At 17 years old, I found the literary love of my life.
Unfortunately, at 17 years old, I rejected her.
During my junior year of high school, I took AP Literature, a course that helped me find my purpose of sorts in life. It was that year that I truly fell for the written word, specifically that of the 19th century. Beginning my journey into the works of authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and Oscar Wilde, I discovered a world of literature once unknown to me, and I wanted more. Though my interest in women writers began several years earlier, I now had a time period I wanted to focus on, and I wanted to start with the Brontë family. My teacher taught the class about Charlotte and Emily, and we read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but we only briefly discussed the youngest Brontë, Anne, and only in relation to her older sisters.
For Christmas that year, I received a gift card to Barnes & Noble, and one afternoon, I found myself in the store’s classics section. There, I saw the authors who had been captivating me as of late and one who I was immensely curious about. Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë’s first novel, stared at me, called to me. Who was this mysterious younger sister and why were we not reading her along with her siblings?
Naturally, I purchased the book and completed it over the next few days. Upon finishing it, I was…underwhelmed, to say the least. At the time, I had barely cooled off from reading Jane Eyre, an overly dramatic story of a young governess, and hoped Agnes Grey would give me a similar experience, as its heroine had the same occupation. Unfortunately, it did not. The novel lacked the excitement and theatrics found in Charlotte’s. Something was lacking – I wasn’t entertained, and I realized I was finishing the novel not because I actually enjoyed it or cared about what happened to the characters but because I felt a duty to read something by Anne. When friends who had similar literary interests as me asked about it, I’d answer simply: “It’s like…a tamer version of Jane Eyre. A little boring.”
And just like that, I was over Anne, feeling no need to test out any of her other work, be it her second novel or her earlier poetry. I wasn’t interested.
I rejected Anne Brontë.
Over a year later, I was studying English in college, which, unfortunately, limited my ability to read for pleasure. My evenings were full of readings from Norton’s introductions to both English and American literature. I loved learning about the different literary criticisms, but, for the most part, I found myself uninterested in the writers and their works, besides, say, George Bernard Shaw or Aphra Behn. I had taken an extended break from the 19th century literature I fell in love with just a short time earlier and forced myself to get through Chaucer and slave narratives.
Luckily, I found my place again during the fall semester of my sophomore year when I took a course on Jane Austen. My professor’s obsession with Austen and her works was infectious, and Austen’s mastery at the written word was compelling. Her characters, though not really relatable, were real. I cared about Austen – her life, her world, and, most importantly, her characters. After a year of studying literature I was not particularly interested in, it was refreshing to have the chance to delve into the works of a favorite author of mine. Therefore, it was no surprise I soon got the bug for 19th century literature again and searched for new things to read.
On a whim, I searched for Anne Brontë again, and this time, I found The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. A brief glimpse at the book’s Wikipedia page told me it is considered one of the first feminist novels. That phrase – “one of the first feminist novels” – grabbed me. Anne Brontë wrote a feminist novel? The same Anne Brontë who wrote the “boring” Agnes Grey? I needed to know more.
While attempting to write a paper on the role wealth plays in the characters of Persuasion’s happiness, I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and was touched by the writing, the plot, the heroine. Helen Graham/Huntingdon, whose story is told through personal journals, was very different from the first-person narrator Agnes Grey. To say the least, Helen is astounding. She is a working woman, a woman who uses her art as a means to achieve her freedom. She is a single mother, raising a young son with the help of one servant/friend. She stands her ground, not letting anyone – not even the obnoxious reverend – change her mind. She is a hero, a hero for the Victorian women who felt trapped.
With The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë gives her fellow women hope.
When I took The Brontës during the fall semester nearly a year later, I was ready to fall in love with Anne all over again. I was ready to have analytical discussions about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I was ready to be a champion for Anne. But I was ready to completely ignore Agnes Grey, despite its prominent place on the syllabus.
As the semester went on, we made our way through some Brontë juvenilia and poetry, as well as The Professor, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre before we made it to Anne Brontë’s boring first novel. Though I desperately wanted to just skim through Agnes Grey – I figured I could remember the most important parts of the plot – I really did not want to disappoint my professor, an avid fan of Victorian literature like myself. So I read on and began noticing things that had been invisible to me on my first try.
A lot had changed for since my first reading of Agnes Grey. The obvious was that I had become an English major. Then in my junior year, my experience and knowledge grew. I was more well-read, knew more about feminist, historical, and Marxist criticism, among others, and was more passionate about literature. Perhaps more importantly, after educating myself on animal rights and animal cruelty, I had transitioned to a vegan lifestyle.
Re-reading Agnes Grey, I caught on to two very important things: the eponymous character was a young woman who wanted – needed – to break free and see the world for herself, and that same character made the same arguments that animal rights activists and vegans make today.
Agnes Grey speaks of being sheltered, of being treated like a baby. As the youngest child in my own family, her words hit home. Agnes’s narrative describes early on a loving family but one that is not always encouraging or supportive. She wants to move out, she wants to learn, hone her skills, help her family even, yet her parents choose not to take her seriously. Of course, this novel would not be remotely successful if Agnes listened to her naysayers, so she persists and gets a job as governess. This job, however, is undesirable and is a terrible fit for her, due to a combination of her inexperience, her young, immature pupils, and the terrible influence of the young children’s family. She does not stay with that family long, but she does not accept this defeat, moving on to another family, which has its own troubles. Yet, she does her best until she needs to return home. For the first time in her young life, Agnes makes choices for herself, which is arguably the most important feminist sentiment.
Then, there is the way she defends animals. At the home of the Bloomfields, the first family she works with, she sees animals essentially tagged for destruction at the hands of the eldest child. She protests against the killing and abuse of them, claiming those animals are just like us: they feel pain just as any human does. She becomes a voice for those voiceless creatures, and it is inspiring to know (assuming critics are right when they say Agnes Grey is autobiographical) Anne Brontë found such cruelty so unjust when so many other Victorians seemed unbothered.
While The Tenant of Wildfell Hall grabbed my attention and really tuned me into the youngest Brontë child, it was Agnes Grey, this overlooked novel I found so lackluster originally, that made me want to know the author.
So I studied her.
I read articles about Anne, book chapters, 19th century reviews. I read her poetry, what letters I could find. I asked a million questions and sought to find some answers. What did people think of her? What do the critics say? What was her relationship with Charlotte like? With Emily? Branwell? Her father? What did she read? What did she do, what did she like? I even tried to find out what she ate, inspired by her bold statements on animal rights and encouraged by some (debunked) claims from Elizabeth Gaskell in The Life of Charlotte Brontë regarding the “Brontë diet.”
I made Anne the focus of my capstone, a year-long project all students at my college must do. She was progressive – there was no doubt about that. It was in her poetry, her novels. It was in her prefaces to her novels. Her didactic nature was clear: “All true histories contain instruction,” she writes, as Agnes, at the start of Agnes Grey, and her intention becomes apparent: instruction. While Charlotte’s goal was to be a famous novelist, and Emily wrote because she was an artistic soul, Anne hoped to instruct. She saw the world around her and didn’t like it. She longed for a change in society, so, taking the gender neutral pen name of Acton Bell, she did the only thing she knew she could do to inspire that change.
Anne Brontë took me all over the place with her work. Mentally, she broadened my horizons. She got me thinking about her work – and that of her sisters – in ways I hadn’t thought possible. She became my barometer for good writing, good authors, perhaps good people. Physically, she got me to New York City, as my research on her awarded me a fellowship that placed me in the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library and Museum, reading her handwritten poetry, her Bible, and letters that mention her. Come March, she takes me to Cincinnati, where I will present a paper about her – in particular her connection to the animal rights movement – at Sigma Tau Delta’s annual English convention. Perhaps Anne will even take me to England, depending on a variety of factors, to study her even further.
She has changed me for the better.
When I first read Anne Brontë’s writing, I rejected her. I rejected her because, simply, I was not ready for her. Once I was ready, however, there was no other writer for me.