Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bronte Censors Bronte: Charlotte v. Anne

I have a Google Alert on for "Anne Bronte" because I am a major nerd. But you know, it comes in handy. I'm emailed links to things such as this blogger's musing on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as she reads it for the first time.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Bronte sisters, but Anne bears the worst of this burden, because the powerful Bronte mythology casts her as the quiet, least interesting, least talented sister. Of course that's all bollocks (although I'd argue Anne was indeed the best socialized and certainly the Bronte you'd want to invite to your dinner party---but does that make her least interesting and least talented? The wikipedia entry on Anne is much improved from how I remember it a while ago, if you're interested in more of the basics).

Regarding the blog post I linked: I wanted to post what follows this preamble as a response to the discussion in the comments section. However, making comments is limited to the blogger's own friends. Thus, this entry (which has grown and evolved from my modest would-be comment).

One commentator suggested Charlotte disliked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because Arthur Huntington, the violent alcoholic, is a portrait of their brother Branwell, and thus Anne was airing the family's dirty laundry by writing the book.

Here's where my response begins:

I actually think it may be a biographical fallacy to assume Branwell was the model for Arthur. . . if anything, I think Fergus might be based on Branwell. His physical description very closely matches the only male Bronte's appearance, and I think Branwell was the same kind of irreverent, flawed-but-lovable kind of jokester before he disintegrated into depression, alcohol , and opium.

Also, a real life Mrs. Collins (no relation), residing in West Yorkshire at the time, was in a very similar situation to the one depicted in the novel: she had an abusive and drunken husband and was considering leaving him. She came to Anne's father for advice at least a few times. . . . That situation resembles Anne's book much more than Branwell's does.

It's easy to forget Anne was pretty much the only sister to have an extensive life outside the family circle, and was the only one to find long-term success as a Governess. She spent 5 years living with the Robinson family. That included going on holiday with them; they considered her "indispensable." Surely, moving in those circles, she would gather experiences she could use not only in Agnes Grey, but also Tenant. Let'sremember, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is about marriage and the dark side of domestic life, just as much as it is about alcoholism!

I also think this might go some way to explain Charlotte's distaste for the book. Anne almost certainly had to deal with many things during those 5 years, things which would have shocked Charlotte. It was during this time that Anne scribbled "sick of mankind and their disgusting ways" into her prayerbook, after all. That's usually read as disgust at her brother's suspected illict affair with Mrs. Robinson, but that is an assumption. Charlotte herself reports that Anne experienced and endured many horrible things during her very first year at the Robinson's, well before Anne used the family's good opinion of her to secure a job there for Branwell.

Also, Anne was a heretic. I'm not kidding, she actually was! She believed in Universal Salvation: she felt that even the most sinful souls will pass into Heaven after they have suffered for their sins. This is at odds with the High Church theology Charlotte exhibits in both her letters and works like Villette. Charlotte likely believed in eternal damnation; Anne did not. I think this means, while they condemn the same things, Charlotte might repress in an effort to keep sinners and saved clearly delineated, whereas Anne would be more inclined to publicize the immoral (as she does with Tenant), for we are all weak-willed mortals and we must be honest about our nature as such.

However, I think the main problem is simple: Charlotte, the eldest, infantalized Anne, who was, after all, the baby in the family. Charlotte always describes Anne as mild, sweet, weak, quiet, simple, even "nun-like." Yet, as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shows, Anne certainly had a core of steel, a powerful will all her own, and huge reserves of determination under the quiet exterior --- qualities her sister never credits her for in any biographical descriptions. Charlotte says as much: she dislikes Tenant because it was "too little consonant . . . with the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer" (never mind Charlotte had written no more than Anne at the time --- 2 novels apiece).

Whatever her reason, I wish Charlotte had not suppressed Tenant. She forbade it from being reprinted after Anne's death, and by the time her own death lifted the ban, Anne had been largely discounted as a writer and Tenant had been largely forgotten as a work of literature. It survived mostly in illegal and often mutilated editions (even today one must be careful: some cheaper editions still leave out sections. I suggest The Oxford World Classics edition; it also has Anne's own preface to the second edition, a remarkable if all-too-short defense of her text and a hint of her philosophy of literature --- including perhaps the most strongly proto-feminist statements a Bronte ever set to paper).

Before Charlotte's act of censorship, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had been a best-seller, second only to Jane Eyre in popularity amongst the sister's books, but Charlotte did her best to pretend Anne had never written it. She says as much: Wildfell Hall "hardly appears to me desirable to preserve," she writes to her publisher as Emily and Anne's literary executor.

Thus a century or more judged Anne largely by Agnes Grey, the only thing in print and readily available. It's nice and well-executed, ironic and understated, but nothing too special. Tenant is Anne's masterpiece and is as deserving of it status as a classic as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are (and remember: when Anne wrote Tenant, she was younger than when Charlotte wrote The Professor --- just imagine what Anne might have become if she'd lived just a few years longer).

In the light of all this surmising, the pencil sketch of Anne (first picture in entry) is interesting. Anne is in Branwell's famous group portait, of course, but the picture near the top is the definitive image of Anne herself. And Charlotte drew it.

In a way, it was Charlotte's perception of her sister (popularized by Elizabeth Gaskell) that many people have seen when they look at the youngest Bronte. And that has coloured readings of Anne's work ever since; people approach it with an idea of what it is, and what the author is (and isn't) capable of, and these ideas trace their lineage to Charlotte's ideas of dear gentle Anne. Any time we come to a text, we are influenced by our preconceptions of both it and its author, but rarely can such a large majority of these be traced to a single source.

Thankfully this has started to change, but not in any significant way until 20-30 years ago. Before then, it was rare for Anne's texts to be subject to critical inquiry outside the context of Bronteana.

So. I find the relationship between Anne and Charlotte so intriguing. There was such love between them, that fact is absolutely clear (read accounts of Anne's final illness, when it was just the two of them left; it's heartbreaking stuff). I really don't intend to suggest Charlotte was motivated by malice, just misunderstanding. And here we are 159 years after the fact, and an elder sister's inability to see the genius in the younger influences us still.

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