Anne Brontë: the unsung sister, who turned the gaze on men

She's part of a literary dynasty that has dominated English literature for nearly 200 years, her sisters' books are on the national curriculum and hardly a Christmas goes by without a Brontë adaption. So why has Anne Brontë been forgotten? I know, I know, you haven't forgotten her, you read her all the time, you've got Agnes Grey in your hand right now. But in comparison to her sisters, Anne is not read. Her books aren't on the curriculum, she only shows up in must-read lists in combination with her famous siblings and most people would struggle to name her other book (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

The problem with Anne was that she refused to glamorise violent, oppressive men. While Charlotte and Emily were embracing the concept of the brooding, abusive byronic hero, Anne preferred quiet, supportive men. Her heroes are curates and farmers, men who look after their mothers and resist the temptation to imprison or exile unwanted wives..

The contrast between Anne and her sisters is perfectly summarised by comics artist Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant fame. In Dude Watchin' With the Brontës Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë are checking out some hunks as their younger sister, Anne, watches with growing frustration. "What about that one?" purrs the author of Jane Eyre, as a Mr Rochester figure skulks past. "The guy was an asshole," observes Anne. "What about that one?" simpers the author of Wuthering Heights, as a Heathcliff lookalike lurches into view. "If you like alcoholic dickbags," Anne retorts. "You are so inappropriate … no wonder nobody buys your books," snap her sisters..

The comic will elicit sniggers of recognition from anyone who's suffered through the vitriolic alcoholics in Charlotte and Emily Brontë's novels. The hero in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall sits in sharp contrast to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights: Gilbert Markham helps Helen flee from her abusive husband, while Heathcliff abuses his pregnant wife to the point that she runs away. Markham reluctantly accepts Helen's decision not to marry him; Heathcliff takes out a 20-year-long revenge policy when Cathy does them same..

Charlotte and Emily were undoubtedly feminist in their views and the way they felt about their writing; Charlotte frequently had to be restrained by her publishers from writing to critics who reviewed her gender rather than her books. But for the most part they kept their feminism off the page, focusing upon brutal male characters whose main appeal tended to be their potential for redemption. Anne, however, was far more explicit about her feminism, and she wrote about men who expressed their love in words, rather than by dominating the women in their lives..



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