Wednesday, 7 August 2013

In praise of the oft-ignored Acton Bell

In "The poems of Anne Bronte: A new text and commentary", Edward Chitham wrote:
"Of the 3 Bronte sisters who lived to maturity and published their poetry and novels, Anne is the least known or understood. There are various reasons for this neglect, including her own modesty and Charlotte's ambivalent attitude: she both shielded and depreciated her younger sister. Perhaps the paramount difficulty is the way in which Anne so often fails to come up to the popular expectation of a Bronte. "Agnes Grey" may appear a pale version of "Jane Eyre" until one recalls that it was written before "Jane Eyre", and "Wildfell hall" a tamer "Wuthering heights" until one catches the overtones of deliberate parody. Anne is writing a different kind of novel from her sisters, which cannot be judged by the same criteria."


In my opinion, "The tenant of Wildfell hall" is not without flaws. I can't say whether Anne Bronte, instead of letting things follow their course, bends them slightly to fit her moral lessons, or my feeling of uneasiness with certain passages results from nothing other than my religious view (which has previously made me feel uncomfortable to read the last part of "Anna Karenina" or the 1st 50 pages of "Les misérables" or some passages in "Crime and punishment" or the whole of "I know why the caged bird sings"). Whatever the case, the chief thing that makes Anne differ from her sisters is that her books are very religious, and didactic, especially the 2nd one.

In 1 sense, "Agnes Grey" pales in comparison to "Jane Eyre" and "The tenant of Wildfell hall" doesn't have the originality and intensity of "Wuthering heights" and thus Anne becomes the 'other' Bronte, the forgotten one, the oft-ignored one. In another sense, because Anne differs from her sisters in that her books are didactic, she may not be valued as highly as her 2 sisters with regard to literary merit yet she goes further than her sisters in some aspects- if in her 1st book Anne digs deeper in the life of a governess with hardship and humiliation than Charlotte does in "Jane Eyre", in her 2nd book she describes in much more detail the effects of alcoholism than Emily does in "Wuthering heights", and in both she puts more focus on the nurture of children and, most important of all, on the inequalities between men and women in Victorian society. In fact, "The tenant of Wildfell hall" is the most shocking of the Brontes' novels (at least to contemporary readers) and Anne is the most radical of the 3 sisters. Anne also differs from her sisters in that she presents things as they are, bare and coarse, and her 2nd book is a realist's response to the romanticisation of violence and conflict that occurs in Charlotte's and Emily's writings. It's best expressed by her own statement: 
"I find myself censured for depicting con amore, with 'a morbid love of the coarse, if not of the brutal', those scenes which, I will venture to say, have not been more painful for the most fastidious of my critics to read than they were for me to describe. I may have gone too far; in which case I shall be careful not to trouble myself or my readers in the same way again; but when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience."
Am I giving you the impression that Anne is to be praised more for her intentions, her views, her feminism, than her writing abilities? My apologies, it's not my intention. "The tenant of Wildfell hall" should not be read simply as a Bronte novel and a feminist novel, but for itself. Anne's writing style is beautiful, better or at least smoother than Emily's, many passages are pure gold. She vividly describes Huntingdon as a charming, frivolous, light-hearted, mischievous at times, irresponsible, glib, unreliable, thoughtless, insensitive, selfish, self-indulgent, imprudent, treacherous, incorrigible person and does even a more excellent job in her creation of Helen as a quiet, tolerant, calm, highly religious but independent, proud, strong-minded, frank, critical, strict person, especially when Anne convincingly lets us see Huntingdon's attraction to her (good girls are often drawn to bad guys, teased by them, provoked by them, infuriated with them and drawn even more to them), Helen's delusion and illusion, Helen's stubbornness and determination to follow her own decision and ignore all advice as, most important of all, her naive belief that Huntingdon may change (which is very common in real life- some women are not blind to their husbands' faults but believe they can change after the wedding). Her insight is remarkable (particularly considering the Brontes' seclusion). 
On further note I would say, Charlotte's and Emily's books are great and are to be appreciated as a whole (story, characters, themes, symbolism, mood, intensity, vision, etc), or at least in the case of Emily, I sometimes had to endure certain parts in "Wuthering heights" for the sake of the whole, whereas Anne's greatest strength is in the passages (writing style, insight and ability to put it into words). Unable to explain precisely this point, I can only say that it's best demonstrated by their quotes (quoting Anne is much easier). Another example of writers of group 1 can be Dostoyevsky, and group 2, Fitzgerald. 
I find it unfair and very sad that Anne Bronte, aka Acton Bell, is largely forgotten (even by some who say they love the Brontes). And, amazed by how she went from "Agnes Grey" to "The tenant of Wildfell hall", I can't help wondering- what would have happened if she had lived longer? 


Bonus: a few essays/ articles/ blog entries about Anne:

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