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

January 18, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

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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