by Anne Brontë; Random House (Everyman’s Library), 2012; 710 pages; $26
It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for, or, at least, that’s what I was raised to believe, having grown up in 21st century America. In 19th century England, however, famously timid Anne Brontë seemed to draw somewhat less attention than her more outspoken elder sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Though all three siblings eventually won a place among the most brilliant literary minds of their generation, fewer people appear to notice Anne’s novels these days than they do “Wuthering Heights” or “Jane Eyre.” In a clear effort to rectify this injustice, Random House has republished “Agnes Grey” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” in a deluxe one-volume edition as part of the Everyman’s Library collection.
In this back-to-back format, “Agnes Grey” appears first, telling the story of a 19-year-old English governess in the 1820s who placidly endures the social hardships of working for an aristocratic family. Many readers, upon perusing this brief first-person narrative, will notice similarities between Anne and Charlotte Brontës’ semi-autobiographical depictions of life as a governess. In “Jane Eyre,” Charlotte uses the profession as a way of introducing her heroine to a Gothic setting and an unlikely romance. Anne, on the other hand, wrote “Agnes Grey” as a form of protest against the unfair treatment of household servants.
Anne’s characteristically serious agenda appears again in “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” in which a young English widow seeks seclusion in the countryside after suffering, for years, her late husband’s unfaithfulness and drunken debauchery. Like Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” Anne’s second novel records the ups and downs of passionate love between wealthy English couples. Unlike her sister, however, Anne, once again, spins a cautionary tale out of “Tenant,” voicing how women of her time fell victim to an unbalanced sexual power structure and an unhealthy worldview toward alcoholism. In addition to boasting of this trademark topic, Anne’s works contain a mixture of religious fervor and unmitigated violence that was unprecedented in her time, often following her depiction of a husband’s wrathful tirade with the wife’s elegant and poetic pleas to God.
Though Anne has often been regarded as the “quiet” sister or, more shockingly, the least-talented Brontë, she more than matches her siblings’ portrayals of domestic life in terms of impeccable accuracy and unquestionable conviction. From a 19th century novel of sentiment, one could ask for nothing more, and from a Brontë, one would expect nothing less.
Lance Hicks is an English major at Jacksonville State University.