Waterstones Event: Samantha Ellis on Anne Brontë
Last week I had the pleasure of being able to listen to one of my favourite authors, Samantha Ellis, talk about her new book at my local Waterstones, in York. 'Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life', examines the life and writing of the ‘other’ Brontë, to try and understand why she has been so misrepresented in literary history, and what we can learn from her own unique attitude to life. I had been looking forward to this event since I had booked my tickets back in April, and it was every bit as interesting as I imagined.
Ellis began by talking about how she had embarked on her journey as a Brontë enthusiast as most young girls do; by reading ‘Wuthering Heights’. It wasn’t until she arrived at the Brontë parsonage to research her first book, ‘How to Be a Heroine’, that she really began to re-examine her own beliefs about Anne.
I admit, I am still yet to read Anne’s work, myself. That being said, I have been eager to read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ for quite some time. I didn’t read ‘Wuthering Heights’ until I was seventeen, and by then I think I had grown past the point of being fully able to enjoy it. Heathcliff and Cathy did little more than abuse each other, and those around them. I couldn’t understand why it was seen as such a romantic novel. My favourite character ended up being Isabella Linton; for her brave decision to leave Heathcliff and run away to London with their child. Already disowned by Edgar, she would have had to face the world as a single mother at a time that it was almost unheard of.
This may explain why I already had some interest in Anne Brontë, and her works. I loved the Brontë’s wild writing, in which the landscape was always one of the most important characters of the books. However, I wanted a book that had a more hopeful and empowering approach to life and love. I’ve always thought that there has never been a better demonstration of what separated Anne from her sisters so greatly that this little comic by Kate Beaton, which Samantha Ellis also referenced in her talk.
If you’re not familiar with ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, it follows the heroine, Helen Graham, as she escapes from an abusive marriage and attempts to start a new life with her child at Wildfell Hall. Anne is often represented as timid, and stiflingly pious, but the mere subject of her novel discredits this. At the time Anne was writing, when women had few rights and had the legal status of little more than property, it would have taken more courage than imaginable to begin a life alone. Especially when the Church, and law, made it virtually impossible for a woman to obtain a divorce.
But, as Samantha Ellis explained, this is only the beginning of Anne’s misrepresentations. As her sisters wrote novels about romancing with violent and abusive men, Anne was writing about the realities of living with, and escaping from them. Anne’s other novel, 'Agnes Grey,' examines toxic gender roles, and criticises a wealth of social issues; from animal abuse, to how society educates men to be violent. I knew Anne was different, but listening to Ellis talk made me realise that I had, had no idea just how radical she was.
And though religious, Anne’s novels were criticised as vulgar. Many contemporary critics despised her depictions of the upper classes swearing, and committing adultery. Anne may have used her piety as a guide through her own troublesome life, but she was also revolutionary. She published letters stating that she believed anyone could be saved, that heaven was not just reserved for those who belonged to the right churches. Far from being pathetic, it’s clear that Anne really must have needed a ‘core of steel’.
And, Ellis pointed out, the Brontë sisters were not as isolated as you might think. Their father, Patrick, was often sought out for advice, and they had plenty of opportunity to hear some harrowing stories. Ellis told the story of one woman, who came to him about her own abusive marriage. Patrick implored her to leave. She didn’t return to the Parsonage until years later, where she told the three sisters her story, and said that she wished she had listened to their father’s advice. In the end, the husband had abandoned her and she had made her own life. This no doubt influenced all their novels, but it was clearly Anne who took the most from these experiences.
She was also a pioneer, the first of her sisters to begin writing again in adulthood, and the first to begin writing about reality. 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' was massively successful at the time. The first edition sold out in six weeks. By the time she died, the second edition had almost sold out, too. However, Charlotte refused to let it be republished. However, Ellis took care to avoid participating in gossip-like speculation about sibling rivalry and does not pretend to know the motivations behind Charlotte’s actions. At the time, Charlotte had suffered losing her brother and both her sisters in a matter of just a few months.
Ellis, instead, told a rather touching story about the time when Charlotte was working as a governess in a school where her youngest sister, Anne, was a student. Conditions were poor, and many of the young girls got sick. At one time, Anne became so that she was close to dying. When Charlotte found out, she was enraged, and made her feelings very clear to her employers. Although their relationship may have lacked communication, they clearly loved each other dearly.
The title of the novel comes from Anne’s last words to Charlotte; “take courage”. Charlotte would later go on to write 'Shirley', and 'Vilette'. Although perhaps less well known, they are much more political, and arguably more feminist novels than Jane Eyre.
It may be impossible to ever truly know what Anne was like. There are only five of her letters left, compared to the hundreds we have from Charlotte. If there was one thing to take from Ellis’s talk, though, it is that, far from being prepared for death, as Charlotte claims, Anne’s last letter – written just before she died – shows a clear desperation to live, and to find some meaning in her life. Hopefully, this new wave of interest suggests that Anne Bronte is finding a new life in the modern world and finally being recognised for the merit she deserves.
At the beginning of the talk, I was unconvinced that I would be interested enough to read a whole book about Anne Brontë. Clearly, I couldn’t have been more wrong, as I walked away with two copies; one for myself, and one for our first ever giveaway.