Step aside Charlotte and Emily, Anne’s the Brontë for us
Let’s take a moment to wonder at the general awesomeness of the Brontë literary family. Three single ladies living under the same roof in a Yorkshire parish: Charlotte, Emily and Anne are responsible for creating some of the most memorable characters of all time, and were undoubtedly pioneers of women’s literature. Unfortunately, discussion of the Brontës all too often starts along the lines of “yeah, Charlotte was great, and Emily, and… er, who was the third one again?” Poor Anne. Charlotte rocked worlds with Jane Eyre, Emily had the infamous Wuthering Heights, and Anne wrote the much less well known – at least these days – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Except, not ‘poor Anne’ at all, because Anne is great! Like her sisters, she wrote a fair bit of poetry, as well as the novel Agnes Grey, a semi-autobiographical depiction of the oppression and mistreatment of governesses. However, today I’d like to take a look at the aforementioned The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. In this book the heroine, Helen Graham, falls in love with the handsome, dark, brooding Arthur Huntington (think Heathcliff, think Rochester, think Edward Cullen) and marries him. Unsurprisingly, Arthur – let’s wittily call him Loser – turns out to be a manipulative, abusive alcoholic of a husband. Now, if this was another book, perhaps written by Em or Char or by E. L. James, the heroine would love Loser all the more for his tempestuousness, and perhaps her love would tame him somewhat, and they would live together in impassioned bliss and have really good (implied – this is the 19th century!) sex. Except this is a novel by the amazing Anne Brontë, so Helen ditches Loser, illegally runs away with their young child and eventually gets it together with the nice young chap narrating the story. What a refreshing turn of events!
The Byronic male character was one of intense fascination in the 19th century, and still is today. The brooding, dangerous anti-hero seems to have lingered in the collective unconscious of straight women for centuries. Anne’s deconstruction of the romance surrounding this figure is interesting because it was brave, for one: while The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a best-seller on publication, it was criticised heavily for its coarseness and brutality. Among its critics was Anne’s sister Charlotte, who deemed it a ‘mistake’ and prevented re-publication of the novel after Anne died of consumption (don’t be jealous, Charlotte, Jane Eyre is still great).
Which leads me onto the other reason I find Anne so interesting: her scathing dismantling of the brooding hero is in stark contrast to the way her sisters seem to valorize said hero. Rochester and Heathcliff are both manipulative and sadistic, and do dark, terrible things, yet seem to emerge as dreamboats (perhaps Rochester more so than Heathcliff). I am loathe to criticise Charlotte or Emily, whose work I completely adore, but Anne’s story is a massive game changer and is actually really, really inspiring, being lauded as one of the first sustained feminist novels (according to Wikipedia, which is always right). In 2013, it is a huge struggle both emotionally and socially for women to leave their abusive partners. If we imagine how much harder it was in 1848, with the law and convention against women every step of the way, perhaps we’ll have some idea of how radical Anne Brontë’s writing was at the time. In a world of Christian Grays and Edwards Cullens, where 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes, this woman’s stance makes her my political hero as well as my literary one, even 160 years on.