An Account of the Literary Prowess of Anne Brontë
by Derek Stanford

In 1959 author Derek Stanford conspired with Ada Harrison to produce a combined biography and literary assessment of Anne and her work. In his contribution, Stanford presents a number of the arguments made by the Irish novelist George Moore - who was a staunch admirer of Anne Brontë and her novels; and also presents his vision of how Charlotte's attitude and biased opinion of Anne was the principal cause of her relegation into the shadows of her two elder siblings. The following paragraphs comprise a number of extracts from Stanford's account.

(N.B: The book is 'Anne Bron - Her Life and Work', by Ada Harrison and Derek Stanford, Archon Books 1970 {first published 1959}. The book's page numbers given below relate to all the preceding text - back to the previous 'page number'.)

Stanford writes:

'One of those errors of literary judgement, which criticism appears to have honoured for something like a hundred years, is to have regarded Anne as an artistic adjunct to the elder Brontës; a sort of humble footnote to her sisters' pages.' He goes on to point out that it was George Moore (the Irish novelist) who 'struck the most resounding blow for the restitution of the youngest Brontë in her capacity as novelist.' George Moore's remarks were taken from his Conversation in Ebury Street - based on a conversation which he shared with Edmund Gosse sometime in the early years of this century. 'Anne', Moore claimed, 'had all the qualities of Jane Austen and other qualities', and again, 'If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.' The judgement is unusual but not extravagant, and of a kind that is fertile in the comparisons to which it prompts us.' says Stanford.

'If Anne had written nothing but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,' Moore maintains in the same talk with Gosse, 'I should not have been able to predict the high place she would have taken in English letter. All I should have been able to say is: An inspiration that comes and goes like a dream. But, her first story, Agnes Grey, is the most perfect prose narrative in English letters.' 'The most perfect prose narrative in English literature, and over-looked for fifty-odd years!' retorts Gosse; a statement which Moore, in his turn, nicely capped by remarking that 'the blindness of criticism should not surprise one as well acquainted with the history of literature' as he presumed was his dear friend Gosse. 'Agnes Grey,' continued Moore, 'is a narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress. . . . The arrival of Agnes at the house of her employer (she is the new governess) opens the story, and the first sentences convince us that we are with a quick, witty mind, capable of appreciating all that she hears and sees; and when Agnes begins to tell us of her charges and their vulgar parents, we know that we are reading a masterpiece. Nothing short of genius could have set them before us so plainly and yet with restraint . . .'.

Stanford later continues: ' . . . After a short holiday at home, Agnes returns [to her governess post], very tired from her journey, to have the elder girl's excitable reactions to her first ball unleashed upon her. The passage describing this recital was especially dear to George Moore for the quiet but brilliant note on which it closes. The young lady, the elder Miss Murray, is so absorbed in relating all the small details of her 'coming-out': her dress, her partners, the flowers she was given, the compliments which she received, that her governess's fatigue goes unnoticed by her. 'Agnes Grey,' Moore observes, 'gives all the attention she can give to her pupil, but is too tired to respond, and Miss Murray, feeling, no doubt, that Agnes thinks she is exaggerating her successes, insists still further: "As for me, Miss Grey, - I'm so sorry you didn't see me! I was charming - wasn't I, Matilda?" And the younger sister, who had not been to the ball, answers: "Middling."

'The word lights up the narrative like a ray of light cast by Ruysdael into the middle of a landscape.'

'Middling', in fact, seems to have been one of Anne's most effective counters. It is part of her technique of reduction, one of the quiet ways in which she punctures pretence. ('Note her scorn for the falsely romantic,' remarked Phylis Bentley in a broadcast upon her. 'Agnes describes herself as having "ordinary brown hair". Few are the heroines of fiction to whom their creators allow the reality of "ordinary brown hair"! The dissipated Sir Thomas Ashby, too, is a real roue, not a romantic one; his face is blotchy, his eyelids disagreeably red.'  'One is tempted to wonder,' continues Miss Bentley, 'what Anne would have made of Mr. Rochester - I think she would have taken him down several pegs.') (p.227 - 229)

Anne's second novel, Moore remarked, has the element of 'heat' - the 'rarest of literary qualities96 . . . the novel's excellence lay in the first hundred and fifty pages of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, whose "weaving of the narrative reveals a born story-teller, just as the knotted and tangled threads in Wuthering Heights reveal the desperate efforts of a lyrical poet to construct a prose narrative". However, Moore felt that Wildfell Hall had one failing in that when Helen decides to reveal to Markham the story of her disastrous marriage, she does so by handing him her diary, and sends him scurrying off to read it - an event that covers around a third of the novel. Moore believed that Helen should have told Markham directly of her situation: He goes on:

'The author broke down in the middle of her story, but her breakdown was not for lack of genius but of experience. An accident would have saved her; almost any man of letters would have laid his hand upon her arm and said: You must not let your heroine give her diary to the young farmer, saying, "Here is my story, go home and read it." Your heroine must tell the young farmer her story. . . . The diary broke the story in halves. . . .'

Stanford does not entirely agree with this view; he writes:

'Admitted that the narration of the story, through the medium of the diary, does amount to an hiatus - a set-back, even - its great interest and desperate events offer rich compensation for this. . . . ' (p.224 - 225)

and later:

' . . . As might have been expected of a mind as bold as Anne's, her audacity of presentation was matched by an intellectual daring which repudiated certain semi-sacrosanct opinions of her age. One of these, as we have seen, was the notion of conjugal obedience: the belief that a wife had at no time the right - the human, not the legal privilege, that is - of denying herself to her husband. This myth Anne certainly exploded in her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, showing how continued intimacy with a worthless husband one has come to despise is a most contagious form of degradation. 'If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off'; and Anne had the courage to insist upon this precept. (p.239)

Stanford goes on to suggest how Charlotte was responsible for Anne's loss of reputation:

'George Moore was the first to hint at Charlotte's inadequate handling of Anne's reputation. 'Critics,' he remarks, 'follow a scent like hounds, and I am not certain that it wasn't Charlotte who first started them on their depreciation of Anne, I cannot give chapter and verse here, but in one of her introductions she certainly apologises for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, pleading extenuating circumstances: Anne's youth, her sickness, her inexperience of life. Three phthisis-stricken sisters living on a Yorkshire moor, and all three writing novels, were first-rate copy, and Charlotte's little depreciations of the dead were a great help, for three sisters of equal genius might strain the credulity of the readers of the evening newspapers. Such insight as would enable the journalist to pick out the right one would be asking too much of journalism.' (p.241)

Stanford continues:

'. . . We know that their first publication in book form - a volume of poems which the three sisters shared - was due to Charlotte's initiative; and that she generally seems to have acted as publicity-agent to them all. At the same time, though, we cannot but recall the words of faint praise or condonation in which she inevitably speaks of Anne. Her character, she tells us - comparing her with Emily - in her Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, 'was milder and more subdued; she wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister, but was well endowed with quiet virtues of her own. Long suffering, self-denying, reflective, and intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted.'  This, one may see, from the briefest study of Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, was the kind of statement she was always to make: a note of praise for Anne as a human being; a slighting apology for her as artist.'

'And when "the milder and more subdued" Anne, the Anne who wanted "the power, the fire, the originality of her sister", made a fair bid to extend her scope from the pastoral cameo of Agnes Grey to the larger fuller canvas of her second novel, Charlotte's response was still belittling. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she wrote in her Biographical Notice, had "an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake." When reasoned with on the incongruity of her subject, Anne - Charlotte tells us - "regarded such reasonings as a temptation to self indulgence. She must be honest: she must not varnish, soften, or conceal. This well-meant resolution brought on her some abuse, which she bore, as it was her custom to bear whatever was unpleasant, with mild steady patience." '

'This was written after Anne's death, but while she was still alive Charlotte had started to circulate her exaggerated report (which critics were to take at its face value) of her sister's limitations. "That it had faults of execution," she wrote in a letter to W.S. Williams (31 July 1848) of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, "faults of art, was obvious, but faults of intention of feeling could be suspected by none who knew the writer. For my part, I consider the subject unfortunately chosen - it was one the author was not qualified to handle at once vigorously and truthfully. The simple and natural - quiet description and simple pathos - are, I think Acton Bell's forte. I liked Agnes Grey better than the present work." '

'This was the substance of Charlotte's judgement. Anne was all very well when it came to something simple and pathetic (though we note that Charlotte never offers any positive praise of Agnes Grey), but when she tried her hand at anything larger, anything more vigorous and truly worth while, then she was out of her proper depth, and only able to perpetrate blunders. . . . '. Charlotte 'totally fails to consider, either the representative status of Huntingdon, or Anne's achievement in creating him. Yet the fact remains that for every five rough idealists like Rochester, and for every single (and incredible) Heathcliff, there exist a score of Huntingdons.' (p.242.)

'The Brontës have been censured - and censured rightly - for their inability to create convincing male characters 'to take the lead'. The old man-servant Joseph in Wuthering Heights is certainly a more real character than the glamorized Byronic gipsy Heathcliff, whom I find almost too bad to be true. From this specific criticism, Anne is largely to be exempted. There is nothing to strain our credulity about the figure of Huntingdon. He represents the man more than moyen sensuel, the male whose carnality has been allowed to develop to excess. Not that he is shown as a high-society Don Juan, trailing a string of broken hearts behind him. There is nothing at all single minded, let alone romantic, in his character. The drive of this instinct is broken up by random dissipation and casual promiscuity. His affair with Lady Lowborough is not a grand passion. There is not sufficient force of unity in him ever to will for one thing only.'

'Of Anne's success in creating Huntingdon, and the means she employs to achieve her effect, Charlotte is totally unaware. Unlike her elder sisters, who liked to trace the lines of titanic evil - the power to work a large-scale wrong - within the male characters they depicted, Anne had a way of exposing vice in terms of its often attendant pettiness. What could be better than the picture she gives us of Huntingdon returned to the country, after his six months' debauchery in London, a petulant neurasthenic wreck . . . '

' . . . As a realist, Anne had the knack of being faithful in little things. It is difficult to reconcile one's idea of a person with that image of them contained in their art. For some reason, Charlotte made no effort to do so, or made the effort and failed lamentably. Perhaps her failure was due to the fact that, being an author in her own right, she could not readily appreciate another who held quite different ends in view. Be that as it may, there is not the slightest doubt that her words - repeated parrot-fashion by the critics, or echoed with a kind of timid variation - have kept the stone at the mouth of Anne's tomb for something over a hundred years. It is time the stone was rolled away.' (p.243 - 245)


Copyright © 1999 Michael Armitage
RETURN:
            Main Page    The Novels of Anne Brontë
26  -  June  -  99   
Mick Armitage (e-mail)