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and now Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it’s hard to say which sister’s writings I enjoy the most, but I definitely enjoyed both of Anne’s works for their frankness and scandal!
To close off this series check out the photo to the right. That is a first edition copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of the hardest editions to find of any of the Brontë novels. It’s also interesting to note that no manuscripts survive of either Agnes Grey or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (or the novels Emily and Anne began after the publication of their first novels).
In addition, if you enjoy fan-fiction or are an Austenite (and love all the spinoffs) check out Becoming Jane Eyre, a fictionalized account of Charlotte’s writing of Jane Eyre. It was a fun novel and used a lot of actual known Brontë history and fills in the blanks.
Stay tuned for my review of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall on Friday!