Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Birthday for Brontë

Anne Brontë, the youngest of the famous Brontë sisters, was born in Yorkshire, England, on this day in 1820. According to The Writer’s Almanac:
She was meek and more religious-minded than Charlotte or Emily and little is known about her life compared to the lives of her sisters. As a child, she was closest to Emily, the youngest of her older siblings. Together they played with toys, made up stories about them, and began to write them down. They created an imaginary world called "Gondal," which provided the setting for the first of Anne’s known poems, "Verses by Lady Geralda" (1836) and "Alexander and Zenobia" (1837).
Though less modest of the sisters’ publishing efforts get the most play, Anne poetically participated in an early example of self-publishing. The efforts of the sisters were not well rewarded.
In the summer of 1845, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte found themselves at home together without work. They decided to put together a book of poems they'd written over the past five years. They told no one what they were doing. Anne and Emily each contributed 21 poems and 19 were Charlotte’s. The sisters agreed to publish under pseudonyms and Charlotte arranged publication of The Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell through Aylott & Jones, at the authors' expense. The cost of publication was 31 pounds, 10 shillings—about 3/4 of what Anne's annual salary had been as a governess. On May 7, 1846, the first three copies of the book were delivered to the Brontë home. The book received three somewhat favorable reviews and sold a total of two copies.

After the lackluster sales of their book of poems, the talented trio turned their efforts to writing novels. And though Anne would see some success, she was always overshadowed by her older siblings.
The sisters turned to writing novels. Charlotte’s The Professor and Emily’s Wuthering Heights reflected both Gothic and Romantic ideas. Anne was more of a realist and began Agnes Grey—based on her experience as a governess—with the words, “All true histories contain instruction.” 
The three manuscripts made the rounds of London publishers for a year. In the meantime, Charlotte wrote and published Jane Eyre (1847). Two months later, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published, in December of 1847. Most of the reviewers' attention was given to Wuthering Heights and the wildly successful Jane Eyre.
Still, it was as a novelist that Anne would receive her widest recognition and her second novel, 1848’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a success right out of the gate, though it would also bring controversy.
The heroine, Helen Huntingdon, leaves her husband to protect their young son from his influence. She supports herself and her son by painting while living in hiding. In doing so, she violates social conventions and English law. At the time, a married woman had no independent legal existence apart from her husband. It was later said that the slamming of Helen Huntingdon's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. 
In the second printing of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë responded to critics who said her portrayal of the husband was graphic and disturbing. She wrote, "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."
Anne Brontë died of tuberculosis in May 1849, a year after Emily’s death.  “While on her deathbed,” says Writer’s Almanac, “Anne’s last words, whispered to Charlotte, were, ‘Take courage.’”

The Writer’s Almanac, a terrific resource, is here.

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