Anne Brontë, born on January 17, 1820, is often the butt of Brontë jokes. She’s known as the forgotten Brontë sister, or the one with less talent compared to preternatural geniuses Charlotte and Emily. But this is a simplistic reading of her life. Anne lacked her sisters’ wild romanticism and affinity for dark heroes, but she had a strength and gift all her own, and leaves a strong feminist literary legacy.
Nothing sums up her relationship to her sister’s work better than the Hark, a Vagrant comic called “Dude Watching with the Brontës,” which features Emily and Charlotte gazing adoringly at “Byronic heroes” as they walk by while Anne shakes her head like they’re crazy and calls the guys alcoholic dickbags and assholes. They chide her for her lack of taste, and sales. And so on and so forth.
The historical basis for Anne’s critique of her sisters’ heroes is in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s second and most-lauded novel, a genuinely excellent and important part of the 19th-century canon. Its twist on the Byronic hero is decidedly more pragmatic than her sisters’, presenting first the charms of a dark hero like Rochester or Heathcliff and then undoing them by showing in great detail Arthur Huntington’s descent into abuse, alcoholism, and death. This is all complicated by historical tidbits: that Charlotte sneered at Anne’s work, and that their alcoholic brother, Patrick, was an inspiration for all of their flattering and unflattering portraits of such brooding, sinister love interests. Patrick’s affair with a married woman seems to have led to Anne giving up her governess post. Basically, all the Brontës, even Anne, lived an intense and drama-filled life.
Eventually Tenant’s heroine, Helen, leaves her husband, which is an act very few other 19th-century novelists, including Anne’s sisters, dared to depict. Brontë biographer May Sinclair is widely quoted as saying “the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated through Victorian England.” Rather than a tragic case of Victorian womanhood sacrificed (which was a pretty popular trope back then), Helen becomes the hero of her own story.
Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë’s first novel, feels less complete than Tenant, but if you like good 19th-century prose and stories about abused governesses and kindly clergyman, which I decidedly do, then it’s absolutely worth your time. It reads like a minor Austen mashed up with a minor Brontë, which isn’t such a bad combo, after all. Insider info: many hardcore Janeites consider Anne their favorite Brontë, because she is more aligned with Austen aesthetically and morally than her sisters were.
But the best explainer of Anne Brontë’s awesomeness is Anne herself. Take these two excerpts from her strident preface to the second edition of Tenant, which had both proven hugely popular and received flak for being too graphic in its depictions of male depravity:
I find myself censured for depicting con amore, with ‘a morbid love of the coarse, if not of the brutal’, those scenes which, I will venture to say, have not been more painful for the most fastidious of my critics to read than they were for me to describe. I may have gone too far; in which case I shall be careful not to trouble myself or my readers in the same way again; but when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear.
And then she concludes with her thoughts on gender, pseudonyms, and writing (she was Acton Bell while her sisters were Ellis and Currer):
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.
Anne Brontë may have had different taste than her sisters, but she was just as revolutionary, in her own way.