In The Madwoman Upstairs, the last living descendant of the Brontë family sets off on a mysterious scavenger hunt created by her late father. It’s rumored that the treasure at the end is the Brontë literary estate, including drafts of novels, letters, diaries, and more. In crafting this novel, author Catherine Lowell went on her own hunt for information about the Brontë family. Along the way, she became captivated by the youngest sister, Anne. Her novels are not as well known, and few would call her their favorite Brontë (in Hamilton, she’d be Peggy), yet is there more to Anne than meets the eye? Here, Lowell makes the case for her favorite Brontë sister.
Growing up, Anne was the Brontë who intrigued me the most. She was a bona fide underdog, and I had a particular fondness for underdogs. As the youngest sibling in a family that produced two of the most storied writers in English literature, Anne was generally seen as the quiet, gentle sister. Her fictional protagonist, Agnes Grey, might as well have been speaking for Anne when she complained of being “regarded as the child, and the pet of the family.” And yet Anne was a gifted writer in her own right, with the characteristic Brontë bravery. Why had she been slighted by history?
I began studying Anne in a formal capacity when I started writing a novel about the Brontës several years ago. I spent time (too much) speculating about what Anne was really like, behind her tidy historical depictions—what kind of fiery woman might have been raging inside of her? Was this another Bertha Mason, trapped and struggling?
After poring over her life story, I did not find Bertha (to my disappointment), but I did come away with a deep appreciation for an author who was much stronger than people gave her credit for. Here are some of the reasons the youngest Brontë quickly became my favorite—the same reasons, perhaps, that she never made it big.
Anne wanted to expose the reality of life—no sugar coating
In Anne’s work, art imitated life, and she may have suffered for it. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, reads like a barely-fictionalized account of her own somewhat uneventful life. Agnes is a shy, moral woman who, as socially immobile as the rest of her sex and class, ends up as a governess and encounters a world of vanity and cruelty. Anne didn’t deny the story’s basis in reality: responding to criticism of Agnes Grey, she wrote, “Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant over-coloring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration.”
It may have been the desire to stay true to life that reduced the story’s dramatic potential. Agnes Grey reads much more like a slice of daily life than, for example, Jane Eyre—with none of the Gothic embellishments or burning passions. Charlotte told a governess story as she wanted it to be; Anne told it as it was. Not a spellbinding story, maybe, but one meant to draw visibility to a woman’s condition in the 1840s.
If Agnes had been enthusiastically outspoken, with a flair for banter and a more exciting love story, perhaps the world would love her more. Still, Agnes Grey is a surprisingly relevant read, begging questions to which we still don’t have clear answers: As a young person beginning to navigate employment, how do you balance the need to work within a system and still assert what you think it right? When the world seems out to get you, how, practically, do you fight back?
Anne was a would-be social reformer
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s second novel, revolves around domestic violence and alcoholism, two distinctly unladylike subjects at the time. The protagonist, Helen Graham, runs away from her abusive husband and decides to live on her own with her young child, choosing to support herself by painting. Unabashed in the face of critics, many of whom seemed shocked by the subject matter, Anne Brontë wrote, “Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveler, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! If there were less of this delicate concealment of facts…” Anne was as interested in social change as she was in fiction: The novel reads as a passionate plea for women’s rights.
Again, the differences between Charlotte and Anne’s stories are worth noting. If Charlotte briefly touches upon domestic violence in Jane Eyre—Edward Rochester has a wife locked in his attic—Anne explicitly spells it out, featuring scenes in which Helen’s husband, Arthur, is violent. Rochester justifies the incarceration of her wife on the grounds of her insanity; Arthur Huntington is given no such excuse. Anne made a risky choice as an author, highlighting an uncomfortable reality to increase its visibility in the public eye. Perhaps this was one of the reasons Tenant never did as well as Jane Eyre—it may have been “too real.”
Anne was snubbed—by Charlotte
Given Charlotte’s fondness for social commentary and the advancement of women, it’s curious that she did not support The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She called it an “entire mistake” and prevented its republication. The reasons are unclear. The novel was in some ways inspired by their alcoholic brother, Branwell— was Charlotte eager to cover up private family drama? Did she think The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was genuinely terrible? Or, was there a chance that Charlotte was feeling a bit… competitive?
Here we move into the land of speculation. What is likely, however, is that if Charlotte hadn’t prevented its republication, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall would have had a better chance of being read in greater numbers, both then and now.