Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Bringing an Overlooked Sister Back to Life

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Bringing an Overlooked Sister Back to Life

Article excerpt

Byline: JOHANNA THOMAS-CORR

TAKE COURAGE: ANNE BRONTE AND THE ART OF LIFE Samantha Ellis (Chatto, PS16.99) ANNE Bronte is the source of one of my most embarrassing memories from school. I came to her novels and poetry as a bookish pre-teen, having first devoured Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre by her starrier sisters, Emily and Charlotte. When my English teacher whom I was desperate to impress saw I was halfway through Anne's dark, shocking second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), he confessed he'd never read any of her work. I upbraided him: "How can you be an English teacher when you haven't read Anne Bronte?" Cringe! Did I even understand the themes of domestic abuse and alcoholism in the book? Could I really relate to the intense religiosity of Anne's poetry? And had I learned nothing from her first novel Agnes Grey (1847), the story of a long-suffering governess teaching ghastly brats? I share my Anne Bronte story because it's the kind of bookish personal reflection that Samantha Ellis has made her stock-in-trade. Her debut, How to Be a Heroine (2014), was an enjoyable blend of lit-crit and self-help, which began with a Bronte conundrum. Who's the better role model: Emily's headstrong Cathy Earnshaw or Charlotte's stoic Jane Eyre? She concluded: "My whole life, I'd been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane."

Now in her forties, Ellis reappraises the third Bronte and her heroines while sticking the knife into Charlotte once she discovers the various subtle ways she inflicted harm on her youngest sister. After Anne's spinsterish death from TB at the age of 29, Charlotte dismissed the Tenant of Wildfell Hall as "an entire mistake" and Anne became a footnote in the lives of Emily and Charlotte, often written off as an insipid martyr and a chronic asthmatic.

At the age of four, when asked by her father what she most wished for, Anne said "age and experience". But, as Ellis passionately argues, she was the secret radical of the family, a proto-feminist whose writing revealed the hardships and inequities women had to endure. "Serious and searching, fearless in her pursuit of the truth, she is the best companion I could have found for trying to work out how to live a more considered life. …

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