In the week running up to International Women’s Day on 8th March 2015, we are celebrating women writers who paved the way for the early feminists and are still inspiring women to Make It Happen today.
There is still work to be done for greater equality around the world but let’s take a moment to remember the women who helped us come this far…
6. Anne Brontë (1816-1855)
“I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it … and if I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense.”
Preface to second edition, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848
Anne Brontë was a poet and novelist. She was the youngest of the Brontë sisters and her work has historically been less celebrated and studied than her more famous sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Anne Brontë’s second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was arguably the most shocking of the books published by the sisters in its day, and it had an instant success rapidly outselling Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Charlotte Brontë’s refusal to allow the re-printing of the book soon after Anne’s death at least in part accounts for Anne becoming the lesser known of the sisters.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been described as the first sustained feminist novel. It challenged the moral code of its day in showing a woman defying her alcoholic, abusive husband. The character, Helen, shown as spirited and forthright, stands up to her husband and ultimately leaves him, refusing to stay and submit to his abusive behaviour. It is hard to understand now quite how radical this was. May Sinclair, Anne’s biographer and a suffragist, is widely reported to have said many years later that ‘the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated through Victorian England’.
Both of Anne’s novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, were originally published under the pseudonym Acton Bell, which obscured her gender. In the preface to the second edition of the book, Anne firmly rebutted speculation about her gender and any bearing it had on the quality of her work:
‘I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.’
She also responded to criticism of her writing as having ‘a morbid love of the coarse, if not the brutal’ by explaining her wish ‘to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it…’ It is believed that Anne’s unflinching portrayal of alcoholism was, in part, inspired by witnessing her own brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë, descend into alcohol and opiate abuse. In her preface to the second edition, she posed the question ‘Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers?’
Chawton House Library has an extensive collection of approximately 800 books by and about the Brontë sisters, as well as a range of Brontë ephemera, all kindly donated by Tony Yablon. We have also recently announced a new Brontë Visiting Fellowship. Read more here.
Which women writers have inspired you? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, commenting on https://www.facebook.com/ChawtonHouseLibrary or tweeting @ChawtonHouse #makeithappen #womensday