Arts Investigates: Why is Anne the Forgotten Bronte Sister?

Many of us are familiar with both Charlotte and Emily Bronte as major literary figures, however Anne is often overlooked and outshone by the success of her sisters. It is likely that you have read or studied Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre at some stage, but why not Agnes Grey or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall?

Anne was the youngest of the five Bronte children, born in 1820 in Yorkshire. Her father was a rector and her mother died of cancer only a year after Anne’s birth. The sisters had a particularly tragic and turbulent childhood as their eldest two sisters also died young, and their brother Branwell suffered from various addictions and wasted his talent.

“Anne pursued her literary ambitions”

It appears that writing was in the sisters’ blood, as their father had the ambition to be a writer and wrote five volumes of poems and short tales himself. After working as a governess for six years, Anne pursued her literary ambitions, and published a volume of poetry with her sisters in 1846, which sold only two copies in its first year of publication. Worried that their sex would affect public perception of their work, each of the sisters adopted a masculine pen name to mask their identities; Anne’s was Acton Bell.

“Although Anne’s novel sold well, its realist tone meant that it was overlooked”

Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were both published in December 1847. Although Anne’s novel sold well, its realist tone meant that it was overlooked in comparison to the dramatic, romantic style of Emily’s work. Unlike Emily and Charlotte, Anne rejected the rose-tinted portrayal of the Byronic hero. Instead she made her feminist views clear by having her male characters express their love in words, rather than attempting to dominate women through their actions.

“It is Anne’s honesty in portraying the harsh realities of addiction and violence that make her novels less popular”

Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights both have happily ever after endings, whereas Helen, the protagonist of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is unable to marry the man whom she loves. Her husband is an alcoholic and an adulterer, therefore perhaps it is Anne’s honesty in portraying the harsh realities of addiction and violence that make her novels less popular and appealing than those of her sisters.

“Even Anne’s own family battled against her!”

Charlotte herself overtly disapproved of Anne’s second novel, commenting that “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”. As well as this blatant criticism, Charlotte is partly to blame for her sister’s reputation as the forgotten sister, since after Anne’s death in 1849 she rejected the republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Even Anne’s own family battled against her!

“Anne was the most radical of the Bronte sisters”

Although is it fair to say that Anne was the most radical of the Bronte sisters, her presentation of forward-thinking and feminist issues make her a talented author in her own right. During her lifetime and for much time since, Anne has taken a backseat in the literary scene compared to her sisters Emily and Charlotte. However in recent years, literary critics have begun to re-evaluate Anne’s work, raising her novels to the status of classic English texts. Now appears to be the time that Anne receives the reputation she deserves.

Sophie Hunt

Image credit: bazzadarambler via Flickr.

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