I’m back with a Spotlight and this time I am throwing it over whom I consider to be one of the most underrated and underappreciated classic authors – Anne Brontë, author of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as well as a number of poems penned under Acton Bell.
I discovered this forgotten Brontë sister when I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and it was on the completion of that particular novel that I realised she was more profound and socially realistic compared to Charlotte and Emily.
As the youngest of the Brontës she would have seen the whole world opened up to her through the experience of her older siblings and everyone else in society, giving her the motivation to write about the subjects people prefer to ignore and sweep underneath the carpet. This is particularly true with the Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne’s depictions of alcoholism and debauchery, opinions that make Helen Graham (the MC) stand out and outcast, are morally disturbing and against the grain of traditional Victorian values and standards. Even in Agnes Grey, she depicts horrific violence through the torture of baby birds by the pupil Tom Bloomfield, an act that is encouraged by his own family. It’s shocking to say the least, yet that wasn’t Anne’s intention. She wanted to show that Tom’s cruelty was permitted, not just to animals but to humans and especially women whom he sees as defenceless animals.
Unfortunately for Anne, she was doomed to be the lesser-known writer from the beginning as Jane Eyre was published a couple months before Agnes Grey, critics calling Agnes “inferior” and a “pale imitation.” And when it was published in 1847, it came out alongside Wuthering Heights. The plain, opinionated, and sensible Ages Grey would have nothing over the flighty and dramatic Catherine Earnshaw.
Nonetheless, it would certainly speak for the appalling conditions of governesses at the time and like Tenant of Wildfell Hall, bring questions of feminism to the forefront. It wasn’t something that was done in the Victorian era, many books focusing on gothic romanticism, steampunk visions of the future, and the threats to humanity from overzealous medical advancements. If they touched on social commentary and were written by women, then they focused on class distinction and people living in sleepy villages where life is dominated by social etiquette and marriage. Only Dickens and other male authors of the day would be able to write about society, and the downtrodden situations of many working and lower-class citizens without being forgotten and seen as revolutionary.
How I see it, the life of Anne Brontë and her two novels are more relevant today than ever before. In a world where feminism in popular culture is being reimagined, where female readers and cinema goers rejoice for strong, empowering heroines, we need Agnes and Helen to prove that strength is more than a overwhelming and powerful physicality. It is the ability to harness the true struggles, having pride in one’s identity and acknowledging it, exercising one’s own mind, understanding one’s limits…. We need them to prove that this new wave in feminism is not just a modern phenomenon, that strong literary heroines exist in classics as well as in current fiction.
Maybe once we recognise that, we all can give some love and acceptance to the underling that is Anne Brontë. I know I will continue to do so.
I personally connected more to her books than I ever could to Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights (and you all know I have absolutely no love for the latter book at all). Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are written with such a refreshing sense of sensibility, clarity, and realism that they now find themselves to be permanent residents on my classics shelf. Not to mention that they will probably be the only two Brontë novels destined to be re-read over the years.
What do you think?
Have you read either of Anne Brontë’s novels?
If not, are they books you hope to read at some point?
Thanks for reading and have a good day!