Since middle school I have been fascinated by the Brontë sisters. It is amazing to me how I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with too much appreciation of wild romantic imaginings and no concept of the multilayer aspects of the novels. The stories are more than the romances. In high school and college I read with a heightened sense of snobbery. I hacked everything to death with my dilettante schooling in Feminist literary theory. Now — as a for real grown-up — I read the Brontës and I have a very full and rich enjoyment of the novels; the writing, the story, the characters, the historical/cultural/feminist aspects all lead to my re-reading resonating with me. I find myself pondering Villette, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre months after I’ve completed my reading. But what about Anne Brontë?
I enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in high school, although I would say it was on a superficial level of enjoyment. This re-reading has been a vastly richer experience. The plot concerns Helen — a young woman who falls in love with a gentleman, Arthur, and marries him against her aunt’s wise advice. What ensues is a classic case of near-domestic violence. Arthur is a horrid drunk, has blatant affairs, verbally abuses Helen, isolates her, and proceeds in attempting to turn their young son into a drunk. Literally — the douchebag encourages his five-year-old son to drink and disobey his mother. Of course Heathcliff is a jerk in Wuthering Heights, but so is Catherine… so they sort of deserve each other. Helen is blameless and persecuted by her drunk, lazy husband. Her attempts at leaving him are thwarted. Although he doesn’t love his son, he is unwilling to have Helen leave with him because he doesn’t want people to know his true character. He blocks her spending and access to money (which is all Helen’s money, but of course, Victorian women lost their rights to their own money upon marriage). I would say this is the most “shocking” of the Brontë novels: alcoholism, adultery, child abuse — I think making wee ones drunk constitutes child abuse –, domestic violence, and most shocking of all — Anne is challenging the laws that rob women of financial independence, custody rights, and she is ballsy enough to have Helen defy Victorian sensibilities and leave her husband.
Granted, there were a few things that annoyed me about the novel. Helen is REALLY Godly and preaches quite a bit, but I understand why — Anne needed her character to be morally above reproach to have her leave and it be slightly less scandalous. Also, in the end Helen returns to her husband (he conveniently dies soon after), but once again, one can only be so gutsy. I really wanted Helen to not return, but that is my modern brain thinking. And lastly, she falls in love with a farmer and I don’t care much for him. He is okay, but still beneath Helen in many aspects (fyi — said farmer seriously injures someone based on a false presumption because he is tantrumy baby).
After I finished the novel I eagerly began Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth. This examination of the Brontës in biography (like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë ), in their writings about each other (like Charlotte’s attempt at “re-branding” Emily and Anne), in media (several movies and plays are discussed), and it also gives a history of the PERCEPTION of the Brontës from Victorian times to the present day. This book also made me want to read Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, re-read all the Brontë novels, pick-up some May Sinclair books, and re-read Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm. There is even a Muriel Spark essay on Anne Brontë I need to hunt down. The book is well-written and has a ton of information on Charlotte. I was enthralled.
Then I got to the chapters about Emily. While still very through and interesting they seemed a bit sparse, but of course, Charlotte left the most behind and Emily was a near recluse and extremely private. I especially liked the connection Miller made between Emily and “authoress as goddess” and Sylvia Plath — good stuff. I can’t remember how many chapters were on Emily, but 3/4 of the book concerned Charlotte. I eagerly turned the page after the second or third chapter on Emily and the book just ended. No conclusion and not a damned word about Anne. Of course, Anne peppered the other chapters, but I REALLY wanted something about Anne or Tenant or some discussion on why Anne is the “forgotten” Brontë. I definitely think this book is worth a read, especially as a precursor to reading a Brontë biography, but just know that Anne is not to be found. And if you haven’t read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the you are missing out on an intriguing plot and some excellence fodder for thought. Now I need to go do some more research on Anne Brontë and hunting down that Muriel Spark essay is first on my list.