The Tenant of Currer Bell’s Success? The 2017 revival of Anne Brontë

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‘The Brontë sisters’ novels – and Emily’s poetry – remain amongst the greatest works ever written in the English language.’

These final words in the BBC drama ‘To Walk Invisible’, broadcast over the Christmas holidays – backed by a somewhat twee image of the three sisters staring determinedly into the distance – struck a resonant chord for me, in what has been a remarkable two years of literature in regards to the biography of the Brontës. Despite Charlotte having the most prominent place in the image in the final shot of the feature-long exploration into the sisters’ rise to literary stardom, being both in between and in front of her two sisters (which is fair enough, considering that the drama focused upon the process from manuscript to publication of which Charlotte was, undoubtedly, the driving force), the drama was refreshing in that its screenwriter, Sally Wainwright, had decided to focus on all of the Brontë siblings as opposed to only the creator of the madwoman in the attic.

Like many of my peers, I grew up utterly enamoured of the writing of Charlotte and Emily Brontë and the worlds they created. However, it never occurred to me that it would be worth reading the novels of Anne, the youngest sister. This meant that it wasn’t until the age of seventeen that I picked up a copy of Agnes Grey and became instantly fascinated with the life of the author behind such brutally realistic writing. Despite my intrigue, it was a challenge to find much literature about the young woman who, in my opinion, was the most revolutionary of the three sisters in her writing. There has been a resolute lack in literature regarding Anne Brontë for many years; often overlooked in favour of the more sensationalist (albeit wonderful) writing of her sisters, which is perhaps a trend that originated in Charlotte’s damning account of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which she stated ‘[it] hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake – it was too little consonant with the character – tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer’. Considering that Anne was the sister to take on the brunt of the care for her alcoholic and drug-addicted brother, Branwell, this declaration appears to be a rather simplistic and inaccurate portrait of a woman who dared to write in a fashion that was shocking for the time.

I did not give up my quest of attempting to find out more about the author that depicted a woman’s struggle to escape a husband brutalised by alcoholism with such candour. Charlotte Bronte: A Life by Claire Harman, released in 2015, was the best biography I had read in many years. This was chiefly because it went against its trade description by discussing the lives of four of the Brontë siblings as opposed to the one: from depicting the surliness of Emily in Brussels in acidic detail to painstakingly detailing Anne’s world-wearying time spent as a governess, a clearer and fairer picture was created of the world both in and surrounding Howarth.

The concept of exploring Howarth and its Brontë residents from all angles has become quite a trend, as seen in both To Walk Invisible and John Sunderland’s 2016 book The Brontësaurus, a collection of random facts that shed new life on the family, including a touching section describing Anne’s final journey to Scarborough and the days leading up to her death in 1849. This blossoming trend is set to continue into 2017, with the publication of Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis, which sees the blending of the autobiography of Samantha with the biography of Anne, as well as Vintage releasing a new edition of Agnes Grey.

There is a statue of the Brontë sisters at the Brontë Family Parsonage Museum, in which Anne is depicted with her head down in a marked contrast to her fellow sisters, who are gazing both outwards and above; up until now the youngest Bronte has, literally, seemed ‘to walk invisible’ alongside the rest of her family. Alongside a growing minority, I hope that Anne will continue to receive the attention that her remarkable writing truly deserves. If Google is anything to go by (a quick search reveals a multitude of articles with titles such as ‘Anne Brontë is seen as piteous and boring – but I’ve discovered she was the most radical sister’), Anne Brontë is set for quite the literary stardom this year – the tragedy is that it has taken nearly two centuries after her birth for popular culture to recognise her genius.

 

Image credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

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