Review by Elaine Simpson-Long
I have long felt that Anne Bronte was totally underestimated and unappreciated by the public who have based their viewpoint of her on Charlotte’s own letters and portrayal of her as ‘gentle Anne’. In this new biography, In Search of Anne Bronte, Nick Holland feels the same and sets about proving to us all that this Bronte sister was not the quiet person we have been led to believe.
Against the wishes of the entire family Anne determined decided to take a post as a governess. Her experiences form the basis of Agnes Grey, a small book in length but searing in its portrayal of the family she went to live with and the dreadful behaviour of her charges. She stuck it out for some time despite her father and sisters pleading with her to come home. Many readers have dismissed Agnes Grey as being slight and of very little importance but George Moore, the Irish writer, said of this work ‘…is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature…if Anne Bronte had lived ten years longer, she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place’.
Later she took up another post with the Robinson family at Thorpe Green where she stayed for several years, to be joined later by Branwell who was engaged as tutor to the sons of the family and then, allegedly, had an affair with his employer’s wife resulting in scandal and disgrace. No blame seemed to be attached to Anne who kept up a correspondence with the two Robinson daughters for the rest of her short life with them even visiting her at Haworth.
They seemed overjoyed to see Anne; when I went into the room they were clinging round her like two children, she meantime, looking perfectly quiet and passive… The love of the Robinson girls for Anne could not be denied. She had been strict with them at times but it had paid off.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the story of an abusive marriage to a drunken husband and Anne used Branwell’s behaviour and appalling end as her model for Arthur Huntingdon. Her family were not happy about this book and did not want it published but, as always, Anne stuck to her guns and Tenant was issued. The portrayal of a wife who was married to a drunkard and a bully and who chose to leave this abusive relationship and flee with her child was as radical at the time as was the cry of equality from Jane Eyre. Anne had plenty of source material at home where she was witness to Branwell’s alcoholism and degradation and she pulled no punches in her portrayal of Huntingdon and his friends.
Charlotte did not wish the book to be published and the author Nick Holland makes it very clear that he feels, even though this is supposition, that Charlotte would have made Anne very aware of her views.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this were pure but, I think, slightly morbid.
Nick Holland expands on the love Anne had for William Weightman, the curate who came to Haworth to assist Patrick Bronte in his duties. At first everyone is delighted with him, including Charlotte, but later her attitude changes to one of contempt. The author posits the theory that Charlotte herself was attracted to Weightman and felt slighted when her feelings were not returned. ‘I am up to the dodges and artifices of his Lordship’s character…for all his tricks, wiles and insincerities of love the gentleman has not his match for 20 miles around’.
The main problem with writing a biography of Anne Bronte is that such supposition is inevitable as we have very few letters of her available and we view her mainly through Charlotte’s eyes which are not always reliable. Charlotte was in awe of Emily and revered her but all her references to Anne are that she was quiet, self effacing, shy and was spoken of as ‘Poor Anne’ and regarded as the baby of the family.
Anne’s faith was deeply felt and very important to her. She suffered a religious crisis while away at school at Roe Head and was influenced by the Calvinist doctrine that only the chosen would go to heaven and those who were not of the elect were doomed to damnation. Once a sin had been made it could never been repaired and all hope was gone. This brought about a nervous and physical collapse and it was feared she would die. Anne called for a priest, not a member of the Church of England, but a member of the Moravian priesthood whose views were the polar opposite to the Calvinist clergy. They had no time for the hellfire and eternal damnation that they preached and he told Anne that everyone, no matter, how wicked they have been, can attain heaven. Sixty years later in a letter a friend James la Trobe recalled the event ‘…her heart opened to the sweet views of salvation, pardon and peace in the blood of Christ’. It was not until he read the Life of Charlotte Bronte written by Mrs Gaskell that he recognised who his patient had been.
It was this now secure faith which she held strong throughout her life that enabled Anne to face her death with strength and fortitude. None of the histrionics of Emily, refusing all help and staggering around the Parsonage and causing anguish to all who had to sit by and watch. Anne accepted medical help as much to satisfy her father and sister more than anything else as she knew it was all too late.
She went to Scarborough with Charlotte, knowing she would not return and not wanting her father to witness yet another death. Anne’s death is so poignant. She lay on a sofa in a room at the hotel and quietly passed away while a lunch party was taking place in the next room. She asked Ellen to look after Charlotte as a sister and then said she believed she was now passing out of this world into the next. The doctor was amazed at how calm Anne was ‘in all his experience he had seen no such death bed and that it gave evidence of no common mind’.
Anne’s last words were to her sister ‘Take courage Charlotte, take courage’.
Charlotte needed all her courage as is shown in this letter to Ellen:
A year ago – how a prophet warned me how I should stand in in June 1849, how stripped and bereaved – had he foretold the autumn, the winter, the spring of sickness and the suffering to be gone through, I should have thought this can never be endured. It is over, Branwell, Emily, Anne are gone like dreams, gone as Maria and Elizabeth went twenty years ago. One by one I have watched them fall asleep on my arm and closed their glazed eyes, I have seen them buried one by one and thus far, God has upheld me.
Charlotte returned home and had to spend the winter alone in the front room at Haworth, with her father in his study, the grandfather clock ticking on the staircase and the endless silence. If you read her letter describing her return and how she got through the first night, I defy you not to weep.
I felt that the house was all silent, the rooms were all empty – I remembered where the three were laid, in what narrow dark dwellings, never were they to reappear on earth. So the sense of desolation and bitterness took possession of me, that agony that was to be undergone and was not to be avoided came on. The great trial is when night approaches – at that hour we used to assemble in the dining room …now I sit by myself. I cannot help thinking of their last days and their suffering – perhaps all this will become less poignant in time. I dream of them and cannot recall them as they were in health. My nights were worse after the first shock of Branwell’s death, they were terrible then and the impressions experienced on waking were at that time such as we do not put into language. Worse seemed at hand than was yet endured – in truth worst awaited us.
Charlotte and Emily have always taken centre stage with Charlotte revering her elder sister and jealous of her reputation, while seemingly consigning Anne to a dark corner. I do sometimes wonder if she did this because, deep down, she realised that Anne might have been the strongest of them all and perhaps, a greater writer too……
A simply wonderful biography by Nick Holland and I am so pleased that at last we have a fully rounded portrait of this underestimated Brontë. The only other book written about Anne is by Winifred Gerin written some time ago, so this new and up to date view is very welcome indeed.
Elaine Simpson-Long blogs at Random Jottings
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Brontë (History Press, 2016). 978-0750965255, 288pp., hardback.
BUY In Search of Anne Brontë from the Book Depository.