The Other Bronte Girl

Inspired by Juliet Barker’s amazing Wild Genius on the Moors, I’ve been reading Anne Bronte for the first time.

Among the drawbacks of dying young is that other people get to tell your story, and so it is with Anne. She was the baby of the family, and Charlotte’s last surviving sibling, dying of tuberculosis at 29, just about six months after Emily, who made it to 30. Charlotte outlived them by less than a decade — but in the interim, she got to be famous, meeting the literary lions of her day and attracting the attention of hangers-on and would-be biographers. There was no one left to contradict her version of events with her sisters, so it’s hers that’s come down to us. In this version, Emily was the amazing one, the wild child, a genius taken away too soon. Anne was just… Anne: dutiful, a bit boring, and not that good a writer either. Charlotte resisted the re-publication of her second work, “The Tenant of Wildfell,” after Anne’s death, considering it coarse and disturbing, which is kind of amazing if you think about “Wuthering Heights,” a book Charlotte apparently had no problem with.

I can’t think about Anne without wanting to be snide to Charlotte; it’s unfair, I know. And now that I’ve read “Agnes Grey” and “The Tenant of Wildfell” I also can’t help thinking that of all the Brontes, Anne was the closest in spirit to Jane Austen, and that this was why her sister underrated her.

Charlotte Bronte’s lack of enthusiasm for Jane Austen is well known:

Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood … What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death–this Miss Austen ignores….Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless woman), if this is heresy–I cannot help it.

Anne Bronte, despite her youth, spent the most time of them all working as a governess, and “Agnes Grey” offers an almost reportial account of what that must have been like: a well-educated and intelligent, but poor, shy, homesick and sensitive young woman, finding herself alone in a grand house, scorned by servant and master alike, forbidden to discipline the children, yet blamed for their failings. (This is the fate Jane Fairfax feared, the horror lurking offstage in “Emma”; this is what Jane Austen would have faced, had she been less lucky with her complement of brothers.)

It is painful reading at times, yet I can’t help feeling it’s a much more realistic picture of what being a governess was actually like, as opposed to the melodramatic events in “Jane Eyre.” There’s “a Chinese fidelity,” you might say. Agnes Grey dreams no higher than to fall in love with the curate, and he finally turns out to love her back: they marry when he gets a living with an income of 300 pounds a year. This detail is fascinating — first because Jane Austen in “Sense and Sensibility” (decades earlier!) in describing the happy ending, when Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars finally are free to declare their love for each other, comments:

“…they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a-year were enough to supply with them the comforts of life.”

(was the cost of living lower in the North of England? Were Jane Austen’s ideas of the comforts of life a little more elevated than Anne Bronte’s?) It’s also fascinating because Anne Bronte specifies an actual cash figure, something very hard to imagine, say, Emily, ever doing. This works seems at every moment grounded in actual life: the villains are not pure evil, and Agnes, though good and godly and noble, cannot resist indulging in her (seemingly) unrequited passion for the curate, in being more excited about seeing him at church than in worshiping her Creator, the reason she’s supposed to be in church.

“Tenant” is more dramatic (or melodramatic) but again, the events are not Gothic-novel horror but those of everyday life: a naive young girl falls for a handsome man and realizes, too late, that she has married a selfish, drunken hound dog. And thanks to the state of English property law at the time, there is not a thing she can do about it. The scenes of the drunken husband with his drunken friends are presented in unsparing, brutal detail: Anne, because of her brother, Branwell, is as conversant with the behavior of drunken men as she is with the fate of governesses. It is perhaps this Charlotte thought of when she opposed “Tenant’s” republication.

Neither “Agnes” nor “Tenant” has the hair-on-fire intensity of “Jane Eyre,” and even if Anne had lived longer, she would probably always have been in the shadow of her bossy, self-involved older sister. But I enjoyed these works very much, and regret they are not better known.

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