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Take Courage.Samantha Ellis's take on Anne Brontë has been widely reviewed by now, and yet it's barely a month since it was published. Before we discuss the book, let us mention how glad we have been to see Anne Brontë's name and achievements all over the national and international press. By the end of her book, Samantha Ellis wishes she didn't have to let Anne go and wonders,
Anne Brontë and the Art of Life
Chatto & Windus
Published 12th January 2017
Anne's birth bicentenary is in 2020; what if I kept on with her until then?And while that would have meant not laying our hands on this book until then, we do understand the feeling and the wish to make Anne's bicentenary worth it. Even if the book has been published three years early, we sincerely hope that the enthusiasm for Anne and the vindication of her life and work keeps up until then and never wanes again.
It's my first time meeting Ann Dinsdale but I have often see her on TV; every time there's some new Brontë discovery, she appears, white-gloved, dressed in black, with a fierce dark bob and a slash of red lipstick. [...]This is a description of Aladdin's cave for any Brontëite and a faithful description of a thrilling moment for all who have been beyond the cordon.
Ann leads me through the kitchen [...]. Undoing the cordon, careful not to set off the alarms, Ann opens a heavy wooden door, and then we are in the annexe added after the Brontës' time, which is now the library, lined with glass-fronted, floor-to-ceiling bookcases in dark wooded, full of everything you wanted to know about the Brontës and quite a lot you didn't.
[Ann Dinsdale] asks if I want to see Anne's last letter. I'm more interested in looking at some of of the other treasure--Emily's drawing of a fist smashing a mullioned window [...] and the book Charlotte and Branwell made, on scraps of paper and sugar bags [...] but when I actually read Anne's letter, I get a shock.That shows how most people view Anne Brontë. Ellis is not very interested in seeing her letter and, what's more important, she hasn't even read a transcript of it before. Because anyone who has ever read that letter and been inevitably moved by it, wouldn't hesitate to see it first.
Anne shows how girls who are given nothing but polish, finish and dinner-party conversation are not prepared for life, taught to think for themselves, or warned about the perils of bad men. In real life, Anne tried to fight this, taking pride in teaching well, and teaching subjects girls didn't usually study.And while she sometimes makes assumptions about what Anne may or may not have felt (which sound likely in most cases at least within the context of this particular biography), she knows when it's impossible to deduce what was really going on inside Anne's head(5).
Tully captures something truthful about Charlotte and Anne. His Charlotte complains that the dying Anne (who she has helped poison!) gives herself the airs of a saint, and she resents nursing her when she could be enjoying her fame in London. Tully also makes much of the fact that Charlotte didn't manage to write anything nice on Anne's gravestone. (7)While Charlotte and Anne's relationship as sisters may not have been the best in the family(8), there is absolutely no reason to paint it in such a bad light as Ellis does. Nothing Charlotte does is good enough for her. Writing to Emily on April 2nd, 141, Charlotte wrote,
I had a letter from Anne yesterday; she says she is well. I hope she speaks absolute truth.Up until now, we had read that as a tender comment from the eldest sister about her youngest sister, but Samantha Ellis doesn't see it that way:
...barred from Anne's real feelings, Charlotte misunderstood, patronised and underestimated her; for Charlotte, Anne was always a 'Poor child!' She tried to protect Anne but she never really trusted her. 'I hope she speaks absolute truth,' she commented doubtfully...(9)She attacks Charlotte for all sorts of things, many times out of the blue and for no reason(10). While she thankfully saves Villette from the stake, she patently dislikes both Jane Eyre and Shirley. She claims that 'Charlotte's novels are haunted by perfect mothers', which is a claim we had never ever expected to hear. According to her, Charlotte's guilt (towards Anne) 'churns through' Shirley. Because The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and even Agnes Grey, are so ahead of their time, she forgets that Charlotte's novels were pretty groundbreaking too(11). She's demolishing about the preface that her publishers didn't allow Charlotte to use when discussing Anne's own preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall(12). We don't agree with the following but you can actually feel Ellis's relief:
But it's too easy to cast [Robert Southey] as a nineteenth-century Michael Winner saying calm down, dear, and to forget that his advice made Charlotte give up Angria, which was a good decision not just for her writing but for her life.Although we do know that Southey's advice to Charlotte has been largely misunderstood and misinterpreted, we weren't expecting Samantha Ellis to cheer him on at all. The above statement surprised, shocked and saddened us.
... a child who might not have suffered so much if she'd only spoken out about what was happening at school. But Maria forced herself to silently endure and now there's nothing left of her but her amazing suffering, and her tattered, faded sampler.Fortunately, others fare better. We were pleasantly surprised to see Patrick Brontë not just not blamed for anything but openly praised for his job as a father. Branwell has it easy with her too as she freely admits to having 'long had a soft spot for Branwell'. Samantha Ellis, who 'grew up longing for Heathcliff', seems to find Emily imposing and daunting so she is pretty much left alone and not intruded upon, except for a rather personal claim of Emily being 'very good at ignoring things'. Tabby is spoken of fondly and given the all-important role of introducing Anne to local lore and the moors. Although somewhat understandable but not any less confusing because of it, Samantha Ellis decides that she's
going to call Anne's aunt by her name: Elizabeth. Everyone--even biographers and literary critics--calls her 'Aunt Branwell', but she was more than just an aunt.We see the logic of it, but throughout the book we kept having a confused moment whenever she referred to Elizabeth. But the logic suited her treatment of her and she does a good job of bringing her out of the 'Calvinistic' shadows in which biographers tend to hide her. She helped bring up these amazing children, so it's time she was given credit for having done a great job(13). William Weightman - for whom we have a soft spot - is pretty much glossed over. He has to be mentioned, of course, but not much is made of the question of whether they were in love or not. Ellis takes for granted that Anne sort of liked/loved him but she mostly skips over the matter, which is a good decision in view of that fact that her real effort in this book is to put the spotlight in Anne herself and her works. It also feels respectful towards her subject. Like she did with Roe Head, Ellis has no time for speculating about what may have or may have not been going on inside Anne's head.
By 1929 Anne had still not been the subject of a dedicated biography, so W.T. Hale stepped into the breach with a short monograph. Unfortunately, his conclusion was both absurd and depressing: 'The Gods were not kind to her: no men except her father's curates ever had a chance to look at her. But the gods must have loved her, after all, for they did not prolong her agony. They let her die young.'The gods are not kind to her even now. She's still undervalued and unknown but it doesn't help that nearly 200 years after her birth, her second novel is still being published and sold in a mutilated version that makes no sense. Samantha Ellis takes a good look at the differences between the actual novel and the book that's passed as it. Through the decades, Anne has been the victim of neglect, scholars who went uncritically with the flow and most readers reading a nonsensical version of her second novel. For a writer, that's as bad as bad luck gets and we can only hope that now, in the run-up to the bicentenary of her birth, all this begins to get better. Samantha Ellis has made a great contribution towards making this possible.
But he, that dares not grasp the thorn(2) We may sound nosey, but we did enjoy these bits. For instance, most people are curious about Winifred Gérin after reading her Brontë biographies - Samantha Ellis included - so it's now great to be able to know her better thanks to her biography by Helen MacEwan.
Should never crave the rose.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall also critiqued her sisters' books, and especially Jane Eyre. In Anne's novel, as in Charlotte's a libertine rejects his wife. Charlotte gave Bertha a classic villain's evil laugh [...] and made her unnatural [...], and barely human [...]. Anne took the libertine's rejected wife out of the attic and put her centre stage. She also took her side. (p. 247)She also likens Tabby to both Nelly Dean from Wuthering Heights and Bessie from Jane Eyre. And while they may have inherited traits from Tabby, we don't really think they fully represent her on the page. We have always seen Hannah from Jane Eyre as the most similar character to Tabby. Ellis also claims Miss Temple in Jane Eyre is Miss Wooler, with which we also disagree. She makes a complicated mess of interpreting Rose and Jessy Yorke in Shirley, rather than just taking them as they were in all probability: pictures of Mary and Martha Taylor.
She also drew an oak, an elm and some wooded landscapes, but no one has suggested she was having a psychic crisis about trees.(6) Samantha Ellis writes,
The more I learn about how Charlotte treated Anne and her work, the sadder I feel. I was so invested with the idea of the three sisters working together, sharing pages, helping each other to get published, supporting each other. I hate knowing that, in truth, their story is partly about sibling rivalry, betrayals, recriminations and turf wars. It's tempting to interpret the whole of the Brontës' afterlives--all the biographies, all the scholarship, all the fan fiction--as part of the same story, with readers and critics getting drawn in, taking sides, defining themselves by which Brontë the feel most sympathy for.So it's incredibly sad to see her taking sides too. We all agree that Anne's recognition is long due, but attacking Charlotte for every little thing she did (or didn't do) won't bring that about any sooner.
Charlotte, though, told Anne's departure as a tragedy: 'Poor child! She left us last Monday; no one went with her; it was her own wish that she might be allowed to go alone, as she thought she could manage better and summon more courage if thrown entirely upon her own resources. [...] I can't help feeling that Charlotte's real anxiety was for herself. [...] Charlotte's sister (her poor, little, incapable sister) had beaten her to [finding a job].(10) She's so bent on criticising Charlotte that sometimes she accuses her falsely.
Perhaps [Charlotte] was frustrated that her salary [at Roe Head] didn't even cover the basics; [...] Charlotte had to ask her friends to pay postage on her letters.Charlotte's time at Roe Head as a teacher was from 1835 to 1838. The first postage stamp wasn't used until 1840. Up until then everyone paid for the sender's postage. Charlotte would have paid for her friends' letters upon receiving them too.
it's almost duty that makes [Jane] go [back to Rochester]. Except it isn't. It's love and lust, if only Jane could own it.(So what if it is? was our first thought when we first read that.)
But can you really judge a person by [...] their shoes? Elizabeth wore wooden pattens [...] indoors and, according to Gaskell, she 'went about the house . . . clicking up and down the stairs'. This has been taken up in book after book about the Brontës. And I'm sure it was annoying, but my goodness, if I thought that nearly two centuries after my death I'd be criticised for the noisiness of my shoes, I'd never wear anything, or do anything. . . 'We have never thought the pattens were mentioned because of the noise they made but because they showed that after many years in Haworth, Aunt Branwell/Elizabeth still hadn't got used to the place, mainly because she didn't want to get used to it. They were mentioned because of the inadaptability they showed, not because of the noise they made.