Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis – inside the cult

Ellis is a fervent champion of the overlooked Brontë sister, but proves an unreliable guide to life at Haworth

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis – inside the cult
Charlie Murphy as Anne, Chloe Pirrie as Emily and Finn Atkins as Charlotte in Sally Wainwright’s TV drama To Walk Invisible. Photograph: Gary Moyes/BBC

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis – inside the cult” was written by Claire Harman, for The Guardian on Thursday 12th January 2017 12.00 UTC

Anne Brontë is the only member of her immediate family whose grave is not at Haworth, the village where the Brontës lived from the year of her birth, 1820. She is buried at Scarborough, where she went in May 1849 in a last-ditch hope of recovery from tuberculosis, and lies in a cliff-top cemetery overlooking the sea she loved.

Apart and alone in death, quiet and reserved in life, the youngest Brontë has also been the one people are least likely to be able to name, “the other Brontë”, lurking in the shadow of her more famous siblings, Charlotte and Emily. At the time when the trio broke into print with a joint collection of poems (published in 1846 under the androgynous pseudonyms, “Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell”), both Charlotte and Anne were hitching a ride on Emily’s superior talent; in the next year, as novelists, it was Charlotte who enthralled the reading public with Jane Eyre, and Emily who disturbed it with Wuthering Heights. Anne’s tale of a pious governess, Agnes Grey, seemed dull by comparison. “It left no painful impression on the mind,” one reviewer said, crushingly, “some may think it leaves no impression at all.”

Separating a Brontë from the family context is hard to do, but ever since the first separate biography of Anne in 1959 by Winifred Gérin, a cult within the cult has grown of Anne as the connoisseur’s choice among the sisters. There is plenty to admire in this supposed literary wallflower. It was Anne who, in Agnes Grey, addressed issues of female self-worth and autonomy before Charlotte jazzed up the same themes in Jane Eyre, and Anne who powered on through the commercial failure of her first novel to write about the horrors of living with a man on the skids (based on her brother, Branwell), urging an important moral message on “the young and thoughtless traveller”. It was Anne, the least neurotic or peculiar inhabitant of the parsonage, who bucked the family trend and stuck at a job she hated for five years, who understood Emily best, got on with things unobtrusively, was tenacious, loyal and dutiful.

The playwright and journalist Samantha Ellis is the latest to promote Anne Brontë’s excellence, which, as a recent convert from Emily fandom, she does with neophyte fervour. As with her last book, How to Be a Heroine, Ellis weaves her thoughts on literature into a personal narrative, this time taking stock of her life and achievements aged 40 as she edges hesitantly towards emotional commitment and marriage. “If … I can arrive at any kind of truth about Anne, what will I learn?”

Ellis mines Anne’s poems, two novels and five surviving letters for clues, and finds a woman of penetrating intelligence and courage, whose riposte to critics on the question of the sex of “Acton Bell” was superbly pithy: “I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be.” She is good on all aspects of Brontë’s bravery in her works and her relentless self-questioning in private, as in a marginal note in her bible: “What, Where, and How Shall I Be When I Have Got Through?” This echoes through Ellis’s account of her own questioning of focus and priorities, all assiduously tagged to the research for her book. Might she end up living in Haworth, like uber-Brontë biographer, Gérin? Probably not. “Anne realised that at some point you have to stop living in someone else’s stories and write your own.”

But being a fierce partisan, even temporarily, makes Ellis an unreliable guide. She chooses to downplay severely one of Anne Brontë’s most significant attributes, her piety, though faith got Anne through things that her siblings couldn’t endure, and fuelled her sense of social justice and self-worth. Every member of the Brontë family had a distinctly different set of beliefs, and Anne was drawn strongly to the low-church Moravians in her teens, later adopting a carefully customised form of universalism. Unlike any other member of her supposedly religious family, she died expressing sincere happiness in an imminent meeting with her saviour.

In the same cherry-picking mood, Ellis adopts an astonishingly negative view of elder sister Charlotte. The sniping starts in the introduction and runs right through to the last page: Charlotte is always “snide”, “sneering”, “tetchy” or “finagling”, having embarked on a lifelong campaign of bullying and mean-spiritedness. Ellis wants to punish Charlotte for her suppression, after Anne’s death, of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on grounds of it having been “an entire mistake”, but was Charlotte’s misguided action really proof of perfidy, as Ellis sees it, a conscious effort to tip the balance of posterity’s judgments her way? Is it credible that Charlotte was out to ruin Anne’s reputation rather than protect it, when it was only Charlotte’s belief in their talent that got Anne, Emily and herself into print in the first place?

In even trivial ways, Ellis’s partiality colours the whole body of evidence. She chooses not to believe the story about Emily beating her dog Keeper, is very selective about facts and ignores any nuances that might compromise her characterisations. She thinks Charlotte’s letters to Robert Southey, for instance, which seemingly accept his view that “literature is not the business of a woman’s life”, are “straightforward” and frank. They aren’t. She also can’t see that Charlotte’s speech by a character called Wiggins in her juvenilia is a joke aimed against Branwell. “Anne is nothing, absolutely nothing,” Charlotte has Wiggins say. “How did Anne feel when she read this?” Ellis asks ponderously, “and did she worry about it when, a year later, she was sent off to study at Roe Head, where Charlotte would be one of her teachers?”

Sally Wainwright’s bracing characterisation of Anne in her recent TV drama To Walk Invisible got quickly to the heart of the author’s intelligence and sympathy, but did so by eliminating the factors which, in life, prevented those qualities from being readily evident; the intense reserve, the plainness, the speech impediment, the habitual near‑silence. Non-fiction needs to be less idealistic. Publisher George Smith’s impression was of “a gentle, quiet, rather subdued person”, whose “manner was curiously expressive of a wish for protection and encouragement”; Charlotte spoke of “a sort of nun-like veil” over her sister’s feelings, rarely lifted. To ignore these testimonies is to miss the essence of Anne Brontë’s life, the huge gulf that existed between how she felt and how she behaved, how she lived and what she wrote. Her “art of life” was to conduct most of it in writing.

• Claire Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Life is published by Penguin. Take Courage is published by Chatto. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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