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Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights are well-known classics, but the works of Anne Brontë, the youngest of the literary trio, are often overlooked.
Her first novel, Agnes Grey is an honest portrayal of life as a governess in 19th century England, based on Anne's own experiences, and it served as the inspiration for Charlotte's Jane Eyre, which—published first—had immediate popularity and somewhat stole the limelight from Anne's pioneering novel.
However, Anne's second novel was an overnight success. Published in June 1848, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall furiously challenged the social and legal structures of the time, which stated that a woman had no independence from her husband: she could not own property, file for divorce, or control custody of her children.
When the protagonist of the novel, Helen Graham (the tenant of the title), leaves her abusive husband, Arthur Huntingdon, to take their son away from his toxic influence, she is breaking the law. Victorian audiences were shocked and disturbed—no novel had attempted to expose the truths of domestic violence and alcoholism in such a way. Years later, May Sinclair (a British writer and suffragist) said that the slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.
Anne clearly condemned the way her sisters glorified brutal men as heroes in their popular books, and chose instead to depict them as villains. In the second edition of the novel, Anne fiercely rebutted many critics' view that her depiction of the abusive husband, Arthur, was sensational and overly dramatic:
"To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering 'Peace, peace', when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience."
This idea about the relationship between knowledge and experience is weaved into the novel, too. For instance, when Helen is persuaded to join some of the villagers for tea and finds herself sparring with Gilbert—the narrator—on how best to raise a child. Helen states how she spends every minute of the day with her son, and intentionally tries to shield him from as many of the harsh realities of the world as she can, to preserve his character. This amuses the villagers greatly, though it concerns them that she will make a "mere Miss Nancy out of him".
Gilbert expresses how he believes that she should expose her son to the realities of the world in small amounts:
"If you would have your son to walk honourably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them—not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone.'
To which Helen retorts:
'I will lead him by the hand till he has strength to go alone; and I will clear as many stones from his path as I can ... for when I have done my utmost in the way of clearance, there will still be plenty left to exercise all the agility, steadiness, and circumspection he will ever have. ... for fifty—or five hundred men that have yielded to temptation, show me one that has had virtue to resist. And why should I take it for granted that my son will be one in a thousand?—and not rather prepare for the worst, and suppose he will be like his—like the rest of mankind, unless I take care to prevent it?”
Helen believes that without her influence, her son is likely to grow up to become 'like the rest of mankind' who 'yield to temptation'—she has little faith in the idea that society will teach her son the right way to behave, and so believes it is her duty alone.
Anne Brontë, through Helen, also points out the double standards in what is expected of boys and girls:
"You maintain that a boy should not be shielded from evil, but sent out to battle against it, alone and unassisted... to seek danger, rather than shun it, and feed it his virtue by temptation—would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?"
—to which Gilbert replies that he would not.
This fiery denouncement of social norms—of which there are many instances in the book—was incredibly controversial, and was one reason why many readers started to speculate the sex of all three Brontë sisters (who had adopted the male pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, so that their works would be judged fairly). However, Anne had some strong words to this as well:
"I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."
Less than a year after its publication, Anne died of tuberculosis—following her sister Emily a few months before. After her death, interest in her work increased, but Charlotte prevented re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, saying that it "hardly appears... desirable to preserve". Charlotte believed the controversial subject of the book to be "a mistake", but it also seems possible, based on some sources, that Charlotte disliked the book not least because she believed that the strain of writing it caused Anne such harm—both mentally and physically—that it actually led to her death.
Unfortunately, this burial of Wildfell Hall, along with its writer, led to its erasure from public consciousness for many years. But thankfully, its recent re-emergence has meant the importance of it has been properly evaluated as one of the first feminist novels. It serves as a mirror illustrating society's failings—both past and present—and Anne can now be properly acknowledged as a literary genius in her own right, not just half-remembered as merely the youngest Bronte.