A little while ago I started reading Juliet Barker’s The Brontës; in fact I even decided to write about it on here as I read it. Unfortunately, like so many Parry projects, it fell by the wayside. There were two causes for this failure: one was that the Barker book was just too big and heavy to bring on the bus with me, which meant that I had ‘bus reading’ and the Barker, and I can’t really cope with reading more than one book at once so in the end the bus reading conquered the Barker. And then Brexit happened and I was too absorbed in politics – and then suddenly months had passed and I’d lost the momentum. But of course, I felt guilty about it.
However, bus reading or no bus reading I am inspired to pick it up again and this is entirely due to Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage, which is a sort-of biography of Anne Brontë. According to Ellis, Anne is the neglected, forgotten Brontë, usually considered – when considered at all – as mouselike and pious – boring, really. (And I would certainly agree that when people think about the Brontës, they think first and foremost of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.) Ellis herself had always been an Emily devotee, though she also admired Charlotte’s ‘toughness and spirit’. However, on a visit to the Parsonage in Haworth, Ellis reads Anne’s last letter:
‘I long to do some good in the world ... before I leave it. I have many schemes in my head for future practise – humble and limited indeed – but still I should not like them all to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose.’ This catches at my heart, and makes me breathe hard suddenly. I put the letter down. This Anne knew what she wanted. She had published two novels and many poems. She didn’t want to have to stop. She was courageous, she was tough, and she wanted more life.
Ellis is transfixed; she connects to Anne emotionally, and begins to suspect that what she had believed about Anne was untrue. So begins her journey to find a more interesting Anne, someone who turns out to be feminist, radical and courageous – not unlike Ellis herself, in fact. Reading Anne’s novels, she realises that they were not only undervalued when they were first published, they are still undervalued now.
Ellis’s first problem is that so little of what Anne wrote remains: two novels, some poems (though many have disappeared), five letters, four diary papers, two of which were co-written with Emily (they had a habit of writing a diary paper every four years, giving an update of their lives; they wrote them together if they could or separately if they were apart) and some marginalia in a few books. Otherwise she has to rely on what others wrote about Anne, and those of Anne’s possessions that still survive. Her solution is clever: she devotes each chapter of her book to one of the people closest to Anne – including the heroines of her two novels – ending with Anne herself. Each person ‘represents’ an aspect of Anne herself – so Maria, her mother, contains her origin story, her attitude towards motherhood and marriage; Tabby, the elderly servant, contains her love of the moors and nature. This approach reminded me of Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf, which creates a frame around the central character by which we learn to know him. I thought this worked really well.
(Sketch of Anne by Charlotte Brontë, ca 1834; found here)
Ellis also eschews any attempt at objectivity or impartiality. This book is driven by her enthusiasm and liking for Anne, which gives it an enormous amount of energy and personality. She speculates fearlessly and, one can’t help feeling, perceptively, on how Anne might have felt or reacted to various situations (‘Anne must have...’ pops up frequently). She tells us about her own life as she researches Anne up in Haworth, visits the places associated with her life, contemplates her own life and new relationship, and she tells us too about her reactions to the material she reads about Anne’s life:
her optimism makes me sigh. I don’t want Anne to be the good girl diligently slogging away. It seems more fun to be Charlotte and Branwell, raging and sneering at their bosses, or Emily, hating employment so much that she mostly avoided it. I don’t want Anne to be excited about setting off for her first job in April 1839 when, at the time, all her siblings were at home and writing like the wind.
In doing this, Ellis takes some risks. One is that she mines Anne’s creative writing, especially her poetry, for Anne’s own opinions. Are her poems on her religious doubts, for instance, really expressions of her own struggles with faith? Might they not be partly or even entirely manipulated by Anne’s artistic skills to create certain effects? To give a doubting reader hope, for instance, rather than articulate her own fears? Or a mixture of both? She extends this to the writings of others: she implicitly suggests that the sisters Rose and Jessy Yorke in Shirley, for instance, are Charlotte and Anne – or how Charlotte perceived their relationship – based on no evidence I could see. I felt that Ellis might be right, but she might not be; I think the role of the imagination in shaping and transmuting biographical facts should never be underestimated and this made me uncomfortable sometimes.
Another risk is that Ellis’s partisanship for Anne, while cheering and necessary, colours her judgement and, for one thing, leads her to resent Charlotte. As I wrote above, I haven’t yet finished the Barker biography so I probably shouldn’t be commenting on this, and from what I have read Charlotte does seem to have been quite a difficult person. However, Ellis does seem to put the worst interpretation on everything Charlotte does. For instance, Ellis believes that Charlotte suppressed Anne’s writing, but perhaps she was trying to protect her reputation (or doing a bit of both?); and it is just possible that in deciding to hold Anne’s funeral without her father, she was right and expecting Patrick to come and bury yet another child would have been too painful to him. It seems to be, in the world of the Brontës, that if you champion one you have to decry the others and that you can only be either/or about them. Ellis first goes to Haworth, after all, to promote her previous book, which pitched Wuthering Heights against Jane Eyre.
Yet taking risks like these creates a lively and affectionate read, through which I zipped in marked contrast to my attempts on Barker’s monumental, scrupulous, scholarly work, and the nice thing about the literary world is that we can enjoy both books and their different strengths. For Ellis’s analysis of Anne’s literary works, especially her novels, is brilliant and rightly reveals their daring, their radicalness and their ‘realness’. In Agnes Grey Anne lifted the lid on life as a governess, showing the ugly reality in which even ‘proper gentry’ behaved badly (this piece of news seems to have shocked the gentry). She also crafted a romance between a man and a woman which was both realistic and based on mutual respect (no glowering Byronic heroes here). The Tenant of Wildfell Hall not only went beyond the ‘marriage plot’ (in which a novel is concerned only with the story leading up to the wedding), it looked unflinchingly and scandalously on alcoholism and a husband’s abuse of his marital rights – and it gives us a feminist heroine who fights for her and her son’s future.
(The dining-room at Haworth Parsonage with – I think – Anne’s writing desk on the table; photograph found here)
AND did you know? because I did not – unless you are reading an edition of Tenant which is based on Stevie Davies’ 1996 edition – or a first or second edition (lucky you) – then you are almost certainly reading a butchered text. !!! Most modern editions are based on a rackety edition published in 1854, years after Anne’s death. The publisher, Thomas Hodgson, wanted to issue the book cheaply, so hacked bits out to make the book fit one volume. This version has become the one most frequently reprinted ever since. Ellis lays a ‘mutilated’ edition beside the Davies edition and is shocked at the difference. Some removals seem to have been purely to cut the page count; others to subtly reduce the radicalness of the original. When I read this I jumped right out of bed and ran to my bookcase to check my own copy: yes, I do have the framing story, but other parts, including Anne’s preface, have been removed. Horrors! I’ll have to buy another book! And I’ll have to buy Agnes Grey, because I’ve never read it. Oh dear. What a painful duty.
In short: if you don’t know much about the Brontës, this strikes me as a great place to start. If you already do know a lot about the Brontës, you will enjoy revisting them in the company of a clever and opinionated friend.
Disclaimer: Samantha Ellis generously donated this book as part of a bundle of her work to be auctioned in the Authors for Grenfell fundraiser; and when I won it she inscribed all the books for me. Of course I only bid on her bundle because I like her work anyway, but it’s always nice to know that an author is a kind person ...