“One bright day in the last week of February, I was walking in the park, enjoying the threefold luxury of solitude, a book, and pleasant weather.”
(The above quote is from Agnes Grey, and true for me if February were ‘March’, and pleasant weather were ‘at least it wasn’t not snowing for ten minutes’.)
I never thought I’d see the word ‘haters in a book about a Brontë. That was the one point when the easy-to-read and entertaining modern prose of Take Courage : Anne Brontë and the Art of Life went a bit too far for my liking. I suppose it could have been worse, and spelled with a ‘z’ on the end.
After Patrick was prescribed eye drops that smelled of alcohol, the gossip was so viscous that he had to carry a doctor’s letter everywhere he went, to prove the haters wrong.
This book readily accepts we don’t know a lot about the Brontës. A lot of the presumptions over the years have been romantic twaddle, a desire to draw lines between potential lost loves and the sisters. Or, the result of Charlotte’s and others’ attempts to santise their image. This book confirmed the feeling I’ve always had, that they were a very odd bunch, even for the times. And I like that about them.
The perspective of each chapter is a focus on a family member, friend, etc, and their relationship to Anne, and what we know about her from that angle. It builds to a comprehensive view of the best we can possibly know, and unlike some other biographies, rightly treats with suspicion Gaskell’s and Ellen Nussey’s Little Nell-like views of Anne.
I also learned things I didn’t know, such as how Haworth once burned an effigy of Branwell with a herring in one hand and a potato in the other, after some tempers were lost at an election hustings, and Branwell tried to protect his father. To burn an Irishman with a potato in his hand at the time the potato shortage was beginning to bite seems especially cruel.
The main vibe of this book is one of correction, and a spotlight on her courage. A few times I said ‘Yeah!’ and did a mini clenched-fist of sisterly solidarity. The general impression of Anne over the years is that she a) didn’t really exist, such as in The Brontës went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson, where only two sisters pop up. Or, b) when mentioned she’s painted as having all the intellectual and physical vigour of a poorly-woorly kitten, dressed as a Victorian lady coughing blood into a hanky. I’d like to render that image in Photoshop for you, but alas, I don’t have the skills, which is probably for the best.
Ann could walk twenty miles a day. She stuck it out longer in awful jobs than Emily could, walking into that job knowing Emily hadn’t coped. And while The Tenant of Wildfell Hall definitely contained a lot of boozy-Branwell inspiration, it was also a daring feminist commentary of the inequality of the law. A married woman had no legal rights, she was an appendage of her husband. Anne would have been aware of the sensational story of Caroline Norton, a novelist who was fighting for the custody of her children from their abusive father. After he beat her into a miscarriage, she left and tried to get custody, but the courts didn’t recognise her existence, so she had to fight for a change in the law. She eventually succeeded and the Infant Custody Act of 1839 was passed. Then her evil husband took her children to Scotland, out of the reach of this new law, where one of her children died. Emily may have written of a weird tempestuous love that shocked the prudes, but Anne was a woman publicly taking swings at the inequality of the patriarchy *clenched fist aloft*.
I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that thing about ‘haters’ as it’s a really small point. And in general, Ellis’s tone and injection of her own life and relationships makes this a lively read I won’t quickly forget. As the history teachers say, we look at the past through the lens of our modern society, and that makes me wonder why Anne wasn’t more celebrated during the time of women’s suffrage. Or maybe it’s just because Anne’s work wasn’t so stage/Hollywood-friendly, and so she didn’t impact the public’s cultural memory the same, and so for as long.
Lest we forget, even Cliff Richard has been Heathcliff. If you don’t want to feel both angry and slightly nauseous at the same time, look away now.
An author obviously has to have a passion for a subject when it comes to autobiography, and Samantha Ellis’ is fanatical yet still balanced, which reminds me of my own feelings about the Brontës. I recently read a quote from Barbara Taylor Bradford regarding her adoration of Churchill and how she shuts down anyone who speaks critically of him. This proves to me that she doesn’t love him, but her personal idea of him. As Ralph says in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, ‘Adoration isn’t love.’