Anne Bronte taught me how to be a good person.
It sounds bizarre. After all, what could a 21st-century woman learn from a 19th-century author?
But it’s true. And the answer to that question? A lot.
In 2015, I was in my sophomore year of college. At the time, I was taking a course all about Jane Austen, an author I adored. During class, we learned about Charlotte Brontë’s complete distaste for Austen, talked about how the Jane Eyre author simply didn’t understand her predecessor and as such didn’t like her. Brontë’s novels were complete opposites of Austen’s – how could the former appreciate the latter?
This conversation reminded me of another Brontë. The first time I read an Anne Brontë novel, I was in high school. During my junior year, I took AP Literature. We read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the two novels we all think of when we hear the name Brontë, and, while Anne was mentioned in the presentation preceding our Brontë reading, she was essentially nothing more than a footnote. “Oh, by the way, Anne was a writer too” was the jist, and my curiosity was piqued. Who was this Brontë sister? What did she have to say? With a gift card in hand, I walked into the closest Barnes & Noble (30 minutes away and in a completely different state) with a purpose: to find Anne Brontë.
What I found was Agnes Grey, and, to be quite honest, I didn’t like it. I was expecting the passion of Wuthering Heights, the drama of Jane Eyre, and found neither. I was disappointed. I shunned Anne, lamented over wasting my gift card balance on this poor man’s Jane Eyre, and didn’t think much of her again.
Until that Jane Austen course. Austen’s novels have drama, of course, but they are grounded in realism. That, I realized, was what Agnes Grey was: a novel providing a glimpse of reality, a reality that few people may care to know about.
That was that: I was going to try reading Anne Brontë again.
Previously, I had read about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but, having been so disappointed by Agnes Grey, I wasn’t swayed by its hype of being considered the first sustained feminist novel. At this point in my life, however, I had casually embraced the feminist label, I had learned about feminist literary criticism, I had just spent the summer as a teaching assistant for a course taught at a women’s prison. I was ready for strong women in my literature, I was ready to expand my mind.
I was determined to read the tale of Helen Huntington.
And reading it gave me a new perspective.
When I first read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, something just clicked. It was magic, all of it: the novel, the characters, the message, the author. In Wildfell Hall, Anne’s advocacy is clear: she warns her readers, trying to steer them away from the people and lives presented in the novel. But at the same time, she puts her activism to use, arguing that women, such as the novel’s heroine, can – and should – have or find the means to leave abusive relationships behind and start anew. Helen is a working woman, creating art to maintain her freedom. She has a job, which is wild for 19th-century England. She leaves her husband, which is even more unheard of. She starts anew. And it’s empowering. Empowering for not just women of the Victorian Era, but for those of us living in the 21st century, as we live in an era when our rights, our voices are still in danger.
But I know Anne Brontë would not want me to be silent, and that’s because she refused to be silent on the injustices women faced, on the tragedies of our world. She would want me to speak up, find my voice in some way, any way.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë presents a new kind of woman. Helen lives her own life by her own moral code and is not afraid to defend her beliefs when challenged. Reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall taught me to stand up for myself, my views, my opinions, even when they do not conform to the norm.
With this book, I found a hero, I found a favorite book, I found a favorite author. I found an inspiration in the form of Anne Brontë, and I knew I would have to return to her first novel eventually.
By the time I finally re-read Agnes Grey, I was a different person. I was in my third year of college and had been honing my literary analysis skills as an English major. I was 100% proud to call myself a feminist and just as proud to call myself a vegan, no longer afraid of what those labels represented to other people because all that mattered was how much they meant to me.
At this point, during the spring semester of 2017, I was taking a course with my favorite professor and fellow 19th-century literature lover on none other than the Brontës. We delved in deep to this troubled and talented family, even reading and analyzing some of Branwell’s work. But I was growing impatient. I wanted to learn more about Anne.
When we got to Agnes Grey, I wondered how I would respond to Anne’s first novel the second time around. Would I find it as dull? Would I view it as the tamer version of Jane Eyre? As I started my re-read, my thoughts went there again. “Nothing seems to happen,” I thought to myself, and, to a point, that’s true. But as I read, I noticed things, things my 17-year old self wouldn’t have noticed when I first read it.
There’s a part in Agnes Grey that seemed pivotal to me. Sure, Agnes deciding to move out and make a life for herself – or as much as a young woman could do at that time – is extremely important. But something else caught me.
Agnes’s views on animals.
I wouldn’t have realized this before, but now, being vegan, I was on high alert when it came to the media I consumed and its relationship to animals – and food. And Agnes’s arguments when her young pupil desires to torutnre animals? Well, they sound like the same arguments vegans and animal rights activists use today.
“Remember,” Agnes says, “the birds can feel as well as you; and think, how would you like it yourself?”
Hearing these words in this 19th-century novel seemed surreal, as I had heard similar sets of words since becoming vegan. Those arguments had struck me before, of course, but there was something about hearing it from Anne Brontë that solidified things for me.
In our class discussions about Agnes Grey, I brought up that line about the birds and its connection to veganism. I outed myself as vegan to a group of students, some strangers, for the first time, something I was often wary of if it wasn’t necessary to bring up. And I was proud. Proud of myself, proud to have made this connection, proud to have Anne as a favorite author. And relieved that I didn’t face judgement for expressing my views.
But that was what Agnes Grey taught me to do. With this novel, Anne Brontë taught me to speak up for animals. Up until this moment, I hadn’t spoken much about my veganism, definitely not in any of my classes. But when Anne, speaking as Agnes, says that birds – and really all animals – have feelings just as humans do, suddenly, I felt less alone. I felt like I had Anne Brontë on my side. I felt like I could speak about my passion for veganism, for animal rights in an intelligent way, without fearing how that would be interpreted.
Through her novels, Anne was – and, really, still is – an activist. In the preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she addresses her critics, claiming she had no intention to amuse her audience with the novel. Instead, she says, “I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.” Such is the life of an activist.
And then there is Anne’s poetry, writing that speaks of isolation with a side of hope, writing that is not afraid to criticize popular religious movements of the time. She writes scathing lines to those she does not agree with, while offering comfort and compassion to those who feel isolated and left behind by a world that doesn’t value them. It’s weird to think of the latter as being an identifier of a progressive person, but it is. And that’s what Anne is: progressive. No doubt she would be a leftist. No doubt had she been born in another time she would be an activist, an advocate, a voice for the voiceless. She would be on the front lines, rallying against those trying to strip us of our rights, those trying to make life worse for those who need support the most.
Take one look at her writing, and you know this is true.
And you know what? I want to be just like Anne Brontë when I grow up.
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