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Posts Tagged ‘Anne Bronte’


A drawing by Anne Bronte of herself and (presumably her dog, Flossy)

Dear friends and readers,

I have not been able to write on this blog for so long because I’ve been away twice, one to the Highlands of Scotland and once to a friend in central Pennsylvania, but I have been reading much of interest on women’s art and by women. Two outstanding writers whose art links to one another’s and Jane Austen’s especially: Anne Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65),about whom I’ve written again and again and long ago and as gothic.

Tonight I want briefly to add to a blog on Bronte as a poet and half a blog on David Nokes and Janet Baron’s film adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (dir. Mike Barber, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Rupert Graves, and Toby Stephens. I was asked to review Nick Holland’s excellent literary biography of Bronte, In Search of Anne Bronte, for the Victorian Web and just finished the review. I am so chuffed to say it now appears there – and with interesting illustrations: a watercolor painting of the dog, Floss, by Charlotte Charlotte Bronte, a photo of Ellen Nussey I’ve never seen before, a drawing of a waterfall, Haworth Moor.

This blog is the spill-over of what I couldn’t put into the review also. In reading around Holland’s book, that is to say, other books and essays on Bronte as well as her Agnes Grey, poems, and again watching David Nokes and Janet Baron’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I’ve discovered that Anne Bronte is having a true Renaissance, rightly newly discovered (almost for the first time) as an ardent feminist, hard-hitting truth-teller about women’s lives, serious artist, and quietly independent-minded ambitious woman. New biographies abound, new essays on her, new editions of her novels and poetry. Along with Holland’s book, I read Samantha Ellis’s revisionist Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life and Julie Nash and Barbara A. Suess’s New Approaches to the Art of Anne Bronte, where justice is done to her two novels. The first Bronte whom Winifred Gerin wrote about was Anne.

In brief, as I’ve surmised before, Anne Bronte wanted to have a career insofar as she was permitted to by her society — which meant as a governess, teacher, and writer. She studied hard at school, came to her own conclusions about religion (refused to believe in a punitive Calvinism), and fell in love once, but the man she loved predeceased her (Haworth was a deeply unhealthy place to live because the water was so bad). She did not hate her brother, Branwell, but felt for him in his self-destruction, and was close to her sister, Emily (quite a feat). And she succeeded in what she endeavoured — the pupils she had in her second place respected and liked and were influenced by her. Until the fatal illness that killed many in Haworth destroyed her at the young age of 29. Unfortunately she does not emerge as a separate presence in Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet, where she is (as she has often been) overshadowed by her elder sister, Charlotte, who in recent books emerges as the person most responsible for the early repression and distortion of her work, and later misunderstanding. We have left only five of her interesting letters.

She also drew. The three images we have of her are by her. The above of herself and a beloved dog; the one just below recording her love of the sea:

A third, at the end of this blog, in an antique sort of imaginary dress.

Agnes Grey gives an unsentimental depiction of the life of a governess at the time: the little valuation given to education, the small salary, withering disdain and lack of any life or free time; an austere emotional integrity governs this plainly written uncompromising and quietly gripping book.

I am so cheered when I read this book for its rare accuracy. Agnes will reminds us of Jane Eyre (though written first), but her experience as a governess is very different in that she does not get on well with her pupils and doesn’t meet a kindred spirit. The descriptions of the many little humiliations she meets every day in both the jobs are all too convincing, clearly drawn from life. The relationship between Agnes and Rosalie might have influenced Charlotte Bronte’s portrayal of Lucy Snowe and Ginevra Fanshawe in Villette – in both cases, there is the quiet, put-upon teacher who is overshadowed by a more worldly and beautiful pupil. Also, in both books, the two are love rivals, but with the younger girl regarding the man concerned as a plaything or “conquest”, while the poorer and slightly older woman living in the shadows truly loves him. Even the surnames “Snowe” and “Grey” are similar, both with a lack of colour. Agnes is passionate, just as Lucy and Jane are, but all have to put themselves under constant unnatural restraint. What’s remarkable and unique is how Agnes-Anne feels so alienated and hurt from the cruelty, bullying, lying, cupidity, and stupidity of most around her. Here is a person so jealous she cannot bear for her governess even to have a passing relief. This is so strong. The book is about justified alienation from the social world around the heroine, at the same time as the heroine does not give up her desire for achievement and fulfillment.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells an utterly believable and powerful story of a woman who made a bad choice for a husband, how when he becomes an alcoholic who wants to make his son another, leaves him, and creates a career for herself as an artist; she returns to her husband to nurse him in his last illness, and when she does remarry (as in Agnes Grey) she chooses a man for his character, one where he respects her as of equal worth with him, has compatible intelligent tastes, and genuine kindness. Other women’s fates, other marriages, are depicted in these two books.

Wildfell Hall is written as alternating diaries, so subjective in presentation. Like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Forster’s Howard’s End, E. H. Young’s Jenny Wren, Trollope’s Small House of Allington, Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield, all of them are novels of erotic awakening and then renunciation — you chose the wrong man. George Sand’s early novels belong to this pattern too. Bronte’s is unusual for insisting on how society forms wrong norms for women and making the two marry early and then we watch what would happen in such a marriage.

It is also a story of motherhood — something omitted from the film. Elisabeth Gruner shows that unless you figure in the stories of motherhood, which include dialogues or debates on how to bring up a child (boy in one way and girl in another) you lose a central meaning of from this novel. Helen Graham argues both sexes should be sheltered and is against teaching a boy to drink or be amoral (which is what others urge her to do). We see how the society around these women use the women’s attachment to their children to control their behavior. She shows the hypocrisy of the claim that the society cares about the welfare of the child first; what the society’s rules and customs are set up to do is make the woman stay with the man and obey him. Helen’s second husband, Gilbert Markham is treated in terms of his relationship with his domineering mother. Here Anne Bronte anticipates later Victorian books: Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved (about having children taken from you) and Ellen Wood’s famous East Lynne.

I find I put two more poems by Anne on my Sylvia blog (scroll down) and will conclude by adding yet two more that I never noticed before but which reading Holland and Ellis have made me appreciate are also part of her character:

Lines composed in a Wood on a Windy Day

My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the winds of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.

The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves beneath them are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.

I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder to-day!

The Consolation

Though bleak these woods and damp the ground
With fallen leaves so thickly strewn,
And cold the wind that wanders round
With wild and melancholy moan,
There is a friendly roof I know
Might shield me from the wintry blast;
There is a fire whose ruddy glow
Will cheer me for my wanderings past.

And so, though still where’er I roam
Cold stranger glances meet my eye,
Though when my spirit sinks in woe
Unheeded swells the unbidden sigh,

Though solitude endured too long
Bids youthful joys too soon decay,
Makes mirth a stranger to my tongue
And overclouds my noon of day,

When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.

Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.

The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.

Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.

She has been likened to Jane Austen but I think not: she is more in the vein of Dorothy Richardson in Pilgrimage, Harriet Martineau in Deerbrook and her autobiography. I understand better why I am so drawn to her too: in the second poem she loves her home in the way I do mine. Do read her, gentle reader, she has much to say to you.

Ellen

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