Monday 24 July 2017

Lively new appraisal of Bronte fails to convince

History: Take Courage, Samantha Ellis, Chatto & Windus, €20

To Walk Invisible, the BBC drama charting the lives of the Bronte sisters played by Charlie Murphy (Anne), Chloe Pirrie (Emily) and Finn Atkins (Charlotte)
To Walk Invisible, the BBC drama charting the lives of the Bronte sisters played by Charlie Murphy (Anne), Chloe Pirrie (Emily) and Finn Atkins (Charlotte)

In To Walk Invisible, the recent BBC drama about the Bronte sisters, Sally Wainwright showed their writing in direct response to the deterioration of their addict brother, Branwell.

Charlotte steamed with controlling rage as she sought to bend her sisters to her fierce unhappy will, while Emily emerged as more backward child than untamed visionary as she attempted in vain to keep alive the world of Gondal make-believe.

It was Anne, the youngest sister, who emerged as the quiet heroine of the story, acting as both peacekeeper and truth-teller.

Wainwright's version is consistent with that put forward by Samantha Ellis in Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, in which the youngest sister again takes centre stage.

However, Charlotte is never far from the action.

Anne's novel about a governess, Agnes Grey, was written before Jane Eyre but published two months later - by which point the virtues of Acton Bell's plain documentary style had been eclipsed by the fanfare surrounding Currer Bell's gothic romance.

Its time would come: today, Agnes Grey is championed as an unusually accurate and unvarnished picture of a mid-19th century governess's lot.

Unlike Charlotte who had worked as a governess only very briefly, Anne had actually put in five years hard labour before her drunk brother's ill-judged affair with her employer made her position untenable. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), was deemed shocking but sold well - unlike Emily's Wuthering Heights, which also shocked but didn't sell - and modern scholars praise Wildfell for its realistic portrait of alcoholism and brutal marriage laws. But after the deaths from tuberculosis of first Emily and then Anne in 1848 and 1849, Charlotte was determined to defend their reputations from contemporary critics' baffled accusations of coarseness.

She did this with an ill-judged Biographical Notice appended to a new edition of her sisters' works. But it was Emily's difficult genius that she was really at pains to defend - Anne's work was more or less hung out to dry.

Of Wildfell she wrote: "The choice of subject was an entire mistake... Nothing less congruous with the writer's nature could be conceived."

Charlotte lived for six years after Anne, and published two more novels. By the time of her death in 1855, the idea of Charlotte as literary heroine was ready to be born.

Elizabeth Gaskell played midwife with her Life of Charlotte Bronte, published in 1857, in which Anne barely features and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is described - no doubt accurately - as "little known".

Ellis's light and wide-ranging study is a mix of textual criticism, biographical shavings (Anne's letters have not survived) and Ellis's musings about her journey towards her subject. She is least persuasive when in championing Anne she is dismissive of her sisters.

She criticises Emily for "escapism" and failing to emerge from the fantasy of the juvenilia, and Charlotte for having recourse to the supernatural. She cites Jeanette Winterson's account of having Jane Eyre read to her by her evangelical mother who changed the ending so that Jane marries her cousin and becomes a missionary.

So far so mad. But here is Ellis, wresting her recap to suit her thesis: "It seems a travesty, but reading the novel again, I can see that it is not far from what Charlotte wrote herself."

Ellis's previous book, How to be a Heroine, revisited bookish teenage crushes. Perhaps it is unsurprising that this expert decoder of schoolgirl reading writes like a schoolgirl still. The text is littered with asides such as "ugh!" and "ouch!".

The humourless curate hero of Agnes Grey is referred to as "lovely Weston".

She describes sitting in the cold Parsonage library "choking back tears" and reading of Anne's trials "in mounting fury".

Ellis's main case is that Anne has been misrepresented as morbidly religious and retiring when, in fact, she was full of attack, better than her siblings at life and better, in her work, at remaining true to what she knew.

Wildfell's "relentless realism means that no one can read it and say it could never happen".

Well, yes and no. In Wildfell, Anne takes all sorts of chances - giving startlingly credible portraits of the deterioration of Arthur Huntingdon, Helen's first husband, while the violent temper of her second spouse, the farmer Gilbert Markham, lies like an unacknowledged shadow across that apparently successful union. But it is as though Anne only dares these plot lines by making Helen blameless to the point of lifelessness.

With the priggish Agnes Grey, the problem is more extreme - as Agnes tells all of her own story, there is no escaping her tone of querulous complacency. It is hardly surprising that her employer begged her not to be so "touchy".

A greater novelist might be refusing the easy path of likeable heroines, as Austen could with Fanny Price. But if all we had by way of Austen's heroines was Fanny Price with the wicked Mary Crawford as foil, then perhaps we would be less forgiving of the experimental Mansfield Park.

That Anne Bronte's novels are more interesting than her sister allowed doesn't mean they are as interesting as Ellis would make them. She was a different sort of novelist from either Charlotte or Emily, one whose piety sometimes got in the way of her imagination, who was temperamentally more attuned to wrongs than rights.

It may be that she is the least read of the three for the good enough reason that her daring has dated in ways that theirs has not.

Claudia FitzHerbert ©Telegraph

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