I don’t know much about Anne Brontë (who does?), but I think she’d be pretty pissed off because it seems like all of the research dedicated to only her begins by asking something along the lines of “Is Anne Brontë worthy of study?”
Worthy of study, indeed. Pish-posh, as I think a proper English person would say. (I don’t know much about proper English people, either, but pish-posh seems right and is quite fun to say.) If you’re bothering to write an article or book about Anne Brontë, clearly you think she’s worthy of study; if not, then even you would agree you’ve wasted a significant portion of your life studying her.
Anyway, the fact that scholars continue asking the question of Anne Brontë’s worth seems particularly biting when we remember where we’ve heard her name before. Anne Brontë was the younger sister of both Charlotte Brontë, writer of Jane Eyre, and Emily Brontë, writer of Wuthering Heights. So Anne was not the younger sister of two fairly good writers; she’s the younger sister of women considered two of the best novelists in history. A bit hard to live up to, I imagine.
Of course, in their lifetimes (which were relatively short: Anne lived to be 29; Emily lived to be 30; Charlotte made it to the ripe old age of 38), none of the Brontë sisters were as well-known as they are now. Their reputations were built over time, unfortunately most of that occurring after they died. Still, when you publish books right alongside your sisters and yet ages later are the only one considered possibly unworthy of study, I imagine it’s difficult.
There’s no doubt that Anne loved her sisters very much and would not want to be remembered as angry or jealous. Still, my sister has been my best friend for my entire life, and yet she’s the only person I’ve ever attacked with a vacuum cleaner. What I’m saying is that sisterly emotions are complicated.
So, pious and polite though she may have been, Anne Brontë is still left in the shadow of her older sisters, and I for some reason (perhaps because I’m petty and small) really need her to be a little ticked about that.
Because who’s heard of Agnes Grey, or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Yes, yes, some of you are shouting at the screen and thrusting your hands in the air like eager schoolchildren, anxious to prove that you have heard of these novels, and that you’ve read them, studied them (and thus probably wondered if they’re worthy of study), perhaps acted in their television dramatizations. Good for you. That’s great, and I’m not being sarcastic. I’m happy you’re out there, and Anne Brontë certainly would be, too. But you are a rarity, is my point.
So why is Anne Brontë so relatively unknown, compared to her iconic sisters?
Perhaps it’s the content of their books. For this rather cursory investigation, I’m going to choose only one novel by each sister, though each of them wrote more than that. I will also go from oldest sister to youngest, because it seems fair and if Anne is, as my dearest hopes suggest, fuming from the grave, I want her to know that I’m trying to be systematically fair.
Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre, is considered one of the best ever written because of its insight into the life of a young woman, specifically a governess, and the ways in which it demonstrates her growth through age and experience. Jane must navigate an unloving guardian after her parents die, unfortunate conditions at her boarding school, and the mysterious and sometimes infuriating Mr. Rochester, her employer once she becomes a governess. There is a rumored alcoholic in the book, a prophetic lightning-damaged tree, life-changing female friendships, psychic predictions, hushed attic activity, whispers on the wind that simply must be answered (out loud and in the middle of nowhere), more than one house fire, and several people who are evidently less attractive than one is accustomed to expecting. You should read this novel immediately.
Emily Brontë’s novel, Wuthering Heights, is usually described as an unruly revenge tale, full of ghosts, foggy moors, the truest of true loves, the direst of dark hate, a few more moors (oh, that’s fun to say), and generations of characters who all seem to be named after each other. It is gothic and dark, full of characters for which readers will always have strong feelings. One wonders what other brilliant works Emily might have written had she not died the year after Wuthering Heights was published. Read this one, too. You’ll thank me later.
Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is about a woman who moves into Wildfell Hall (as you might have predicted, from the book’s title) with her young son and wishes to keep to herself, but her neighbors, particularly the man who finds himself attracted to her, won’t leave her be. The story of this woman’s past finally comes out and reveals reckless attraction by the carelessly wealthy, both verbal and physical abuse, and a wish for both revenge and freedom. Anne detailed some characters’ drunken revelries so well (thanks to her firsthand experience with her brother, Branwell) that it was a bit of a scandal. Yes, read this one, too. You won’t be sorry.
Anne was more interested in tidy morals and religious messages than her sisters were, but even so, she’s written a novel that is captivating in some of the same ways as Charlotte’s and Emily’s. Anne’s books, you could argue, take on some of the best characteristics of both of her sisters’ works, making use of the moors that surrounded the Brontë family home as Emily did, and giving her female characters considerably more backbone and capacity for reason than was common, which is what Charlotte did.
Perhaps this would be the most frustrating aspect for Anne: the sisters were all three more similar than they were different. Look at the portrait made of them together by their brother, Branwell. They all three share an expression that can only be described as fierce.