Anne Bronte, humility, Benjamin Spock, and reader reaction: newsletter, November 26, 2021

November 26, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, history, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, November 26, 2021.

Thanksgiving Day, I think, is the best of all holidays. It can be religious or secular or a lot of both. It comes close to the end of the year but not so close that we are making “best of” lists or trying to get our end-of-year contributions posted.

There are no obligations for gift-giving or gift-receiving. In fact, to be truly thankful is to direct our attention away from ourselves and to acknowledge that much, most, or all of what we have comes from sources that are not us. We can simply relax and be thankful. Thanksgiving Day, and Thanksgiving weekend, is a time to relax, reflect, and recharge.

I hope that you are doing just that on this Thanksgiving weekend.

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Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,254 subscribers and had a 29.3 percent open rate; 4 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

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Anne Brontë, author of a classic but outshone by her sisters

As the baby of the family, Anne Brontë never got beyond the shadows of her more famous sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Everyone in the family doted on her, and when she died early, at the age of only 29, in 1849, her reputation and her place in English literature faded even further.

Anne deserved a better fate—not the least because one of the two novels that she wrote is now considered a classic of 19th century writing.

That novel is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and when it was published in 1848, it shocked critics and fascinated the reading public and became a runaway best-seller.

The novel’s story is set in 1827 and revolves around a character named Helen Graham, who found her marriage so intolerable that she left her husband and took her young son with her. That in itself was an unthinkable act in English society. Married women had no legal rights to speak of, not even to the custody of their children.

Helen changes her name and moves into Wildfell Hall, a dilapidated old house in the northern country, and she makes her living as an artist. She stays mostly to herself, not wanting to be discovered by her dissolute husband, and that, of course, ignites the local gossips who speculate endlessly about the new “widow” in their midst.

The story is a frank and sometimes brutal recounting of her marriage and the corruption and hypocrisy of English society that lies underneath a Victorian veneer. Alcoholism, violence, gambling, and adultery are all prominent themes of the book, and descriptions of these vices—and their effects—are unsparing. The author also pictures a woman supporting herself through her own efforts and not seeking the support of a man.

Critics called the book “coarse” and “unpleasant,” and more than a few said that women particularly, because of their delicate natures, should not be allowed to read it.

The reading public, however, loved it, and the first printing of the book sold out in six weeks. The book was published under the pen name of Acton Bell. The second edition bore the real name of the author. For it, she wrote an introduction that was a gentle rebuke to her critics:

My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it. But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he that does so will be likely to incur more scorn and obloquy for the mud and water into which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures; as, in like manner, she who undertakes the cleansing of a careless bachelor’s apartment will be liable to more abuse for the dust she raises than commendation for the clearance she effects.

Anne Brontë was born in 1820, the last of six Brontë children. The first two, daughters Maria and Elizabeth, both died five years after her birth but before reaching adulthood. The last four survived. All of the children were largely self-educated or homeschooled, and Anne took a great interest in music and art.

Anne lived most of her life with her family, but for nearly six years, from 1839 to 1845, she worked as a governess, and the experience had a profound effect on her psyche and her writing. As a governess, she observed up close the inner workings of English middle- and upper-class families, and she didn’t always like what she saw. In one of those positions, she secured a position for her brother Branwell, who had an affair with the wife of her employer.

When she returned to her family in 1845, she and her sisters Charlotte and Emily collaborated on a book of poems that they published under the pen names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, respectively). The book sold very few copies, but the sisters kept on writing. In July 1846, they each had completed a novel—Charlotte had written The Professor, Emily had written Wuthering Heights, and Anne had written Agnes Grey—and they sent them together to publishers in London.

Emily’s and Anne’s books were accepted by Thomas Cautley Newby, a London printer, but Charlotte’s book was rejected. Charlotte soon had another in the hands of a different publisher. This one was Jane Eyre. All of the books were published about the same time and sold well, but Emily’s Wuthering Heights was the star that outshone the others.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published the next year, in June 1848, and was a radical departure from the romantic novels popular at the time. While many of the critics were scathing, the public loved it. The story was a multi-layered, honest look at English life and a cold-eyed account of what many women had to endure.

Parts of the novel could be hilarious. For instance, the description of Rev. Michael Millward, a minor character of the book, runs like this in chapter 1:

The Reverend Michael Millward himself was a tall, ponderous elderly gentleman, who placed a shovel hat above his large, square, massive-featured face, carried a stout walking-stick in his hand, and incased his still powerful limbs in knee-breeches and gaiters,—or black silk stockings on state occasions. He was a man of fixed principles, strong prejudices, and regular habits, intolerant of dissent in any shape, acting under a firm conviction that his opinions were always right, and whoever differed from them must be either most deplorably ignorant, or willfully blind.

Despite the success of their novels, the Brontës were hit hard by tragedy in 1848. In September, Branwell died, and Emily passed away in December. Anne’s grief over losing Emily probably undermined her delicate health, and she too died the next year in May. Charlotte was the only one who survived.

After her death, Anne’s reputation faded, not least because Charlotte prevented a new edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall from being published. She didn’t like the book and thought it contrary to the person she knew as Anne. It was only in the 20th century that Anne was “rediscovered,” and her novel is now considered a classic.

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can be found here on Project Gutenberg.

You can also listen to a dramatic reading of the book on LibriVox.

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The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

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Humility

Shane Parrish has recently included this in his newsletter, FS | Brain Food, and it is worth repeating:

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” — Epictetus

Humility is the anecdote to arrogance. Humility is a recognition that we don’t know, that we were wrong, that we’re not better than anyone else.

Humility is simple to understand but hard to practice.

Humility isn’t a lack of confidence but an earned confidence. The confidence to say that you might not be right, but you’ve done the diligence, and you’ve put in the work.

Humility keeps you wondering what you’re missing or if someone is working harder than you. And yet when pride and arrogance take over, humility flees and so does our ability to learn, adapt, and build lasting relationships with others.

Humility won’t let you take credit for luck. And humility is the voice in your mind that doesn’t let small victories seem larger than they are. Humility is the voice inside your head that says, ‘anyone can do it once, that’s luck. Can you do it consistently?’

More than knowing yourself, humility is accepting yourself.

Good words. Thanks, Shane.

Benjamin Spock, the doctor who sold more books than just about anybody else

The audience for his book was there, ready-made and hiding in plain sight.

It was just after World War II, a time when many men and some women thought motherhood came naturally. All women had to do was have a baby. After that, they would know what to do.

A lot of women didn’t share those feelings. Having a baby was one thing. After that, what?

So Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician, wrote a book with the uninspiring title of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. It became one of the top best-selling books ever published in America. It eventually sold more than 50 million copies and was translated into more than 40 languages.

Benjamin Spock was born in 1903 in New Haven, Connecticut, the first of six children of a prominent local family. He grew to be a handsome, six-foot-four-inch young man with great athletic ability. He was part of the Yale rowing team that won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics. After graduation, he went to medical school and took special training in psychiatry. When he began his practice as a pediatrician, he started applying some of his psychiatric knowledge to caring for his child patients.

His practice flourished in part because he was so good with both the children and their mothers. He didn’t mind playing with the children, and he set mothers at ease with his confidence and charm. He married Jane Cheney in 1929, and the couple remained together until their divorce in 1976.

Spock was dissatisfied with the hard-line, didactic tone of many of the child-rearing books available to mothers at that time. He believed that children should be treated affectionately but not over-indulged. Schedules should be set, but parents should remain flexible about enforcing them. Many of his ideas were later deliberately misinterpreted as “permissiveness” by his political opponents.

He began writing his book in the early 1940s as the world became engulfed in war, and in 1944, he joined the U.S. Navy and served as a medical officer on the West Coast.

The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was published in 1946. It became an immediate best-seller with sales of more than 500,000 copies in the first year. It continued in its popularity through many editions and has influenced child-rearing practices for generations. Critics attacked the book saying that much of it was based on anecdotal evidence rather than solid research, but new and expectant mothers kept it handy and used it for daily reference when their children were young.

Spock became heavily involved in the anti-war movement in the 1960s and later in the anti-nuclear arms movements of the 1970s and 1980s. He was arrested numerous times. He was once charged and convicted of conspiring to help young men avoid the draft, even though he had never been in the same room with those he was supposed to have conspired with. His conviction was set aside by an appeals court.

Spock’s anti-war activism attracted a different set of critics, among them Norman Vincent Peale and Vice President Spiro Agnew, who attacked not only his political views but also his ideas about raising children. Those criticisms hurt the sales of his book, but it has continued to exercise a major influence on child-rearing practices.

Spock was a prolific writer of books and magazine articles throughout his life. Just before his death at the age of 94 in 1995, he finished editing a new edition of Baby and Child Care.

 

Reactions

Check out last week’s newsletter

Vince V.: Thank you for the short but rich biography on James Whitcomb Riley. One of my ancestors, Will Vawter, was the illustrator of many of his poems that were collected in books. Riley poems were a staple of my childhood, read to us by an aunt who had command of Riley’s unusual rural patois.

Jennifer S.: What a treat to re-encounter Bernard Cornwell in your newsletter! I blush to admit that I first encountered his work via the Sharpe TV series, which I adore, and which I’ve converted many viewers to over the years. It’s fun to see people who became fans of Sean Bean in his later work falling in love with his brash Sharpe. I have since gone on to read the Sharpe books, though it’s been a while; maybe I’ll re-read them in advance of the new one, Sharpe’s Assassin.

I really love Cornwell’s medieval novels, perhaps more than the Sharpe series, though the TV series based on his Saxon novels, The Last Kingdom, is, I think, not as good as the books, and not as good as Sharpe, though it can be engaging. As a fantasy reader and one-time scholar of medieval literature, I’m fascinated by the real Middle Ages, and as a writer, I’m even more fascinated by an author who has written so much and so well about different historical eras. Perhaps it comes in part of his very interesting childhood. Will you delve deeper into his backstory in future newsletters? He started life as a “war baby,” born of two service people during WWII—a fittingly dramatic origin story for an historical novelist!

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: HMS Victory

Best quote of the week:

People forget years and remember moments. Ann Beattie, novelist (b. 1947)

Pray-as-you-go podcast

If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.

Jim

Jim Stovall
www.jprof.com

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Bernard Cornwell, James Whitcomb Riley, and eulogy virtues: newsletter, November 19, 2021

 

 

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