Tuesday 20 February 2018

Behold the not-so-boring Brontë sister

Biography: Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life, Samantha Ellis, Chatto & Windus, hardback, 352 pages, €23.97

Bleak futures: The Brontë sisters as depicted in the TV movie To Walk Invisible
Bleak futures: The Brontë sisters as depicted in the TV movie To Walk Invisible
Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis

Eilis O'Hanlon

Of the three legendary literary siblings, the youngest, Anne, is easily the least appreciated. Samantha Ellis attempts to find out why in her new biography but ends up on a voyage of self-discovery.

Writers are a product of the time and place in which they live. They can't help it. Anne Brontë - youngest of the three sisters who all published their first novels in the same year, 1847 - was no different. She was shaped by the wild landscape, poverty, and fierce Protestantism of her constricted world; but for a long time, unfairly, she has been regarded as less interesting than Charlotte or Emily.

As journalist and playwright Samantha Ellis puts it in her new book, Anne was the "virginal Victorian spinster, sweet and stoic, selfless and sexless, achieving very little before wasting away at 29".

She even goes as far to admit: "Anne has always seemed a bit, well, boring."

All that changed for Ellis when she was offered the chance to read the young author's final letter, written five weeks before her death in 1849, and discovered there a vibrant woman who very much wanted to live and love.

From this encounter were sown the seeds of Ellis's second book, following on from her 2014 debut, How to Be a Heroine. She wants to know why the youngest Brontë sister is the least read and appreciated.

Could it be because Victorian society simply wasn't ready for the radical truth-telling of her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which the heroine leaves her drunken, abusive husband, in contravention of all moral precepts of the time and even of the law?

Ellis admits right at the start of Take Courage (the title comes from Anne's last words before her death) that she feels a connection with her subject. She herself is just turning 40 as she begins the project, not in the best of health, feeling she's achieved little so far, that everything she's done has been "heartbreakingly ephemeral".

Understanding Anne is as much a voyage of self-discovery as it is biography or literary analysis. That's both this book's strength and weakness. Identifying so strongly with Anne makes her a passionate advocate. At the same time, the book frequently tips over into self-indulgence as a result. She dreams about her subject, "but they don't feel like dreams". Anne sits on the edge of her bed with "a piercing look in her eyes", asking: "Why aren't you writing my book?"

"I've been neglected for a hundred and fifty years," this dream version of Anne complains, which puts Ellis very much in the role of the dead woman's solitary champion, ignoring the fact that there is already a renaissance in Anne's reputation under way, leaving the fortunate author plenty of material to work with.

Inevitably, she starts with the other women in the Brontës' life. It may have been their father, Patrick, a poor Irish clergyman, who dragged them all up to the Yorkshire moors to live and, all too soon, die, but it was women who shaped them: their mother, who died young, setting the tragic pattern all her children were to follow (dead or absent mothers are a recurrent theme in the sisters' stories); their aunt Elizabeth, who gave up a good life in Cornwall to come up north to care for them when they were motherless; Tabby, the no- nonsense local cook and housekeeper, immortalised as Nelly in Wuthering Heights. Sadly, even these formidable matriarchs couldn't save them from a gruelling childhood.

Struggling to cope with six children, Patrick decided to educate his son, Branwell, at home and send the girls to school. They ended up at Cowan Bridge, a place that Charlotte admitted to toning down when she fictionalised it in Jane Eyre, for fear that no one would believe the truth. There, they were constantly cold, hungry, mistreated. Maria, the eldest child, was bullied and beaten by a teacher, even after falling sick with TB; she died at age 11, never having complained.

The reason, Ellis notes, is because of the inflexible religious instruction under which they were raised, which emphasised acceptance of fate in the hope of a better life in the next world, over comfort or happiness in this one.

Here, though, the first doubts about Ellis's technique start to form. Talking of Maria, she writes: "I wish she'd told Patrick about the neglect and cruelties of Cowan Bridge. I wish she'd made him bring her sisters home. I wish she'd made him expose the school in the press."

This leads on to some fanciful leaps of supposition. Pondering the reasons for the absence of much of Anne's and Emily's juvenilia, Ellis quickly comes to the conclusion that the sisters probably burned it themselves.

That's simply impossible to know, so it's a worthless observation, something akin to that earlier wishing. Later, she even tries to pinpoint the exact date when Anne might have destroyed her own work.

Take Courage is filled with similarly liberal uses of the words "perhaps" and "maybe", as well as numerous sentences beginning, "Anne must have felt", "Anne must have wondered", and so on. Such speculative biography has become increasingly common, going hand in hand with the rise of what have been dubbed "shelf-help", rather than self-help, books - that is, books which wring fiction for its usefulness as therapy and consolation.

This approach reduces literature to chicken soup for the soul. The silliness reaches an apotheosis when Ellis's boyfriend proposes to her at a Björk concert and even this is viewed through the prism of Brontë's life, as the author imagines all the things that she has done but which Anne never got the chance to experience -including driving "with the windows open through the Somerset hills with her friends… belting out 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the tops of our voices".

"So what?" exasperated readers might well ask, having come to read a book about a neglected literary figure and finding themselves in a group hug instead.

Early in the book, Ellis quotes a line from Anne Brontë's debut novel, Agnes Grey: "The end of Religion is… to teach us… how to live."

Ironically, that role now seems to have been appropriated by literature, a development which might be more empathetic but is ultimately no less didactic and moralistic.

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