Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Anne Bronte, English Novelist

 Anne Bronte (died 28 May 1849)

Less well known than her two older sisters, Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights), Anne Bronte is also a poet and novelist--a quite extraordinary novelist, in fact. 

Anne Brontë, detail from the
portait of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne
by Branwell, c. 1835
Born on 17 January 1820, Anne published her poetry, pseudonymously, in an 1846 volume with her sisters, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Although she died young, at the age of just twenty-nine, she also published two novels, Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

Anne's first novel details the story of a young governess, reflecting her own experiences as a governess at Blake Hall, for the Ingham family, in 1839--a disastrous experience, and a position from which she was summarily dismissed.

Her second post as governess was for the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall. After an initial period of difficulties, this experience went much better, and she was employed with the Robinsons for five years, from 1840 to 1845. (Anne helped secure her brother, Branwell, a role as tutor for the Robinson family--after he began a relationship with the wife, Lydia Robinson, he was dismissed, and Anne resigned.)

Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an extraordinarily successful novel--its initial printing, in June 1848, sold out in a few weeks after it appeared. In August, a second edition was published incorporating many of Anne's corrections of typographical errors in the first printing.

The novel's focus on the plight of women in the nineteenth century was--and remains--shocking. The novel's heroine, Helen Graham, is married to a violent and abusive alcoholic. In violation of the law, which makes it illegal for a woman to leave her husband, she leaves her marriage and tries to live her own, independent life.

The difficult material of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was noted by many critics, including Anne's sister. Even before her sister's death, Charlotte Bronte wrote to the editor William Smith Williams (who worked for Charlotte's publisher at Smith, Elder), "That it [The Tenant of Wildfell Hall] had faults of execution, faults of art, was obvious, but faults of intention of feeling could be suspected by none who knew the writer. For my part, I consider the subject unfortunately chosen--it was one the author was not qualified to handle at once vigorously and truthfully. The simple and natural--quiet description and simple pathos--are, I think, Acton Bell's forte. I liked Agnes Grey better than the present work."

After Anne's death, Charlotte prevented republication of the novel. On 15 September 1850,  she wrote to Williams, "Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer." 

The novel was not republished until 1854, shortly before Charlotte's death, and then in a severely edited version that removed anything that might be considered objectionable. This "mutilated text" remained the edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall until 1992, when Oxford University Press restored Anne's original edition, with the corrections she made to the second edition.

Update, 1 October 2021: The BBC Radio Program In Our Time has produced an episode on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. To listen to the podcast version, click here.