The forgotten Bronte sister

This post started out as a little aside while writing my review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall but once I was on the third paragraph I figured it deserved a page of its own.

Hands up if you never read the introduction at the beginning of the book? It can’t just be me. I without fail will skip it to get to the good stuff and only if I’m really struggling to keep my mind on the plot will I return to read it, and then it’s generally just a skim. I think it’s my dislike of non-fiction that puts me off. But by pure chance I happened to buy a copy of Wuthering Heights while reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, happened to be sat on a bench with no other reading material so happened to read the preface of Wuthering Heights and it happened to be hugely interesting and relevant to all the Bronte novels. Interesting enough that when I finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I bothered to go back and read its own introduction. And I shall now impart what I learnt.

Charlotte Bronte was a bit of a bitch.

Need some context? Ok.

In the front of my copy of Wuthering Heights was the ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.’ These were the pseudonyms adopted by the two younger Bronte sisters and the notice was added by Charlotte Bronte to a reprinting of Wuthering Heights. It was added after their deaths to reveal their identities. It’s a sweet, heartfelt read which clearly shows how close the three sisters were. And yet Charlotte also uses it as an opportunity to publicly criticise both their novels. She refers to the ‘immature but very real powers in Wuthering Heights’ and calls Emily ‘stronger than a man, simpler than a child.’ Talk about giving with one hand while taking away with the other. Anne gets an even rougher time. Charlotte ‘cannot wonder’ at the poor reception that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall receives, calling the subject matter ‘morbid’ and ‘an entire mistake.’ And in private she’s even worse, telling her publisher that ‘it hardly seems desirable to me to preserve’ and she did actually prevent it from being republished. She censored her sister. Charlotte is the reason that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are household names and you’ve never heard of this book.

In Anne’s preface to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall she basically calls Charlotte an idiot, or at least calls those who criticised her book for its morose subject matter ‘prejudiced’ and ‘bitter.’

I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it. But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he who does so will be likely to incur more scorn and obloquy for the mud and water into which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures.

Yeah it’s perhaps verging a little on big headed but it certainly told Charlotte. Although actually it made not the slightest difference as Charlotte’s ‘Biographical Note’ was written after Anne’s preface was added. It was written after Anne selflessly and publicly tried to correct the misunderstanding that Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell are all one person so that the faults found in her works ‘are not attributed to them.’ Like I said, Charlotte Bronte, bitch.

And I’m not really sure where Charlotte got off with her obvious favouritism between her sisters. How is Wuthering Heights so much more moral, upstanding and worthy of preservation? Heathcliff shares many of the characteristics with Mr Huntington – violent, abusive husband and father – and yet she liked Wuthering Heights fine. Just because Healthcliff loved Catherine that makes it ok? I think the quote from the introduction to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is very telling on this: ‘Charlotte Bronte… had for complex reasons babied Anne.’ Which is an incredibly frustrating and cryptic kind of sentence and I’m going to have to actually go out and buy a biography of the Bronte sisters now to discover what those complex reasons were but it certainly suggests a sort of prejudice against Anne’s work.

When really I’d suggest that Anne was much more switched on about the world around her. Heathcliff, Mr Rochester and Mr Huntingdon all have a huge amount in common and yet Emily and Charlotte romanticise these alcoholic, abusive men and make them the heroes of their stories. Heathcliff and Mr Rochester don’t exactly have the best track record with spouses – Mr Rochester locking his in the attic and letting her burn to death and Heathcliff abusing his wife until she ran away. And yet Charlotte ends her story assuming that this time around it’ll all be different. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is practically the sequel to Jane Eyre. Yes, you can marry for passion and lust and it’s all very exciting at the time but ten years later you’re going to be seriously regretting that decision.

This interesting article suggests that the three leading men were all just different incarnations of their brother, Branwell. So maybe that was Charlotte’s problem. She couldn’t stand to see a reality where her brother gets his comeuppance rather than a happily ever after. Which is perhaps understandable but her reaction is still not forgivable.

I think that’s my biggest problem now. Not that Charlotte didn’t like it but that she actually managed to stop anyone else from being able to decide for themselves. She condemned her sister to obscurity when she refused to let The Tenant of Wildfell Hall be republished. She made her a laughing stock even now, centuries later (see the Family Guy joke which goes something along the lines of: you think you’re the first person to outshone by a sibling, what about the third Bronte sister?).

And if Charlotte thought The Tenant of Wildfell Hall wasn’t worth preserving because it was too bleak what on earth would she have thought of Anna Karenina, The Virgin Suicides, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Bell Jar? Should all these great works of fiction be censored too?

This should be up there as one of the greatest novels ever. And even if people disagree with how good the book actually is it’s perhaps the first ever work of feminist literature, which is surely recommendation enough.

So why isn’t everyone reading it?

Because Charlotte Bronte didn’t like it.


2 thoughts on “The forgotten Bronte sister

  1. Wow this is really interesting! I have often wondered what the relationship was like between the three sisters, though I’ve never actually gotten as far as to seek the information out. I definitely want to check out The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, especially after reading that Guardian article. And maybe a Bronte biography too! Great post.


    1. I’m trying to hunt down a Bronte biography. It is really interesting to think of these three great authors living under the same roof even if there wasn’t this extra dynamic


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