Saturday, 4 March 2017

Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey is one of my favourite Bronte novels and I've never needed convincing that Anne Bronte had a creative genius equal to that of her two sisters, but it is good to read a passionate defence of Anne. Take Courage - Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis isn't a conventional or heavily academic biography. It has a traditional 'womb to tomb' structure but it also includes elements of the author's own life. Yet it's not exactly a bibliomemoir in the style of Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch either.

I loved the chapter about Tabby, the Bronte's devoted housekeeper who was something of a mother substitute to the young girls and regularly took them for walks on the moors, fostering their love of the natural landscape. It was Tabby who told them that when she was a girl there were fairies on the moors and the details about wild bilberries and bogs bursting and moorland flora and fauna are fascinating. Ellis is astute in her literary criticism and observes that Anne and Emily's early passion for 'botanising' surfaces in the heavily autobiographical Agnes Grey.

This book creates a portrait of a resourceful, independent young woman who wasn’t easily daunted and wrote two highly accomplished novels while still in her twenties. Of course, she didn’t reach her thirties and the account of Anne’s death at Scarborough is heart-breaking, particularly as Scarborough was where she set the final romantic scenes of Agnes Grey. Maybe she had written the happy ending she would have liked for herself. Ellis’s account of seeing Anne’s blood-stained linen handkerchief at the Parsonage sends a chill down the spine as you consider the realities of consumption.

This account of the life of Anne does not always reflect well on Charlotte and I'm not convinced that she actively suppressed her younger sister's writing career. That said, I enjoyed this book. There is an impressive bibliography and Ellis lists The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett which she re-read while researching the Yorkshire landscape. I must re-read it, too!


Audrey said...

I've never heard the phrase 'womb to tomb' before but I love it! I've never been especially drawn to the Brontes but I did read Claire Harman's biography of Charlotte earlier this year (and liked it). This one has been popping up in places but it's not available here yet -- I think I would like to read it though.

Vintage Reading said...

Heh! I heard Paula Byrne say it when she gave a talk about her Jane Austen biography so it's not my original phrase! I liked the Claire Harman biog, too.

Nadia A said...

I must admit that I have yet to read Agnes Grey, but am now rather intrigued and would definitely like to read it ASAP. And this book about Anne sounds terrific. I love reading books about authors lately and this one sounds right up my alley. Thanks for posting about it!

Cath said...

I haven't read enough of the Bronte sisters' books, just Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I read them when I was fifteen along with a lot of Jane Austen and spent weeks floating around in a lovely haze of wonderful classic writing. I think I was quite a romantic teenager. LOL

You mentioned Paula Byrne in a comment here... her book about Kick Kennedy is excellent.

Sara said...

It's been a long time since I read any Anne Bronte. This review has definitely reminded me that I need to revisit her novels! I'm so glad to hear that Samantha Ellis wrote a new book, too - I really enjoyed her book 'How to be a Heroine', and I think she did a really great job dissecting the classic novels she discussed there.

Vintage Reading said...

Nadia, it is a good book and you can read it in a weekend, less than 200 pages!

Cath, yes Bronte and Austen is a rite of passage when you are young and you see a greater depth in them when you are older. I suppose that is what makes them classics.

Sara, yes I didn't read How to be a Heroine. I must take a look. Hope you have time to re-read Anne!