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Book Review Roundup: Anne Brontë in our times

A scene from a stage adaptation of  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall , performed at the York Theatre Royal in 2017.

A scene from a stage adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, performed at the York Theatre Royal in 2017.

A few months ago, my book club read Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the powerful but underrated novel by the “other” Brontë sister. I followed it up with Take Courage, an unconventional biography of Anne by Samantha Ellis, a playwright and online acquaintance of mine. (It seems Anne is even more obscure in the U.S. than in the U.K.: Samantha’s book does not have an American edition and I had to special-order it!)

The Tenant of Wildfell HallThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the one hand, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a brilliant achievement: a detailed, psychologically accurate portrait of a woman in an abusive marriage with a narcissistic drunk… all the more amazing because it was written by a 28-year-old spinster in 1848, before concepts like “psychology” and “narcissism” and “the red flags of an abusive relationship” were common parlance.

On the other hand, 2018 hasn’t been the easiest year for women, and reading the harrowing middle section of this book during the week of the Kavanaugh hearings was almost too much for me. I needed escapism — not a book about an entitled, selfish drunkard whose elite status lets him get away with it. It was painful to read the excuses and justifications that Helen makes for her husband’s behavior before she realizes how awful he is, and painful in a different way to see how much courage, strength, and resourcefulness she must summon up to escape her marriage. As if I needed reminding that the patriarchy has a vested interest in perpetuating itself, and punishes women who dare to take a stand against it.

The detailed realism of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is what makes it so powerful and frightening, and just as worthy of canonical status as Emily Brontë and Charlotte Brontë’s more extravagant novels. If you are a typical young woman in 2018, it’s hard to picture yourself getting involved in a gothic-melodrama situation like that of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights . However, it is distressingly easy to imagine winding up in the modern-day equivalent of Helen’s situation: all you’d have to do is date or marry the wrong guy. And how do you find the right guy, when so many men are abusers in sheep’s clothing, and even the so-called good or marriageable men are not paragons of virtue, but merely the best of a bad lot?

I’m not the first person to point out that all three Brontë sisters wrote about awful, abusive men, and that Emily and Charlotte (problematically) depicted them as romantic heroes rather than cads. While I never developed a crush on Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester, I am capable of reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as escapism: satisfying and pleasurable melodramas. Anne, though, saw through her sisters’ romanticized flourishes. Her final novel tells the painful truth.

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of LifeTake Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In her 2014 memoir-in-books How to Be a Heroine , Samantha Ellis wrote extensively about how, as a teen, she was a devoted Emily Brontë/ Wuthering Heights fan but, as an adult, she realized it was probably healthier to love Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre . In Take Courage, she goes one step further: perhaps healthiest of all is to love Anne Brontë. Anne was the only one of her siblings to hold down a steady job; the only one who wrote realistic fiction instead of Gothic romance, and described wholesome love rather than idealizing “tall, strong muscular men going about seeking whom they may devour.” Anne was the baby of the family, and continually underestimated until she died of tuberculosis at just 29. Take Courage serves as biography of Anne, analysis and defense of her writing, and argument against pernicious myths that have built up around Anne and her family.

Brontë scholars can get a good sense of the family’s day-to-day life because hundreds of Charlotte’s letters have survived, but this also means that Anne has most often been seen through the eyes of an elder sister who she didn’t always get along with. (Only five of Anne’s letters are extant.) Take Courage is an attempt to cast all of this aside and see the real Anne more clearly. Ellis imagines herself into Anne’s life, visiting the same places she did—and she frequently speculates as to what Anne “might have” felt, or seen, or done. Sometimes this starts to feel like wishful thinking, based more on intuition than fact; at other times, Ellis' willingness to question the received wisdom is refreshing. This book also makes no pretenses toward objectivity—it burns with indignation against Charlotte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and others who have contributed to the popular view of Anne as weak and mediocre. This is a feminist project of a kind I very much appreciate: showing how we underestimate quiet, reserved women at our peril. Anne may not have been outwardly feisty, badass, or attention-grabbing, but she possessed immense intelligence, courage, and conviction.

Since Ellis argues so passionately against scholars and critics who she considers to have dismissed or misread Anne’s work, let me argue equally passionately against some of the negative reviews on Goodreads, who chastise Ellis for being self-obsessed. Yes, one of the threads woven into the book is the story of how, while Ellis was researching and writing it, she turned 40 and started dating the man she would eventually marry. But the vast majority of the book is still devoted to telling Anne’s story and analyzing her writing. (The autobiographical stuff takes up only a few pages per chapter—maybe 25 total pages out of a 300-page book—and I wouldn’t really classify this as a “memoir”.) Moreover, this annoyance that Ellis would put herself into the book, wanting to tell a bit of her story alongside Anne’s, just indicates to me how far we still have to go, as a society, when it comes to according women an authorial, authoritative voice.