As a child I did not read Anne Bronte. Neither the library nor local bookstores carried her two novels. It’s a shame, because I would have enjoyed them. I was a fanatical Bronte-ite: I devoured Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Villette, and Shirley, and Emily’s Wuthering Heights. I needed a t-shirt that said: I AM JANE EYRE, LUCY SNOWE, CAROLINE HELSTONE, AND CATHERINE EARNSHAW!
Anne’s books must be second-rate, I thought, since the gods of booksellers and librarians didn’t sanction them. When I finally found an old Everyman’s hardback copy of Anne’s two novels, I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I was incredulous that they were so hard to find.
Is Anne the neglected Bronte?
These days her books are widely available; Barnes and Noble even publishes Agnes Grey in their B&N classics series. Anne has her fans. Bloggers and vloggers adore her. A few years ago Nick Holland published a biography of Anne and Samantha Ellis a bibliomemoir about her reading relationship with Anne. (And there will be more books soon: her 200th birthday is in 2020!)
That said, I enjoy Anne’s novels but she lacks her sisters’ poeticism. And there isn’t much narrative drive to Agnes Grey, a worthy autobiographical first novel about a governess. But brace yourself: reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an electrifying experience. It is a hybrid of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights–if you can make it through the first 130 pages.
The structure is like that of Wuthering Heights, with a double narrative. And the first narrator, Gilbert Markham, tells his story in the form of a letter which is based on other letters and journals. It centers on his love affair with Helen Graham, a mysterious widow who moved into a dilapidated house in the country with her son and his nurse. He is drawn to her, because she is smart, fiery, and strong. And as a farmer, he finds excuses to work near her house and meet her.
Soon there is gossip in the village about Helen: Gilbert’s former girlfriend is one of a group who spreads the lie that Helen is having an affair with her landlord (who we learn later is her brother, not her lover). Gilbert confronts her, and Helen, who needs to protect her identity, lends him her journal so he will understand who she really is.
Helen’s journal, the second narrative, makes this novel worth reading. The writing immediately fires up: Anne is obviously meant to write about women. Helen is the wife of an abusive alcoholic who has all the worst characteristics of Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff. He not only descends into debauchery but thinks it funny to encourage their four-year-old son to drink wine. Eventually she escapes with her son and his nurse and lives under an assumed name. She paints and sells her work in London.
Love the journal, and there are many secrets and much action, but eventually we revert to Gilbert. My heart sank. Still, Helen’s journal is SO GOOD that I strongly recommend this book.
AND NOW SOME GORGEOUS BRONTE SETS!
Juniper Books sells a gorgeous set of hardcover Bronte books with ” custom purple jackets, a design modeled after the antique leather bindings that were commonly seen in the Brontë’s time.” The books are Everyman’s Library hardbacks with new covers.
Aren’t these White Books editions fabulous? They came up on Google…
Wordsworth paperbacks are inexpensive. I’m not sure the boxed set is available in the U.S., but you can acquire the individual novels very cheaply.