Take Courage.Samantha Ellis's take on Anne Brontë has been widely reviewed by now, and yet it's barely a month since it was published. Before we discuss the book, let us mention how glad we have been to see Anne Brontë's name and achievements all over the national and international press. By the end of her book, Samantha Ellis wishes she didn't have to let Anne go and wonders,
Anne Brontë and the Art of Life
Chatto & Windus
Published 12th January 2017
Anne's birth bicentenary is in 2020; what if I kept on with her until then?And while that would have meant not laying our hands on this book until then, we do understand the feeling and the wish to make Anne's bicentenary worth it. Even if the book has been published three years early, we sincerely hope that the enthusiasm for Anne and the vindication of her life and work keeps up until then and never wanes again.
One of our first thoughts, when we heard about this book, was the proximity to the release of Nick Holland's biography In Search of Anne Brontë. But far from worrying about it, we were obviously delighted. But these two approaches couldn't be more different: Nick Holland's is more traditional, a biography in the classic sense, while Samantha Ellis's is more of a personal story with Anne. It's a contemporary approach, reminiscent of Deborah Lutz's The Brontë Cabinet. And we must say it works. We read reviews which complained about Samantha Ellis putting too much of her personal life into the book but, while we find it's just a few comments here and there, in our opinion that helps bring the reader closer to both biographer and subject. This no longer feels like someone on a stage, giving a lecture, but a friend telling you about this very special person they have come across. A sort of 'impressionistic' approach to biography.
Not to sound smug, but we are pretty familiar with the Brontës' lives by now. There are always details we may have overlooked or previous biographers neglected to share, but Samantha Ellis's approach feels refreshing and mesmerising. She has no preconceptions, many things are new to her that are old to other biographers. She sees things with new eyes and therefore so does the reader. And what's wonderful about this style is that it works both for people like us, with plenty of formal knowledge about the Brontës, and for people who are new to them and, let's face it, sad as it is, there are plenty of people for whom Anne Brontë is totally unknown.
Samantha Ellis had us from the start:
It's my first time meeting Ann Dinsdale but I have often see her on TV; every time there's some new Brontë discovery, she appears, white-gloved, dressed in black, with a fierce dark bob and a slash of red lipstick. [...]This is a description of Aladdin's cave for any Brontëite and a faithful description of a thrilling moment for all who have been beyond the cordon.
Ann leads me through the kitchen [...]. Undoing the cordon, careful not to set off the alarms, Ann opens a heavy wooden door, and then we are in the annexe added after the Brontës' time, which is now the library, lined with glass-fronted, floor-to-ceiling bookcases in dark wooded, full of everything you wanted to know about the Brontës and quite a lot you didn't.
Those who have read her previous book, How to Be a Heroine, will know that Samantha Ellis's favourite book was Wuthering Heights, which she measured against Jane Eyre. Up until then, Anne Brontë was - like for almost everyone - 'the other Brontë. She doesn't hide it:
[Ann Dinsdale] asks if I want to see Anne's last letter. I'm more interested in looking at some of of the other treasure--Emily's drawing of a fist smashing a mullioned window [...] and the book Charlotte and Branwell made, on scraps of paper and sugar bags [...] but when I actually read Anne's letter, I get a shock.That shows how most people view Anne Brontë. Ellis is not very interested in seeing her letter and, what's more important, she hasn't even read a transcript of it before. Because anyone who has ever read that letter and been inevitably moved by it, wouldn't hesitate to see it first.
Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life tells faithfully about Samantha Ellis's discovery of Anne's life and how she makes and reads her way back to that last letter and how she comes to appreciate it and the person who wrote it. It's a cleverly written book in which each chapter is devoted to a key person or character in Anne's life but so devised as to tell Anne's story linearly at the same time, adding Victorian context where necessary but also modern commentary. It feels truly refreshing to see Ellis discussing the cast of the BBC adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or bringing up related news stories that take place while she's writing her book. Her reference to Poison's Every Rose Has Its Thorn in connection to Anne's most-quoted words might be taking things a bit too far as the reference feels awkward and contrived, though(1). This is not a biography stuck in the past: it's more like a conversation moving in time and space.
Her enthusiasm for Anne feels real and is contagious. Samantha Ellis doesn't shy away from letting the reader in on her creative process: she tells readers how Anne came to her in her dreams, how places she visits feel to her, how Anne's bloodstained handkerchief 'is too horrible to look at for long' (a feeling which we share) and how, towards the end, she doesn't 'want to go to Scarborough'. There are also bits of her personal life which probably take up more space in the reviews that mention them than in the actual book(2).
Samantha Ellis is delighted with both of Anne's novels, as well as her poetry. During her research, she has got to know them really, really well(3) and she manages to bring up scenes and sayings from them in such an off-hand way that really contributes to keeping the narrative going. Her knowledge and analysis of her poetry clearly stem from sheer admiration. She is also evidently impressed with Anne's feminism and advanced ideas, with how modern it all feels and how this may have actually worked against her in Victorian times. Anyone who has read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall knows that Anne was way ahead of her times but this is always unexpected the first time around, so effectively have we been convinced that Anne was a meek, pious maiden.
Samantha Ellis does a good job of bringing to light what sounds like the real Anne. Her portrait might feel somewhat too 21st-century and larger than life in some instances, but overall, the image we get of Anne sounds true to life(4). Ellis is particularly annoyed at descriptions of Anne - and there are many - linking her to any form of the word 'endurance' and for some reason tries to dispel the 'myth'. And while we agree with her that Anne was much more than that, we don't quite see the need to fight it. It's not such a bad quality, particularly if, apart from that, Anne was all the good things that Ellis herself finds her to have been. Samantha Ellis's Anne is brave, compassionate, a champion of women, a skilled poet and writer, a person who had, as much as possible, the reins of her own life in her hands. She credits Anne with things that previous biographers might have mentioned but hadn't truly given the importance they deserve, such as the fact that
Anne shows how girls who are given nothing but polish, finish and dinner-party conversation are not prepared for life, taught to think for themselves, or warned about the perils of bad men. In real life, Anne tried to fight this, taking pride in teaching well, and teaching subjects girls didn't usually study.And while she sometimes makes assumptions about what Anne may or may not have felt (which sound likely in most cases at least within the context of this particular biography), she knows when it's impossible to deduce what was really going on inside Anne's head(5).
Perhaps Samantha Ellis's most controversial approach in this biography is doing like Elizabeth Gaskell first did in her biography of Charlotte and, more recently, Claire Harman in her own biography of Charlotte as well. For them, the root of all evil was Patrick Brontë. For Samantha Ellis, the scapegoat is Charlotte Brontë(6). Chapter 5 is about Anne's relationship with her and it was rather painful to read. Starting with the title itself, Charlotte, or how (not) to be a sister, the chapter reads like a continual complaint about all the things that Charlotte did wrong in the author's eyes. While we mostly agree with her when she claims that, 'Charlotte, more than anyone, is responsible for Anne being seen as 'the other Brontë'', it is also true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And we firmly believe that everything Charlotte did, didn't do and wrote in connection to her sisters was well-intended within the strict boundaries of Victorian society. But Samantha Ellis comes across as abhorring Charlotte on a personal level, even to the extent of crediting James Tully's The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë with some grains of truth.
Tully captures something truthful about Charlotte and Anne. His Charlotte complains that the dying Anne (who she has helped poison!) gives herself the airs of a saint, and she resents nursing her when she could be enjoying her fame in London. Tully also makes much of the fact that Charlotte didn't manage to write anything nice on Anne's gravestone. (7)While Charlotte and Anne's relationship as sisters may not have been the best in the family(8), there is absolutely no reason to paint it in such a bad light as Ellis does. Nothing Charlotte does is good enough for her. Writing to Emily on April 2nd, 141, Charlotte wrote,
I had a letter from Anne yesterday; she says she is well. I hope she speaks absolute truth.Up until now, we had read that as a tender comment from the eldest sister about her youngest sister, but Samantha Ellis doesn't see it that way:
...barred from Anne's real feelings, Charlotte misunderstood, patronised and underestimated her; for Charlotte, Anne was always a 'Poor child!' She tried to protect Anne but she never really trusted her. 'I hope she speaks absolute truth,' she commented doubtfully...(9)She attacks Charlotte for all sorts of things, many times out of the blue and for no reason(10). While she thankfully saves Villette from the stake, she patently dislikes both Jane Eyre and Shirley. She claims that 'Charlotte's novels are haunted by perfect mothers', which is a claim we had never ever expected to hear. According to her, Charlotte's guilt (towards Anne) 'churns through' Shirley. Because The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and even Agnes Grey, are so ahead of their time, she forgets that Charlotte's novels were pretty groundbreaking too(11). She's demolishing about the preface that her publishers didn't allow Charlotte to use when discussing Anne's own preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall(12). We don't agree with the following but you can actually feel Ellis's relief:
But it's too easy to cast [Robert Southey] as a nineteenth-century Michael Winner saying calm down, dear, and to forget that his advice made Charlotte give up Angria, which was a good decision not just for her writing but for her life.Although we do know that Southey's advice to Charlotte has been largely misunderstood and misinterpreted, we weren't expecting Samantha Ellis to cheer him on at all. The above statement surprised, shocked and saddened us.
The harsh treatment of Charlotte is even more heartbreaking because it spoils the positive vibe of the biography in general terms. However, it is easy to see who Samantha Ellis likes and who she doesn't. Perhaps by proxy, she doesn't like Ellen Nussey either, calling her 'a bit of a prig' and saying derisively that, 'her friendship with Charlotte was the most interesting thing about her', which we don't find so 'debasing', especially not in the context of Victorian women, whose lives were fairly boring. Either because it is painful for her to write about it or because she doesn't want to owe that to Nussey, she pretty much skips over the account given by Ellen of Anne's last days in York and Scarborough. We were also unpleasantly surprised to find that she dislikes little Maria too:
... a child who might not have suffered so much if she'd only spoken out about what was happening at school. But Maria forced herself to silently endure and now there's nothing left of her but her amazing suffering, and her tattered, faded sampler.Fortunately, others fare better. We were pleasantly surprised to see Patrick Brontë not just not blamed for anything but openly praised for his job as a father. Branwell has it easy with her too as she freely admits to having 'long had a soft spot for Branwell'. Samantha Ellis, who 'grew up longing for Heathcliff', seems to find Emily imposing and daunting so she is pretty much left alone and not intruded upon, except for a rather personal claim of Emily being 'very good at ignoring things'. Tabby is spoken of fondly and given the all-important role of introducing Anne to local lore and the moors. Although somewhat understandable but not any less confusing because of it, Samantha Ellis decides that she's
going to call Anne's aunt by her name: Elizabeth. Everyone--even biographers and literary critics--calls her 'Aunt Branwell', but she was more than just an aunt.We see the logic of it, but throughout the book we kept having a confused moment whenever she referred to Elizabeth. But the logic suited her treatment of her and she does a good job of bringing her out of the 'Calvinistic' shadows in which biographers tend to hide her. She helped bring up these amazing children, so it's time she was given credit for having done a great job(13). William Weightman - for whom we have a soft spot - is pretty much glossed over. He has to be mentioned, of course, but not much is made of the question of whether they were in love or not. Ellis takes for granted that Anne sort of liked/loved him but she mostly skips over the matter, which is a good decision in view of that fact that her real effort in this book is to put the spotlight in Anne herself and her works. It also feels respectful towards her subject. Like she did with Roe Head, Ellis has no time for speculating about what may have or may have not been going on inside Anne's head.
One tiny but truly wonderful thing about Samantha Ellis's fresh approach is the fact that she refers to Harriet Martineau as Charlotte's 'frenemy'. From now on, we will be unable to describe her as anything else.
However unfairly we may find that she has treated anyone in this biography, it is nothing compared to how Anne has been (mis)treated over the years. Had she just been 'the other Brontë', she would have been fine but biographers and critics got openly offensive when it came to her. The pages devoted to this are devastating to read but this just takes the cake:
By 1929 Anne had still not been the subject of a dedicated biography, so W.T. Hale stepped into the breach with a short monograph. Unfortunately, his conclusion was both absurd and depressing: 'The Gods were not kind to her: no men except her father's curates ever had a chance to look at her. But the gods must have loved her, after all, for they did not prolong her agony. They let her die young.'The gods are not kind to her even now. She's still undervalued and unknown but it doesn't help that nearly 200 years after her birth, her second novel is still being published and sold in a mutilated version that makes no sense. Samantha Ellis takes a good look at the differences between the actual novel and the book that's passed as it. Through the decades, Anne has been the victim of neglect, scholars who went uncritically with the flow and most readers reading a nonsensical version of her second novel. For a writer, that's as bad as bad luck gets and we can only hope that now, in the run-up to the bicentenary of her birth, all this begins to get better. Samantha Ellis has made a great contribution towards making this possible.
By the time the reader reaches the final pages of this biography, there's a sense of personal connection to the subject that very few biographers manage to create. Anne leaps off the pages and stays with the reader, just like she stays with Samantha. Those final pages, particularly the postscript are so, so good. They are Samantha Ellis's writing at her best. Empathy, honesty, freshness, originality, intelligence, sincerity, clarity... all are to be found in this biography of Anne Brontë.
(1) From her poem The Narrow Way:
But he, that dares not grasp the thorn(2) We may sound nosey, but we did enjoy these bits. For instance, most people are curious about Winifred Gérin after reading her Brontë biographies - Samantha Ellis included - so it's now great to be able to know her better thanks to her biography by Helen MacEwan.
Should never crave the rose.
(3) Although we would beg to disagree with some of her assumptions:
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall also critiqued her sisters' books, and especially Jane Eyre. In Anne's novel, as in Charlotte's a libertine rejects his wife. Charlotte gave Bertha a classic villain's evil laugh [...] and made her unnatural [...], and barely human [...]. Anne took the libertine's rejected wife out of the attic and put her centre stage. She also took her side. (p. 247)She also likens Tabby to both Nelly Dean from Wuthering Heights and Bessie from Jane Eyre. And while they may have inherited traits from Tabby, we don't really think they fully represent her on the page. We have always seen Hannah from Jane Eyre as the most similar character to Tabby. Ellis also claims Miss Temple in Jane Eyre is Miss Wooler, with which we also disagree. She makes a complicated mess of interpreting Rose and Jessy Yorke in Shirley, rather than just taking them as they were in all probability: pictures of Mary and Martha Taylor.
(4) Speaking of portraits: this book has no plates or illustrations, which is strange for a biography and are always a welcome aid in visualising things as they were. Even if Ellis claims that 'the Brontës drew and painted each other often' (with which we don't really agree), the only picture of Anne is the one on the cover, which, judging by her description of it in the book, is not much to Ellis's taste.
(5) She mentions how in his biography of Anne, Edward Chitham suggests that Anne's crisis at Roe Head was due to Anne 'subconsciously [understanding] her feminine role as producer of children', basing his evidence on Anne writing about a Gondal heroine having a son and drawing three babies' heads in 1837. As Ellis says,
She also drew an oak, an elm and some wooded landscapes, but no one has suggested she was having a psychic crisis about trees.(6) Samantha Ellis writes,
The more I learn about how Charlotte treated Anne and her work, the sadder I feel. I was so invested with the idea of the three sisters working together, sharing pages, helping each other to get published, supporting each other. I hate knowing that, in truth, their story is partly about sibling rivalry, betrayals, recriminations and turf wars. It's tempting to interpret the whole of the Brontës' afterlives--all the biographies, all the scholarship, all the fan fiction--as part of the same story, with readers and critics getting drawn in, taking sides, defining themselves by which Brontë the feel most sympathy for.So it's incredibly sad to see her taking sides too. We all agree that Anne's recognition is long due, but attacking Charlotte for every little thing she did (or didn't do) won't bring that about any sooner.
(7) And yet she wrote a very moving poem in her honour: On the Death of Anne Brontë.
(8) We laughed out loud, for instance, at this dramatic turn of phrase: 'For Anne, Roe Head was a crash course in the dark side of sisterhood'. On a more serious note, though, Ellis doesn't make any allowances whatsoever for what teen Charlotte may have also been going through while at Roe Head, which - to continue with the emo talk - was also a pretty dark period in her own life.
(9) Similarly, she sees Charlotte's bad feelings towards Anne when writing about her departure for her first job, as a governess for the Ingham family:
Charlotte, though, told Anne's departure as a tragedy: 'Poor child! She left us last Monday; no one went with her; it was her own wish that she might be allowed to go alone, as she thought she could manage better and summon more courage if thrown entirely upon her own resources. [...] I can't help feeling that Charlotte's real anxiety was for herself. [...] Charlotte's sister (her poor, little, incapable sister) had beaten her to [finding a job].(10) She's so bent on criticising Charlotte that sometimes she accuses her falsely.
Perhaps [Charlotte] was frustrated that her salary [at Roe Head] didn't even cover the basics; [...] Charlotte had to ask her friends to pay postage on her letters.Charlotte's time at Roe Head as a teacher was from 1835 to 1838. The first postage stamp wasn't used until 1840. Up until then everyone paid for the sender's postage. Charlotte would have paid for her friends' letters upon receiving them too.
(11) She deplores the fact that
it's almost duty that makes [Jane] go [back to Rochester]. Except it isn't. It's love and lust, if only Jane could own it.(So what if it is? was our first thought when we first read that.)
(12) Although she miraculously likes the fact that she included part of it within the pages of Shirley. At last Charlotte has done something well!
(13) There is an instance, however, in which we think Samantha Ellis reads previous biographers' comments on Aunt Branwell/Elizabeth wrong.
But can you really judge a person by [...] their shoes? Elizabeth wore wooden pattens [...] indoors and, according to Gaskell, she 'went about the house . . . clicking up and down the stairs'. This has been taken up in book after book about the Brontës. And I'm sure it was annoying, but my goodness, if I thought that nearly two centuries after my death I'd be criticised for the noisiness of my shoes, I'd never wear anything, or do anything. . . 'We have never thought the pattens were mentioned because of the noise they made but because they showed that after many years in Haworth, Aunt Branwell/Elizabeth still hadn't got used to the place, mainly because she didn't want to get used to it. They were mentioned because of the inadaptability they showed, not because of the noise they made.