So recently I went on another trip to Haworth in Yorkshire, which is well-known for having been home to the Brontë family. I’ve always loved Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, but it was only whilst I was walking around the Brontë Parsonage that I realised I hadn’t actually read anything by the youngest sister Anne.
Of the three sisters, she is the one most often overlooked, her works having not become quite as universally known as that of her sisters: in fact Charlotte herself deemed Anne’s work lesser than theirs, allowing it to go out of print after Anne’s death. However, I took it upon myself to read her books Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and whilst they were both very different from her sisters’ works, I thought they were incredible in their own right.
In fact, it surprised me to find out that Anne’s works are actually far more radical than those of either of her sisters’, covering topics like the rights and working conditions of women, female independence, and hard hitting topics like alcoholism that most Victorians would have shied away from.
See more of my thoughts below!
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
‘I was sorry for her; I was amazed, disgusted at her heartless vanity; I wondered why so much beauty should be given to those who made so bad a use of it, and denied to some who would make it a benefit to both themselves and others.’
Agnes Grey tells the story of a young woman who takes up a position as a governess for a wealthy family, after her own family falls on hard times. Initially Agnes is enthusiastic about the idea of helping shape the minds of her young charges, but comes to find her role a thankless task. Her charges are rude and unruly, and she gets little support from their parents, and is often blamed for their bad behaviour. The book offers an incredible insight into the precarious position of a 19th century governess within upper class households, and how money and power can corrupt morals.
One of the most interesting things about this book is that it is largely autobiographical (Anne Brontë was a governess for several years), and this evident in the amount of detail Anne goes into about the hardships of the job.
Agnes Grey is a parson’s daughter, just like Anne, and so she has few options to earn money open to her at the start of the book, when her family finds themselves in a difficult financial situation. In this way, Anne Brontë paints a grim picture of the prospects poor but educated women had at that time, especially when Agnes goes into first one, and then another governess position, and finds the children of the wealthy to be spoilt, lacking in morals and frivolous.
In fact, you feel Agnes’ frustration right along with her as she struggles to control her charges, and the sense of hopelessness she has at her inability to change her situation. Her quiet perseverance in the face of so much adversary makes her an incredibly likeable character, and her observations of those she serves shines a light on the true nature of English gentry at that time.
I also liked the quiet love story that is woven into this book, with Agnes finding in the local clergyman, Edward Weston, the only person she can relate to or engage with on a personal level. Like the rest of the book, this love story is understated but powerful, and I was definitely rooting for Agnes and Weston throughout the novel.
Overall, this book was less outwardly dramatic than Emily or Charlotte Brontë’s work, but was just as good in my opinion. Unlike the gothic works of her sisters, Anne’s realist tale casts a light on a section of society that was probably overlooked in Victorian society: the governess. The plight of Agnes easily drew my sympathy, and I spent the whole book rooting for her!
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
‘I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.’
Gilbert Markham leads a simple life as a farmer when one day, news sweeps the neighbourhood: a mysterious young woman and her child have moved into the previously uninhabited Wildfell Hall. With much mystery surrounding the beautiful and intelligent artist, Helen Graham, Gilbert becomes fascinated with her. But who is she, and where has she come from? And what secret is she hiding?
After finally reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I’m truly shocked that this book isn’t as recognised for its’ genius as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, although it’s easy to see why it was considered so shocking and coarse by Victorian audiences. The book offers an incredibly realistic portrayal of alcoholism, and an abusive marriage in a time when women had very few rights within marriage. Helen, the heroine of the tale, takes charge of her own life and future in a way that was not only shocking in the 19th century, but technically illegal (taking custody of your own child and earning your own money was in fact a crime for wives in Victorian society!), which shows just how forward thinking this novel was.
Helen is definitely an incredible heroine, and her refusal to rely on men to save herself and her son from a bad situation makes her seem very modern, and way ahead of her time. I loved her complexity, and through the way her story is revealed you are constantly changing your opinion of her until the end when you finally come to understand everything she has been through and find her just as admirable as Gilbert Markham does.
In fact, that was one thing that surprised me about this novel: the format. The story takes the form of letters written by Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law Halford, who we never directly see in the story. These letters then form the frame for the story of Helen, which we only get halfway through, but that takes up a large part of the story. Gilbert then takes over again and relates how things turn out after Helen’s revelations.
I liked this framework as a device, as it creates an air of mystery around Helen Graham that makes her all the more interesting, and makes it more satisfying when you finally find out her story and come to understand why she is the way she is.
I enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall even more than I enjoyed Agnes Grey, and loved how complex it was, and how progressive and ahead of its’ time it seems. Whilst the characters weren’t always likeable – Gilbert, for example, was unlikeable at times – their flaws only make them more realistic and complex, and I felt like the ending was very satisfying.
I would definitely hold this book up there with the likes of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as a fantastic piece of literature, and I’m so glad I finally got chance to read some of Anne Brontë’s work. In my opinion she’s incredibly underrated, and her books (particularly Tenant) are every bit as incredible as her sisters’, even if they are a little more understated.
So have you read either of these books? What did you think? How do you think Anne Brontë’s books compare to those of Charlotte and Emily?