Yesterday I reviewed Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë whose work has always been compared to and overshadowed by that of her older sisters Charlotte and Emily. After all, who doesn’t know Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? Without any doubt those novels are important classics of early Victorian literature, but how about Anne Brontë’s writings? Do her two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, have less literary value than those of her sisters? Was she too young and too inexperienced to achieve something great? As a writer maybe.
In fact, Anne Brontë wasn’t so much younger than her sisters. Charlotte was born in April 1816, Emily in August 1818 and Anne in January 1820. Certainly, Anne was the baby of the family and as such indulged, probably patronized by all others, and yet, she was the only one of the three who could bear to hold a position as a governess for several years. By her contemporaries she is described as quiet, gentle and subdued which are all qualities that befitted a woman, especially a young one, of her time and social standing.
In her novels Anne Brontë depicted the world as she saw it through the eyes of a very intelligent, highly sensitive and uncommonly attentive observer. Her mistake in literature may have been that she always remained faithful to the truth and didn’t gloss over the dark sides of life to please her readers. As a matter of fact, she was very critical of Victorian society and aimed high with her novels, writing them to induce changes of mind and attitude. For her as a woman and moreover an introvert it was the only way to make herself heard at all.
With Agnes Grey she wished to show how difficult and lonely the life of most governesses was in well-to-do families with low morals. As for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I must admit that I haven’t read it, yet, but according to what I know about it, it’s a rousing story that brands the complete dependence of women of men. With her straight-forward description of reality she may have been too much ahead of time to leave a lasting impact. At its release in 1848 the novel was a big success, but it was also very controversial and caused quite some polemic.
It seems that even her sister Charlotte Brontë didn’t approve of her sister’s only two novels. The first she called a complete mistake from the start because it had no plot. I think she really made her point writing Jane Eyre! The other she considered as too inconsistent with the character of her dear adapted and harmless little sister. Consequently, after her sister’s death Charlotte actively prevented The Tenant of Wildfell Hall from going into print again during her lifetime. Before long Anne Brontë became a side character in the family’s literary history.
What a pity that Anne Brontë died so young in May 1849. We’ll never find out what she could have achieved, had she been alive longer. Who knows if she might not have found the courage to fully disclose her rebellious side? Maybe she would have become a pioneer of women’s rights in the end? Still waters run deep, it is said, but the bold and extravert may never catch the shortest glimpse of the varying worlds on the ground because they are too impatient. They won’t bother to read Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, either – and will never know what they actually miss.