The Novels of Anne Brontë
  Literary Critiques

Anne had firmly launched her literary career with two novels before it came to an abrupt end with her early death in the summer of 1849:

   Agnes Grey  (1847) (a brief account)

   The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (1848) (a brief account)

  (The E-Text for both novels is available 'on line' - see links page) 

Getting the First Novels Published

The three sisters' first venture into the literary world was with a combined book of their poems, which was published, at their own expense, in 1846: it appeared under their chosen pen-names, or pseudonyms, of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The three had chosen male pen-names as they believed female writers were prone to be unfairly treated by the critics. The book proved to be a dismal failure selling only two copies during the first year. However, even before the fate of the book-of-poems became apparent, the sisters had each completed a novel; and as their poems-publisher had informed them that they did not deal in works of fiction, the three manuscripts were sent the 'rounds of the publishers' looking for acceptance. The three novels were Charlotte's 'The Professor', Emily's 'Wuthering Heights' and Anne's 'Agnes Grey'. Charlotte later recalled, 'usually their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal', though after about a year, and something like five rejections, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were finally accepted by one Thomas Cautley Newby, a publisher in London; but Charlotte's novel was rejected by Newby, and by every other publisher to whom it was sent. However, it was not long before Charlotte completed her second novel, the now famous Jane Eyre, and this was immediately accepted by Smith, Elder & Co., a different publisher to that of Anne and Emily's though also located in London. As it transpired, Jane Eyre was the first to appear in print - being published in October 1847. While Anne's and Emily's novels 'lingered in the press', Charlotte's second novel hit the literary world like a bombshell: it became an immediate resounding success. Newby was urged on by its success, and Anne's and Emily's novels soon followed. They appeared as a joint publication, with Wuthering Heights forming the first two volumes, and Agnes Grey the third; and these, too, sold extremely well.

Anne's Challenge to Wuthering Heights

Agnes Grey was a story of the trials and tribulations encountered by an inexperienced nineteen year old girl who set out to make her own way in the world as a governess, just as Anne herself had done. Indeed the whole novel was based largely on Anne's own experiences in her two posts as a governess. In contrast, Emily's Wuthering Heights was a very dramatic, passion-packed, fictional-fantasy, which immediately caught the public's eye and stole the limelight from Anne's more down-to-earth, realistic story-line book. Nine months later, in July 1848, Anne fired back with her second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It seems that Anne was concerned over the presentation of certain themes in Wuthering Heights - and wanted to put forward a challenge to it, exhibiting some of the same themes - but in a more realistic context. One example is the excessive drunkenness which pervades Emily's story - while the ill-consequences of it are not made obvious. The sisters were all too aware of its effect; having witnessed it ruin their brother, Branwell. 'Anne is determined that her readers will feel the degradation of drunkenness' asserts Edward Chitham.68  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an instant, phenomenal success, and rapidly outsold Emily's all-time classic. In her preface to the second edition, written a few months later, Anne hinted that she perceived Emily's story as 'much soft nonsense': 'if I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense' she declared; and Wildfell Hall has since been said to mock Emily's novel - even in its initials: it is now generally acknowledged as Anne's answer to Wuthering Heights.69

The essence of the story is a woman, Helen Huntingdon, who flees her persistently drunk and brutal husband, and their family home; taking with her their young son whom she is determined to protect from his father's influences. They go into hiding in an old, uninhabited, Elizabethan mansion (Wildfell Hall), and she manages to support herself and son by working as an artist. This whole scenario was a taboo subject to the Victorians - not to say an illegal act! 70n  - and there was a strong reaction from many quarters. Many years later, in 1913, May Sinclair - one of the Brontës' biographers - declared that 'the slamming of Helen Huntingdon's bedroom door against her husband reverberated through Victorian England'

The themes Anne presented in this novel were very daring for the Victorian era, and she gave them bold treatment: no punches were pulled in her depiction of scenes of mental and physical cruelty. Many critics slammed the book for its coarseness, and its 'morbid revelling in scenes of debauchery'. Anne had observed, close at hand, how Branwell's dissolute ways were gradually destroying him: and one of her objects in writing Wildfell Hall was to warn other young people against following the same path. Her aims were not only, totally misinterpreted by Charlotte, but also by her reading public, many of whom took the story as having been created purely as 'lively entertainment'; others considered that she had a 'scandalous insistence' on presenting scenes 'which public decency usually forbids'.71  These opinions were also expressed in many of the reviews:

The reviewer in Sharpe's London Magazine declared that his article on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written merely to warn his readers, especially his lady readers, against reading the book. He was confident the writer was a man rather than a woman, and condemned the 'profane expressions, inconceivably coarse language, and revolting scenes and descriptions by which its pages are disfigured'.72  The Spectator accused the author of having 'a morbid love of the course, not to say of the brutal'.73  The critic in the Rambler declared that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was 'one of the coarsest books which we ever perused', and went on to condemn the author's 'perpetual tendency to relapse into that class of ideas, expressions, and circumstances, which is most connected with the grosser and more animal portion of our nature'.74  However, even amongst these early reviewers, there were those who detected the incredible literary talent behind the novel: The Spectator had declared: 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, like its predecessor, suggests the idea of considerable abilities ill applied. There is power, effect, and even nature, though of an extreme kind, in its pages',75  and an American critic later wrote in the North American Review: 'All the characters are drawn with great power and precision of outline and the scenes are as vivid as life itself. . .', but that it brings the reader 'into the closest proximity with naked vice, and there are conversations such as we had hoped never to see printed in English': 76  he then went on to generally criticise the novel's coarseness and declared that it would leave in the reader an impression of horror and disgust. He would have been quite shocked had he been told that this was precisely the author's intention.77  In her preface to the second edition, written a few months later, Anne defended her motives in the way she had presented her subjects:

' . . . when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts - this whispering, 'Peace, peace,' when their is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.

My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.' In this book 'the case is an extreme one, as I trusted none would fail to perceive, but I know that such characters do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain: . . . when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader's immediate pleasure as well as my own.'.

When the sisters' novels became due for a reprint in 1850 - just over a year after Anne and Emily had died, Charlotte prevented the re-publication of Wildfell Hall. Some believe that Charlotte's suppression of the book was to protect her younger sister's memory from this adverse onslaught to her character. However, Wuthering Heights had brought similar accusations on Emily, yet Charlotte did not take the same action on Emily's behalf, despite always appearing to have been closer to her than she was to Anne; seeming to make this a rather weak argument. Others believe Charlotte was jealous of her younger sister.78  There are many instances of Charlotte slighting Anne throughout her later life. Anne had always been the dependant, coddled baby of the family, the 'cherished and protected little one', and, it seems, in later years Charlotte was finding it difficult to accept her as a mature and independent young woman producing literary work that could match, and maybe even surpass her own. Whatever the reason was, Charlotte lived on for another five years during which time her later novels, along with Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights continued to be published, firmly launching these two sisters into literary stardom; while Anne's masterpiece was completely suppressed. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was eventually re-published, some six years after the 'second edition', but by this time had 'missed the boat', leaving Anne forever in the shade of her two sisters. Even the re-publication did not help matters, appearing in a cropped and heavily edited form (see 'The Mutilated Texts of the TWH' - later).

The Payments

Charlotte's publishers, Smith, Elder & Co., were very gentleman-like and very fair to Charlotte in all their dealings with her; in contrast, Thomas Newby, Anne and Emily's publisher, turned out to be a very devious character; contracts made with the girls were not honoured, and the pair were cheated out of much money due them. Following the success of Jane Eyre, Newby tried to cash-in by misleading the public, along with an American publisher with whom he was dealing, into believing that all the 'Bell' novels were written by one and the same person, despite the fact that he had been distinctly told otherwise. Newby's scheming eventually caused much embarrassment and friction for Smith, Elder; and, in order to settle the matter for once and for all, on 7 July 1848, Anne and Charlotte travelled down to London to visit their respective publishers: the two girls spent a total of four days in the capital, and were entertained over the period by Charlotte's publisher, George Smith.

Smith, Elder were every bit as impressed with Emily's and Anne's novels as they were Charlotte's, and they offered to publish any further works produced by the pair. The girls initially declined the offer, feeling it was only right to stay loyal to their own publisher, who, if nothing else, had given them their first chance to get their novels in print; however, Newby continued with his under-handed scheming, and by August 1848, Charlotte was writing to Smith, Elder, informing them of the situation, and that 'Acton has quite had enough of him',79  she concluded her letter by saying 'My sister Anne wishes me to say that should she ever write another work, Mr Smith will certainly have the first offer of the copyright.' 80  Sadly, there was not to be 'another work'. The agreement that Anne and Emily had with Newby was that the two girls would each pay £25 towards the cost of publication, and this would be returned to them as soon as the initial expenses had been recouperated.81  As it transpired, neither Anne nor Emily ever received any money from Newby for Agnes Grey or Wuthering Heights, so were actually at a loss with this first venture. However, the success of the novels meant that Anne obtained a better deal from Newby for her second novel, Wildfell Hall, though, in the event, she only ever received two payments of £25 82 (Charlotte was receiving cheques of £100 at a time for Jane Eyre).  It wasn't until February 1854, some five years after the deaths of Anne and Emily, that Charlotte obtained, from Newby, a payment of £90 that was owed the two deceased sisters.83

Anne Brontë: The Pioneering Novelist

Over the years, Jane Eyre has proved the most successful of the Brontë novels. Charlotte had made some radical changes in her writing techniques with this novel - compared to those she had used in the failed 'The Professor', which had been written in the same style as of most of her juvenilia: It was around late September, or October, of 1846 when Charlotte is reputed to have informed her two sisters that she had decided to make her new heroine 'plain, small and unattractive in defiance of the accepted canon', and would prove to them that such a heroine would be as interesting as any of theirs84  - a writing trait that has won Charlotte much acclaim over the years; but, in reality, she did no more than adopt the technique that had been pioneered by Anne nine months earlier with the creation of her plain, young governess, Agnes Grey. Elizabeth Langland, who has written an excellent book of assessment of Anne's work, writes: 'Anne was one of the first women writers to adopt a woman as narrator. . . . Anne Brontë also innovates in her choice of heroines both in Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Agnes Grey is an ordinary, practical, and undistinguished woman. She possesses neither fortune nor beauty. In short, she has nothing to recommend her to a reader's, or a man's, attention. Yet, by making Agnes narrator of her story, Anne makes her both attractive and compelling.85  In Agnes Grey, she developed the governess story in ways which were to influence Charlotte significantly in the writing both of Jane Eyre and Villette. . . . Anne employed a first-person, female narrator who intimately addresses the 'Reader'. She seems therein to have suggested these new possibilities to Charlotte who, previous to Jane Eyre, had never employed a female narrator, even in her juvenilia.' 86

Anne Brontë - The Other One?

Despite Charlotte's suppression of Wildfell Hall a short time after Anne's death; and the book's eventual re-publication in a reduced and mutilated form, Anne's genius has still caught the attention of many eminent people over the years. The themes and writing techniques in both her novels are strikingly modern, and in many ways Wildfell Hall was way ahead of its time, so much so, that many people now label it 'a twentieth century novel written in the nineteenth century.'

In 1868, a number of years after Anne's death, a Lady Amberley noted in her diary: 'read Agnes Grey, one of the Brontës, and should like to give it to every family with a governess and shall read it through again when I have a governess to remind me to be human.' (So much for the Atlas critic's view, who, shortly after its publication, suggested that it left no impression on the mind!). Leading Brontë biographer Juliet Barker writes of Agnes Grey: ''Though overshadowed by her sisters' much more dramatic novels - and completely ignored by Charlotte who did not consider it worthy of comment in either her biographical or editorial prefaces to the 1850 reissue of Wuthering Heights/Agnes Grey - Anne's first novel had many strengths of its own. Enlivened by a quiet humour, it is a far deadlier expose of the trials of being a governess than her sister's more famous Jane Eyre. It is also the first novel to have a plain and ordinary woman as its heroine. Charlotte is usually credited with this innovation in Jane Eyre, which, she told her friends, was written to prove to her sisters that a heroine 'as plain and as small as myself' could be as interesting as their conventionally beautiful ones. Once again, Charlotte ignores that fact that in Agnes, Anne had already created just such a heroine.' 87  Elizabeth Langland remarks: Anne Brontë's 'thematic innovations place her in the forefront of feminist thought in the nineteenth century even as her formal and technical innovations demand that we look again at her contributions to the English novel. Both thematic and technical innovations were assimilated into Charlotte's novels and passed on to generations of writers. Perhaps George Moore was right when he claimed that Anne was the sacrifice to make credible the genius of Emily and Charlotte: "Three phthisis-stricken sisters living on a Yorkshire moor, and all three writing novels, were first-rate copy, and Charlotte's little depreciations of the dead were a great help, for three sisters of equal genius might strain the credulity of the readers of the evening newspapers". But we must not be bound by the conventional wisdom that reached that conclusion. If there are three geniuses, then we must count them three.' 88

It was in the early years of this century that the Irish novelist George Moore wrote his glowing report on Anne and her novels, he declared that Anne 'had all the qualities of Jane Austen and other qualities', and again, 'If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.' He described Agnes Grey as 'The most perfect prose narrative in English literature', and continues 'Agnes Grey is a narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress. . . . The arrival of Agnes at the house of her employer (she is the new governess) opens the story, and the first sentences convince us that we are with a quick, witty mind, capable of appreciating all that she hears and sees; and when Agnes begins to tell us of her charges and their vulgar parents, we know that we are reading a masterpiece. Nothing short of genius could have set them before us so plainly and yet with restraint'. On Wildfell Hall, and its comparison with Wuthering Heights, Moore remarked that the novel's excellence lay in 'the first hundred and fifty pages of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, whose "weaving of the narrative reveals a born story-teller, just as the knotted and tangled threads in Wuthering Heights reveal the desperate efforts of a lyrical poet to construct a prose narrative".' 89  He declared that Wildfell Hall had the rare literary quality of 'heat', and firmly laid the blame for Anne's loss of reputation on Charlotte's shoulders. Edward Chitham identifies The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a book to parallel Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, 90  and Elizabeth Langland continues: 'It is worth pausing briefly to reflect on what might have been Anne's fate had The Tenant of Wildfell Hall been re-published with Agnes Grey so that critics could take that opportunity to measure the substantial artistic growth between the two novels. Charlotte herself never accomplished Anne's imaginative range. Further, Anne was only twenty-eight when she wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; at a comparable age, Charlotte had produced only The Professor. And yet, despite the disadvantages in representation Anne suffered at Charlotte's hands'.91  Barbara and Gareth Lloyd Evans, in their recent book, 'Everyman's Companion to the Brontës' write: 'A.B.'s Tenant of Wildfell Hall puts most of our contemporary female novel-writers to shame, but it has still not received its deserved acclaim as a novel that, in construction, style, clarity of theme, compares with the greatest that Emily and Charlotte wrote. Apart from this, it is as fearless and affirmative in its assumption and declaration of the independence of women as any of Charlotte's and is more clear-headed, shrewd, and unsentimental about womankind than today's noisy proselytizers.' 92 

  The Mutilated Texts of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

(The novel's re-emergence - six years after the 'second edition')

  Productions (Stage, T/V and Radio)

Copyright © 1999 Michael Armitage
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