Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Other Brontë sister

I'm talking about Anne Brontë, youngest sister of the more famous Emily and Charlotte. Why oh why does almost no Brontë fan talk about Anne? And I notice these fans gush over Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, rather than Villette or Shirley or Agnes Grey. Though Agnes Grey is admittedly immaturish compared to the rest. But think of Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Anne's problem, I suspect, is that she is a Brontë, and that family is famous for recreating the Romantic era in the Victorian times they lived in. They were full of passion and Byronic heroes and extremely flawed heroines who could not reconcile themselves with the surroundings they lived in. Look at Catherine Earnshaw, the passionate materialist, Jane Eyre the person-hater, Lucy Snowe the solitary wanderer. (I think of Lucy rather as that man in the painting by Caspar Friedrich, the one who stands atop a hill).  Unlike Charlotte and Emily, Anne was a realist, and therefore ahead for her time. I hear the cries of Emily and Charlotte fans who claim uninhibited passion was ahead of their time.

True, and yet not so - you get a lot of that in Byron's poems. This makes them behind their time in a way. On the whole I think Charlotte and Emily ahead, because this thing was new in literary novels, especially when the individual came into the picture.  An intellectual female individual. But there is a great deal of Gothic influence, improbable events, etc. Anne on the other hand is a realist. She looks at the large landscape, not merely the individual. To say Charlotte and Emily were purely individualistic is to do them an injustice. But Charlotte saw the individual as struggling against the cruel world; she does not accept the world as it is. Anne  does. She went for well-moderated affections, not strong passion. She couldn't stand Byronic heroes and preferred milder heroes - see Mr Weston and Gilbert Markham.

Anne wrote Agnes Grey when she was about 25 - a marvellous age, even by Victorian standards, to write an enduring realistic classic. Emily was 27 when she wrote Wuthering Heights, Charlotte 31 when she finished Jane Eyre. When Tenant was finished Anne was 28.  This is a superb achievement, as Wuthering Heights is full of flaws - unrealistic characters, boring narratives, too many convenient deaths, etc. Jane Eyre suffers from its lack of sympathetic characters - the only ones apart from Jane are not well-drawn, and Rochester's declarations of love make me snort. Don't get me wrong, Charlotte is my personal favourite among the sisters, far more than Anne, but I do see her flaws. There is no perfect Byronic hero who is reformed in Anne's novels - unlike Charlotte's Mr Rochester. Whoever heard of a reformed rake, who, moreover, falls in love with a plain heroine? This is simply not realistic. Arthur Huntingdon refuses to reform and is an adulterer and an alcoholic.

Realism is said to be a modernist thing that came about in later 19th century fiction. This hence makes Anne very modern. However she is very much influenced by the 18th century and early 19th century tradition - note that Tenant is set in the 1820's, rakes are abound and there is a solitary wanderer (Helen) at the heart of the story. This solitary wanderer is a staple of Romanticism, and yet in literary fiction the solitary wanderer only became mainstream in the late Victorian era. Even the early Victorians, save Charlotte, hadn't quite grasped that yet. In fact Romantic era literary fiction wasn't really Romantic - leave that to the Victorians. Gothic novels don't count, not being strictly literary.  So in this way Anne is like her sisters - she is a Brontë after all.

But what about the feminist governessing themes? We often credit Charlotte for being the pioneer but Anne started it.  To be honest, Charlotte did write The Professor, which features an ill-treated lace-mending teacher but Anne was accepted first by a publisher.  Anyway the point is, let us do justice to Anne. The real horrors of governessing is depicted in Agnes Grey, not Jane Eyre. What! I hear you say. Well it is true. Jane Eyre may be discriminated by the upper classes but the household in which she works likes her. Not so for Agnes Grey. Jane's problem is more individual than mere class system. Though of course this prevents her from contemplating marriage with Rochester. But the main point in her position is it affects the fulfilment of her love, whereas in Agnes Grey governessing affects her daily life, her temperament, her experience, not so much love. Anyway it wouldn't be considered a taboo for middle-class Mr Weston to marry Agnes, though it would be shocking for upper-class Rochester to marry Jane. As far as I know, Charlotte did not pine for an upper-class gentleman. She did, however, suffer the daily indignities of being a not so competent governess. She couldn't lead or inspire respect in people, unless it was by writing. But Charlotte didn't depict that in her fiction - no doubt she thought it was banal, not something for her great passions. Funny enough, when you consider how she preferred truth to art. I think she was resisting that great art in her, threatening to sway her from the truth. Her truth is in the impassioned individual, not in society as a whole. Anne chose to depict truth in society, and so she is more balanced. Genuine appreciators of Jane Austen should consider Anne Brontë. I don't mean silly chick lit worshippers who just go in for the beautiful gowns, the rich suitors and the marriages (one of my friends calls Jane Austen "glorified chick lit", and yes, he is a guy, so what do you expect, and I did defend Jane Austen of the charge of stupidity, though I find her books dead boring)

Anne, among the sisters, wrote the most "perfect" novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Novelistically, it has no major flaws perceptible easily to the reader, unlike stupid Mr Rochester, mad Heathcliff, insipid Louis Moore ... you get the picture. Heroes are not the Brontës' forte. Anne was smart enough to realise that, and so chose not to make the men the main characters. It takes a great deal of skill for a female novelist, even the intelligent ones, to write convincing intelligent heroes. Vice versa for male novelists on heroines. It is just natural. Good novelists can write the opposite gender, but often they are limited to ordinary, not intelligent or outstanding protagonists. If they try to go further their weaknesses show.  Anne had plot, a sympathetic heroine, a well-worked villain, and realistic view of society's disapproval of Helen Huntingdon.

But I am far from disparaging the talents of Charlotte and Emily. On the contrary, I think Charlotte's obvious flaws still showed something Anne's works lacked - the extra outstanding fire. No one could match her ability to write passion so well in an individual. If you read Mansfield Park, Fanny Price seems to be an insufferable bore (I sympathise with her though, but then I look at these things through old-fashioned spectacles) but it proves how smart Jane Austen was, to show how a nice girl like Fanny is an unpopular bore. The point is very few like Fanny. Charlotte made her heroines, unlikeable to the society they live in, appeal to the reader. Jane Eyre is sympathised with, many have applauded the creation of Lucy Snowe, and contemporary critics lauded the character of Caroline Helstone, who was deemed to be the real heroine of Shirley, not the titular heroine. Charlotte entered the bodies of these heroines; Jane Austen showed the detached view. Of course Austen was following the literary norms of her era, so we can't fault her. When it came to novels, Anne was not a poet, which is usual for most major novelists, so it is not really a defect.

Anne is always well-structured, Charlotte almost never, except in Jane Eyre.  Emily - hard to say. I personally feel Wuthering Heights is overrated, and she was not at the peak of her powers when she wrote it. What she might have written we will never know.

What angers me is how Charlotte's detractors vilify her as deliberately suppressing Anne out of jealousy. Ironically they wrote similar themes, except Charlotte seemed to expand more on other things, according to critics of their era. Anne, however, focused on those themes, and sought reform. Charlotte admitted to her publisher she couldn't do contemporary themes, and so the emotional aspect shone through. I think Charlotte meant well for Anne. She was upset the way critics attacked Anne's purported immorality, and she didn't like the coarseness of the men in Tenant - especially as it reflected their brother, Branwell.  Charlotte was accused of coarseness in Shirley, but then one can see why Tenant's men appear to be coarser. She also loved poetry in books, and couldn't stand Jane Austen. One can see she wanted more for her sister.  Her concern was ill-expressed though: she couldn't understand Anne. We must give her the credit for getting the sisters published.

One could of course accuse her of plundering Anne's works, but I doubt it. Their books are most unlike for sisters with similar influences. We call Charlotte the feminist, but the feminism is more apparent in Anne, what with a wife running away from her husband, and women more intelligent than men. We mistake passion for feminism, that is our problem. Charlotte undoubtedly had some feminist principles, instilled by her friend Mary Taylor, besides the fact she was a suppressed intelligent woman (feminists those days were more likely to be intelligent women, compared to now any silly shrieker can claim to be a so-called feminist) but she was more individualist than feminist. Remember, she was a Romantic worshipper. Mary Taylor berated her for advocating female employment only for unmarried women. Work, Charlotte said, was a substitute for fulfilment for the single. I don't think Anne desired employment for married women, but she still seems to be more of a feminist in her novels. Not that feminism means excellence in fiction. I am just pointing out this fact. Charlotte wrote more sensuous stuff, but sexuality is not feminism. The early feminists in fact balked at sexuality, and thought those feminists who advocated free love were just satisfying their lusts.  Charlotte wanted to know how a solitary intellectual female like herself could get by, Anne wanted freedom for abused wives. This makes Anne's contribution actually greater, because how many of us can be Charlotte?

On an unrelated note, I did some creative writing assignments, and surprisingly my male protagonist fared better with the lecturer and my male classmates than the female did. No one got the female (neither did I, but that's another story).  The girls didn't get the hero, but I refused to put him on a pedestal.  He may be intelligent and inspired, but he is still a self-centred coward.  Anyway I was surprised, because as a female I am supposed to write heroines better. Then I realised I hadn't created the hero out of nothing, or out of my own experience of people, but out of the biographies of men I had read. This may come out as shameful. Anyway my lecturer said she hoped to hear more about him, so I suppose my hero came out all right. My staunchest supporters among the critics (my classmates really) were the guys. Despite the fact the hero was a boring, clueless, nerdy and totally unheroic boy. On the other hand I do know some people like that, so perhaps I did unconsciously draw partly from life. I still haven't mastered the art of writing female characters, but oh well ... we can't have everything. The good news is, I rewrote my heroine in a later assignment, and the lecturer seemed to like her.  She is however based on Charlotte Brontë in a loose sense, so I can't claim originality. Like the hero, she is intelligent, but weak-willed and awkward. It was hard, because I wanted to make her liberated, but not too liberated for her time (it's set in the early 19th century) and use language suitable for that era. She is conscious of her flaws, can't do anything about it, and is exasperated that the hero sees her as an ideal being when the rest of the town doesn't.

1 comment:

  1. Reading the title I was preparing to vindicate Charlotte for the wrong of accusing her for Anne's lesser popularity. Thankfully I didn't have to! LOL.
    I still consider Charlotte superior to Anne however for another reason: the use of language. She created her own style no matter how different her novels are (and they are very different), but you instantly know when you read her that this is Charlotte. I can not say the same about Anne, but I do like the simple and clear way she speaks about some truths without that complex sophisticated way that Charlotte answered to her reviewers. I always thought Anne a better lecturer than fiction writer.

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