Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Anne Bronte

Anne isn't as "brilliant" as Charlotte or Emily. She's very this-worldly. With Charlotte you're always half expecting supernatural creatures to come gliding over the fields or tumbling out of the sky and with Emily there are actual ghosts but with Anne the possibility of the improbable never crosses your mind. She's not the least bit gothick- more like a throw-back to the world of Jane Austen- only with added drunkenness, domestic violence and illicit shagging among the oleanders. If Charlotte and Emily define what it is to be a Bronte then Anne is hardly a Bronte at all. But that's unfair. Why should they be taken as the gold standard? In her own way she's every bit as good.

One word for what she does is realism. It's not a word I like because it implies only the mundane is real- which I dispute- but people know what it means so let it stand. If she'd been writing in a later age we'd call her kitchen sink. As an observer of human nature- as a psychologist- she matches her sisters. Her people are vivid, grubby, convincingly unpleasant. She doesn't have to spell it out to let you know there's a lot of sex going on. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a powerful antidote to the Byronic. You think over-moneyed young men getting drunk and seducing their neighbours' wives is romantic? Think again.  At one point the novel's anti-hero has a speech about how he's lived more in three months than his wife will in her entire life and you don't go, "Childe Harold!" You go, "Bullingdon Society!"

Charlotte- who thought Wildfell Hall a mistake and refused to let it be reprinted in her lifetime- characterized Anne as the mouse of the family. There can be little doubt this has harmed her reputation. But mousiness is not the impression you get from the writing. The heroine of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham, is the strongest woman in the Bronte canon- and an artist too- not a Sunday painter like Jane Eyre but one who paints for a living. All the Brontes have flashes of what we'd now call feminism, but Anne is the one in whom the light burns most steadily. She understands men- and the way the patriarchy works- and most of what she sees disgusts her. I'll admit I nearly gave up on the novel after a few chapters because I found the male narrator so insufferably and facetiously blokey, but then Helen Graham took him aside and tore him to shreds and I understood what Anne had been doing.

Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell: when else in the history of any art have three talents of this magnitude been born into one generation of a single family?

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