(17 January 1820 – 28 May 1849)
*I know she’s not technically a Regency Woman. But Anne was born 12 days before the Regent became King. I wanted to do this post on Anne since we are reading her novel for this month’s Reading Group*
Anne Brontë was an English novelist and poet, the youngest member of the Brontë literary family.
The daughter of Patrick Brontë, a poor Irish clergyman in the Church of England, Anne Brontë lived most of her life with her family at the parish of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors. She also attended a boarding school in Mirfield between 1836 and 1837. At 19 she left Haworth and worked as a governess between 1839 and 1845. After leaving her teaching position, she fulfilled her literary ambitions. She published a volume of poetry with her sisters (Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, 1846) and two novels. Agnes Grey, based upon her experiences as a governess, was published in 1847. Her second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is considered to be one of the first sustained feminist novels, appeared in 1848. Like her poems, both her novels were first published under the masculine pen name of Acton Bell. Anne’s life was cut short when she died of what is now suspected to be pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 29.
Partly because the re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was prevented by Charlotte Brontë after Anne’s death, she is not as well known as her sisters. However, her novels, like those of her sisters, have become classics of English literature.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was published in the last week of June 1848. It was an instant, phenomenal success; within six weeks it was sold out.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is perhaps amongst the most shocking of contemporary Victorian novels. In seeking to present the truth in literature, Anne’s depiction of alcoholism and debauchery was profoundly disturbing to 19th-century sensibilities. Helen Graham, the tenant of the title, intrigues Gilbert Markham and gradually she reveals her past as an artist and wife of the dissipated Arthur Huntingdon. The book’s brilliance lies in its revelation of the position of women at the time, and its multi-layered plot. It is easy today to underestimate the extent to which the novel challenged existing social and legal structures. May Sinclair, in 1913, said that the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. Anne’s heroine eventually left her husband to protect their young son from his influence. She supported herself and her son by painting while living in hiding, fearful of discovery. In doing so, she violated not only social conventions, but English law. Until 1870, when the Married Women’s Property Act was passed, a married woman had no independent legal existence apart from her husband; could not own property, sue for divorce, or control custody of her children. If she attempted to live apart, her husband had the right to reclaim her. If she took their child, she was liable for kidnapping. By living on her own income she was held to be stealing her husband’s property, since any property she held or income she made was legally his.
In the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which appeared in August 1848, Anne clearly stated her intentions in writing it. She presented a forceful rebuttal to critics (Charlotte was among them) who considered her portrayal of Huntingdon overly graphic and disturbing.
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? O 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.”
Anne sharply castigated reviewers who speculated on the sex of the authors, and the appropriateness of their writing, in words that do little to reinforce the stereotype of Anne as meek and gentle.
I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.”