Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sunday, June 12, 2016 12:30 am by Cristina in , ,    No comments

In Search of Anne Brontë
By Nick Holland
The History Press
ISBN: 9780750965255
Published: 03-03-2016
Anne Brontë can't seem to shed the 'unknown Brontë sister' label so it seems rather fitting that in preparation for her own bicentenary in 2020, she has a new biography in the year of her sister Charlotte's own bicentenary. (After all, it all seems to point out that the label is due to Charlotte's treatment of her work). Readers need to get acquainted with her life and works now so they can celebrate her properly in four years' time.

'Unknown' is not the only label applied to her. She also seems to be the 'quiet Brontë', even though her works - both novels and poetry - seem to point to quite the inner turmoil. Her life was very different to her sisters' and brother. In a family of geniuses, she spent her life determined to prove her own worth and goodness - she sure did, even if it still wasn't quite good enough for her own standards.

Even if people tend to think of the Brontës as having biographies and books constantly written about them (and this is not the case), Anne Brontë seems to have been the main focus of only three main biographies up until now: Winifred Gérin's pioneering work in 1959, then Elizabeth Langland's Anne Brontë: The Other One in 1989 and Edward Chitham's biography in 1991. Nick Holland, author of the blog AnneBrontë.org, has written the first biography of Anne Brontë in the 21st century.

Holland, Yorkshire born-and-bred just like the Brontës, is not new to this publishing business but you may be surprised to hear that his other books are thrillers. He doesn't seem to have been daunted by the change in genre as his understanding of Anne Brontë and particularly his empathy towards her are noticeable and remarkably well-conveyed. He has made good use of his experience in fiction to flesh out some small details: some of Anne's reactions and private moments are imagined by him but he never strays far into the speculation path and everything is as plausible as it gets, only serving the purpose of making Anne more real.

In order to achieve this, he cautions readers at the beginning:
Piecing together a biography of Anne Brontë is in some ways like being a lawyer working on a case before the courts. There are lots of clues, if we choose to see them, and from these clues we can piece together a fuller picture of the truth itself. This may in some cases have to lead to supposition as to what Anne would have said, done or felt, but by examining the clues of her life we can do so with some degree of confidence, even certainty. [...]
The greatest evidence of all, however, is contained within Anne's writing itself. Yes, these are works of fiction, but as every writer knows, there will always be elements of truth contained within them.
We freely admit to having been scared initially by this declaration of intentions as we tend to be wary of reading too much into the Brontës' works but rest assured: throughout the book there's hardly an instance where arguments are far-fetched or reality too much based on fiction.

We all tend to associate Anne's personal life with Scarborough, Emily, William Weightman, the Robinsons, governessing, etc. Nick Holland's work is to put it all together in a way that makes sense and, at the same time, give it the necessary Brontë context without Anne being out of focus. With one exception where we leave Anne out of sight when Charlotte and Emily go to Brussels, Nick Holland never abandons her. He's not afraid of putting chronological order aside for a minute to make sense of events but this doesn't affect the reader's understanding of her life, if anything it adds to it.

We know comparisons between siblings shouldn't be done, but we don't know whether that applies to comparisons of biographies about siblings, so we will do it. Reading Nick Holland's biography shortly after Claire Harman's biography of Charlotte results in two main things striking us. Firstly, Nick Holland's view of Patrick Brontë is much more 'amicable' and - to us - much closer to the truth. For instance, Mr Holland does justice to Patrick's modern approach to education. And secondly, he's not so bent on finding out what Anne Brontë's physical appearance actually was as Harman was on finding out about Charlotte's real aspect. This is both good and bad: in a way it helps the reader stay focused on Anne's personality but at the same time it does seem to create a barrier. We have also missed a mention or even a discussion of whether Anne Brontë truly had a speech impediment, which has been argued before and which Nick Holland himself discussed on his blog (1).

And since we are talking about the physical appearance of things, we must admit to not liking - at all - the cover chosen for the book. It may be just us, but whenever we pick the book up, all we see is a traditional Chinese man looking at the misty moors; we most definitely don't see Anne Brontë wrapped in a mist looking at the distant prospects of the moors she so loved and which we guess is what the design is trying to convey. Nope - just a Chinese man.

Even if you would initially expect them to be so, not all biographies are sympathetic to their subject. Fortunately, that's not the case with this biography of Anne Brontë. Nick Holland truly seems to love both Anne's work and be in awe of her life. As indeed it is easy to be. Anne Brontë's 'unknown' life was no bed of roses, in many ways she had it tougher(2) than her siblings but her endurance, composure, compassion and sheer inner strength helped her throughout her trials and tribulations. And Nick Holland is now there to tell us all about it. His way of telling about Anne Brontë's final illness and last days is particularly touching while avoiding the easy slide into parable territory. This new biography proves that Anne Brontë's afterlife is just like her life: not about quantity but about quality.


(1) Speaking of online resources. We were saddened to see no mention (not even in the bibliography) of Mick Armitage's pioneering website Anne Brontë--the Scarborough Connection, which 20 years after its creation continues to be an unrivaled resource on all things Anne Brontë, particularly but not only on the 'Scarborough connection'. Actually, we were inclined to think that much of what is said in the book about the area around the Robinsons' Thorp Green Hall was derived from that website or from the same sources. At any rate, pointing readers of the biography to images of the places where Anne lived and how they looked back then and how they look now would have been quite a treat for said readers and we consider it a missed opportunity.

(2) In this respect, we missed one of our favourite quotes by Anne Brontë which doesn't come from her novels or her poetry, not even from one of her few letters. It's a scribble that can be found minutely penciled on the flyleaf of her Book of Common Prayer:
Sick of mankind and their disgusting ways


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