Anne: the Forgotten Brontë

Jane Eyre is a staple on the high school English teacher’s shelf. Rochester’s masculine and mature demeanour an apparent hit among Charlotte fans who admire Jane and worship Rochester. Wuthering Heights is a cult classic. Heathcliff’s brooding and sense of self-assurance exasperating and Cathy’s selfishness and hypocrisy infuriating, accompanied by the ravishing beauty of the moors and their omniscient characterisation. Most people, when asked about their favourite Brontë, will cite either Emily or Charlotte. Or they might say Branwell. If they do, please terminate said friendship as that says a lot about a person. At risk of truly forgetting the two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died at young ages due to contracting illnesses at their boarding school, Cowan Bridge School; it could be argued that their tragic deaths inspired the bleak and gothic nature of their younger siblings’ work. In the 2016 TV film ‘To Walk Invisible’, Anne is portrayed as quiet and unassuming and is overlooked by many viewers; a common convention.

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Anne is my favourite. Radical and unapologetic, Anne was a voice for disenfranchised middle class women of the Victorian Age who were becoming aware of, and increasingly frustrated with, the lack of recognition for their academic talent.  Anne spent time working as a governess to apparently unruly and quite frankly horrible children. This time as a governess inspired Anne to pen ‘Agnes Grey’, a heartfelt novel full of wisdom and intricate characters and relationships, as well as a minor storyline involving a romantic relationship with a curate; which, unlike Charlotte’s fiction, does not dictate the entire novel. Both Anne and Charlotte drew on personal experiences for their novels: Anne with her position as a governess with ‘Agnes Grey’ and Charlotte with her feelings for the Belgian professor Constantin Héger with ‘The Professor’ and ‘Villette’.

Emily was a dreamer, enraptured by her own imagination and the picturesque landscape around her. Charlotte was a hopeless romantic, falling for problematic men and creating even more problematic men in her literature. Anne was a true representation of an intellectual, middle class woman, alongside that of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Gaskell; fighting for recognition and her rights.

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I will always remember my wonderful English teacher, Ms Donnelly (whom I was lucky enough to have as my teacher for four years), telling me that ‘Jane Eyre’, in her opinion, is the greatest noel ever written. She said this to me when I had just joined secondary school and was in awe of the size of the library and the choice of novels at my fingertips. That night, I went home and began ‘Jane Eyre’. I must admit, I agreed with Ms Donnelly. ‘Matilda’ and ‘Anne of Green Gables’ suddenly fell out of my favour in place of headstrong Jane and the intriguingly sombre Mr Rochester. Ms Donnelly told me she loved the novel for its setting and mystery, and Jane for her individuality and confidence. A year or so later, I found myself disagreeing with this assessment: reading novels such as ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Emma’, and, of course, ‘Agnes Grey’ made me realise that Jane Eyre, as a character, is overrated *cue gasps from most Victorian lit scholars*. I will not deny that ‘Jane Eyre’ is not only a fantastic novel with regards to challenging conservative conventions of Victorian society with the frank depiction of attitudes towards insanity and extra-marital affairs; but also a novel which allowed me to discover Victorian Gothic literature, now a favourite genre of mine. But, in my opinion, there are far greater novels than ‘Jane Eyre’. (Also, Rochester is beyond problematic and why does NO ONE discuss that bit in the novel where he dresses up as a gypsy woman??) Jane is also far less empowered than I originally thought. One of my life’s ambitions is to write a play in which Jane doesn’t go back to Thornfield to be with the arrogant Rochester, and instead takes the inheritance and goes to the South of France alone. Anne created two truly empowered heroines, one who succeeds in leaving her horrible drunkard of a husband, and another who falls in love with a wonderfully unproblematic parson but doesn’t let this interfere with her work as a governess. However, problematic love interests and questionable heroines are not confined to Charlotte’s work.

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Heathcliff. Before I divulge into the realms of my hatred for Heathcliff, let it be known that I honestly do adore ‘Wuthering Heights’. It is one of those novels which transports you to a whole new destination and completely immerses you in the setting and lives of the characters. Regardless, Heathcliff makes my blood boil like a meninist does. And I think we can agree that Heathcliff would be a meninist if he was alive today. Heathcliff is cruel and callous, self-obsessed and petty. Heathcliff is often seen as the romantic, Byronic hero who is tortured by his eternal love for the mesmerising Catherine Earnshaw; yet his disgusting actions and attitudes in the latter half of the novel, in which he seems intent on ruining the lives of his son and Catherine Linton, are inexcusable. In my opinion, the love between Cathy and Heathcliff is too problematic to be held up as any form of genuine romance, as they destroy the happiness of so many around them; they are selfish and barbaric, all at the expense of those around them. My friend Lucy (of QueenofContemporary) states that Emily is her favourite: “She’s a genius, a true genius: her poetry is lyrical and wild and untamed; Wuthering Heights is dark and brooding and passionate. Her familiarity with the landscape of the Yorkshire Moors adds a deeper level to her writing, and her observation of character is second-to-none.” Emily’s command of language and nature and curating of the two make her a firm favourite.

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Anne did not make use of poetic and elegant prose like Emily did, or create heroines whose heroism is questionable like Charlotte did. Anne was the accidental underdog: not in any way less talented than her sisters, merely ahead of her time. The Victorian audience Anne wrote for were ready for Charlotte’s tales of illicit affairs and hint at classism; and they enjoyed Emily’s far-fetched love stories on the picturesque Yorkshire Moors. But they weren’t ready for Anne’s literature which was the most striking and real of the Brontë’s work. Her novel ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ addresses alcoholism, divorce, and the dire need for a reformation of married women’s assets (Anne really was ahead of her time: 35 years later in 1882 the Married Women’s Property Act was passed by parliament). Helen’s slamming of her bedroom door against her husband “reverberated throughout Victorian England” according to May Sinclair, as Helen refused to have sex with her abusive and alcoholic husband, radical due to the vast number of unhappy marriages in Victorian England involving an abusive husband and incredibly miserable and mistreated wife. Anne was a voice of a generation: unmarried and living in an-all female environment but still fully aware of the issues facing the everyday Victorian woman.

Some favour the whimsical magic of Emily’s storytelling, others admire Charlotte’s safer depiction of Victorian life. But Anne will forever be my favourite; and I intend to bring out a full range of tote bags and t-shirts reading ‘JUSTICE FOR ANNE’. Because, let’s be honest, who wants a Rochester or Heathcliff when you can have a Mr Weston AND an empowered heroine?

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