Is Anne the Neglected Bronte? And Some Gorgeous Bronte Sets

My first copy of Anne Bronte (though mine didn’t have a book jacket).

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 EyreVillette, 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.


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.

I am a fan of Penguin hardcover classics.  I admire Coralie Bickford’s cover designs.

This design of this set of three Vintage Bronte paperbacks is abstractly nature-inspired.

The Folio Society has reissued these stunning editions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.  The illustrations are lovely.

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.


Not for Me: Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life

samantha-ellis-take-courage-1Last month I planned to read Samantha Ellis’s new bibliomemoir, Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, and to reread Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. What could be more fun?  While waiting for Ellis’s book to arrive from the UK, I binge-read the Annes and my favorite Charlottes.   Well, I was thrilled when Ellis’s book finally arrived, but it has proved to be yet  another overrated new book.  It is a desperate mix of biography, trivial memoir, and pedestrian attempts at criticism.

The bibliomemoir is a strange genre. Who has succeeded?  Who has not?   I loved Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev, but then Dessaix is an award-winning Australian writer,  scholar, Russian professor, and novelist. Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is earnest and touching–she knows her Middlemarch and loves it–but the prose is clumsily journalistic.  Then there’s Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence, which is a mainly the writer’s comic musings on why he can’t face rereading the novels to write his book on Lawrence and prefers the letters.

Did I expect  Take Courage to be in this class?  It was enthusiastically reviewed in The Guardian and elsewhere. The first hint I got of its possible flaws was  when Margaret Drabble in the TLS called it a “selfie memoir.” This was the death knell–though Drabble was otherwise very positive.

Ellis is all about voice, and if you like her voice you may like the book. You certainly don’t read it for her critical judgment.  Her  prose is spiky, slangy, and spare.  When she writes about herself, she is in control.  And she is probably an excellent playwright: she has a talent for sketching a vivid autobiographical scene in a few short sentences.

No, the problem is with her criticism. She does not write in a meaningful way for intelligent readers, though she desperately tries to prove herself.  This book might be appropriate in a high school classroom.

In Chapter 1, “Maria, or how to know who you come from,” which I call the origin myth (Maria, their mother, died when the children were young), Ellis writes, “Charlotte’s novels are haunted by perfect mothers.”  I was taken aback:  I would say they are  haunted by perfect spinsters.    She tries to force the theme of the perfect mother into Anne’s novel, Agnes Grey, a story of a governess which is based on Anne’s own adventures.

Ellis writes,

…when Agnes is trying to keep her pupils in line, she thinks the worst she can do is to threaten not to kiss them goodnight.  She’s astonished that they don’t care.  The passage just aches with Anne’s longing for a mother to kiss her goodnight.

But it isn’t all sweetness and light.  Agnes has to muster all her courage to fight her mother for independence.  She wants to go away and earn her own living.  Her parents think she’s too young.

A very odd reading:  Agnes is not looking for independence but to contribute to the impoverished household. She has not only to persuade her mother, but her older sister and their father.  All want to protect her: and her governess jobs are as bad as they had imagined.

Ellis also eccentrically interprets Charlotte’ Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  She wonders if Jane shouldn’t have stuck with Rochester after the wedding was interrupted by the fact of the mad first wife in the attic.

She fancies him.  She’s got no family to be ashamed of her living in sin, she’s already decided she doesn’t want to be a martyr like her (dead and perfect) friend Helen Burns, and she hates the hypocritical faith she was taught at school.  Maybe it’s time to throw off the shackles of religion and move into Rochester’s love nest on the shores of the Mediterranean.

She blames Jane’s decision to leave Rochester not on the force of her character, passion, morals, and commonsense, but on the appearance of her “mother,” i.e., the moon.  Jane loves Rochester, longs for him, but has a strong ethical  base and is horrified by the secret of the first wife .  And, oddly,  Ellis does not consider the case of the mad wife. Nowadays, the mad wife is often key.  (As in Wide Sargasso Sea in the ’60s!

I trusted the reviews too much.  The blurb on the front cover says it all.

“I was wowed and moved.”–Tracy Chevalier

Alas!  I was not.

Do We Need to Read or Reread Every Book by Our Favorite Authors?

Do we need to read or reread every book by our favorite authors? What happens when we read (or reread) all of Dickens, Trollope, and the Brontes?

First, on rereading Dickens. I was doing well until I got to Hard Times.

hard times dickens cover.jpg.rendition.460.707Mind you, I loved Hard Times when I first read it, and it would be a masterpiece if anyone else had written it.  But Dickens’s best novels (Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend) are so exciting, vigorous,  unpredictable  and wildly comic that this reads like Dickens “lite.” Dickens does better when he writes long than when he writes short.

The plot is entertaining, if messy, but some of the objects of his satire–education, for instance–he has done better elsewhere (Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield).  But I am fond of the characters:    Louisa  Gradgrind, a young woman educated to care only about facts and then married off in a state of emotional shock to a dishonest factory owner, Josiah Bounderby;  Sissy Jupe, the abandoned daughter of an aging clownand is a failure of the Gradgrind educational system ; and Merrylegs, the circus dog who saves Louisa’s brother, Thomas.

Hard Times is amusing, it is stylishly written, and it is socially pertinent, yes.  Set in a factory town, it is partially an exposé of the exploitation of factory workers.  Dickens also satirizes education:  Mr. Gradgrind raises the intelligent Louisa and her dissolute brother Thomas on facts, and oversees a school educating children only in facts.  The moral:  If you’re raised on facts and have no education, you are a psychological mess.

Dickens always makes brilliant use of rhetoric.  In the first paragraph, the opening speech of Mr. Gradgrind,  he repeats “Facts”  five times and “principle”  twice.

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

Hard Times seems more suited to, dare I say it, high school classrooms.  The same with Tale of Two Cities, which we read in ninth grade.  Have you noticed how teachers so often pick the shortest books?

What is your favorite Dickens?

Golden lion of Granpere trollope 6Should I read all of Trollope?  Well, I am a Trollope fan.  I love his long novels, especially Can You Forgive Her? and He Knew He Was Right.  But I have not enjoyed his short novels.

Well, I recently embarked on  The Golden Lion of Granpere, set in France.  What kind of Victorian novel is set in France?  I wondered.  Not one I want to read, I decided.  There’s an innkeeper, and he doesn’t want his son to marry his niece.  But somehow this plot works much better in England!

It’s only 260 pages, and somebody will like it, but since Trollope lacks Dickens’s rhetorical brilliance and also needs space to develop his leisurely plots, his short novels seem blank to me!

Does this mean I like only long books?  No.

anne bronte tenant of wildfell hall 51Sp7PW34wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Anne Bronte is a master of the short novel.  I recently reread The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. You will be relieved to know that I enjoyed it.

Although her style is not as poetic or striking as that of Charlotte or Emily, I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s feminist novel about the perils of romantic love. The frame construction reminds me of Wuthering Heights. We get to know the heroine, Helen Graham, through the narrator’s intense letters to a friend, and then through the diary she gives him to read, and then back to his letter. Helen, who says she is a widow, is actually one of the first “battered women” in literature: she has escaped from her violent husband and lives  in a secluded house with her four-year-old son, supporting herself by art.  And she is so passionate and wedded to her isolation that she reminds me very slightly of a female Heathcliff.

So it’s worth it to reread all the Brontes again and again!

Do you feel it’s necessary to read every book by a favorite author?