At six o' clock last Saturday I finished Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey. At a few minutes to nine last night I finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. And that, my friends, is that. Save the poetry, it is over. I have read Anne Brontë. One week, it took.
It saddens me, maybe more than it should. Had she have lived a grand old age and not died at the age of twenty nine (not twenty eight, as the gravestone mistakenly claims), had she produced ten, twenty, fifty books, I would have bought them all. My Anne Brontë collection would have challenged my Virginia Woolf collection. I would have bought them, read them, and loved them. But instead, her two books sit on my largest book shelf near the top between R. D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. I can buy some biographies, I expect, and read those, but I still sit here now at ten to seven in the autumn of 2011 over a hundred and sixty years later, when it is absolutely black outside now, as it no doubt was then, thinking, "Is that it? Is that really it?"
It's awful to find this talent that time was unable to nurture. Her prose should have shattered the world. Now, at the end of 2011, she is fantastic, her prose is strong and defiant. Back then, one hundred and sixty three years ago (one hundred and sixty four in December), it was surely intimidating, defiant, formidable, and so, so very awful. Everything art should be. She questioned and challenged the mores of her time. She is, and was, magnificent and daring.
In an era where you married for life, where you vowed "'Til death do us part" and it meant just that, not just God's law, but society's. The legal system, the convention, tradition even, had it so if a woman was to run away from her husband, he was entitled to find her, capture her and imprison her as though she were a slave. But Helen Huntingdon, of Tenant, did just that. She said, "No," to a man who cheated on her, mocked her, left her for London at long intervals; a man who simply wasn't right for her, who didn't share or respect her religious beliefs. She left.
She had it better than Clarissa, it must be said. The very title of Clarissa: "Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady: Comprehending The Most Important Concerns of Private Life, and particularly showing the distresses that may attend the misconduct of both parents and children, in relation to marriage", clearly indicates that Anne was not the first (of course she was not the first) to write on this subject. But, how much more eloquent she is:
Alas! poor Milicent, what encouragement can I give you? - or what advice - except that it is better to make a bold stand now, though at the expense of disappointing and angering both mother and brother, and lover, than to devote your whole life, hereafter, to misery and vain regret? (Tenant of Wildfell Hall)
Is she a feminist? I don't know, does it matter? I still am firm in my belief that because you share views and ideals with the Feminist movement, you do not nor should you feel obliged to refer to yourself as a feminist. These days, the feminist movement is dogmatic and excludes women who do not look like them, therefore I chose not to label Anne Brontë as a feminist for the same reasons as I won't label myself as one: you will lose the whole picture if you interpret her along set guidelines. She is what she is, asking what she is and what she is not from this perspective loses her essence and isn't even vaguely helpful. On one hand, I'm surprised the Feminist movement haven't claimed her more as their own, but on the other hand I'm relieved.
But still, I ask: why is she not as popular as she ought to be? Why is she "the other one", the "other" Brontë sister. It's tempting to take them as a set, a triad of 19th Century women writers, one group, and it is tempting to compare the three in terms of talent and popularity. Of course their upbringing was the same, and they were close, and undoubtedly shared their thoughts of their situation (whether it be political or not). But they are three individuals, and so, again, I don't think evaluating her with reference to her sisters is essential, though I do think it could potentially be illuminating.
You should love Anne Brontë. There's no reason for anyone not to have, at least, read Agnes Grey. It's short, accessible, and like Tenant, defiant. A governess herself, she challenges the role that, she felt, made her invisible. In short, like Helen Huntingdon, Agnes put up with so much it defies belief. The child, the boy, of her first family is morally repugnant, but is praised for his hobby of torturing animals, for example. And she refuses, she revolts: she kills the birds quickly rather than have the boy slowly torture them. "I shall do what I think is right in a case of this sort without consulting any one. If your papa and mamma don't happen to approve of it, I shall be sorry to offend them; but your uncle Robson's opinions, of course, are nothing to me." Her prose is so powerful and so moving, and, I keep saying it, defiant. She does not accept her situation, no, and nor will she put up with it for a minute longer. She's inspiring, so deeply inspiring.
Please read her.
Please read her.