Today is the birthday of Anne Bronte, the youngest of the famed Bronte sisters. The birthday of arguably the most under-appreciated of the Bronte sisters would be an appropriate time to reflect on her literary work. But, that is not my purpose here. What I would like to reflect on is the role Anne played in her short life to advance equality and unveil the misogyny and mendacity of society – both Victorian and contemporary.
Like many people who were granted the gift of a balanced secondary education, I muddled through Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre while in high school, gleaning only the surface of what these women sought to impart. Like some I came back to them as an adult, scuffed up and seasoned a bit by life, and finally understood what all the fuss was about in the first place. But, like most, I remained until recently almost completely ignorant of Anne Bronte and her work, and I must confess here I have yet to read her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – a shortcoming I plan to soon remedy.
Anne remains hidden in her sisters’ shadows for a number of likely reasons. First, she was cut down at the age of 29 by tuberculosis – little more than five months after Emily succumbed to the same condition – silencing her pen when she was just beginning to find her own voice, independent of her older sisters. Second, Anne had the courage – some would say audacity – to deal openly with unsavory topics such as alcoholism, debauchery, spousal abuse and infidelity, and to give Victorian society a brief glimpse of a future in which women would be treated equally before the law in such matters. The content of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – though well-received in its first printing – was controversial for her day, both in society at large and within the confines of her own family. To this day many English teachers likely do not have the stomach for, or are constrained from, openly discussing infidelity, alcoholism and spousal abuse in a classroom full of students who likely will have to face these evils at some point in their dismally ill-prepared lives. Finally, Charlotte prevented the republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death, writing in 1850 of her youngest sister’s work: “Wildfell Hall…hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.” Only God is fit to judge if Charlotte’s intervention was the misplaced effort of a well-meaning, albeit prudish, sister to protect the family reputation, or an act of condescending and petty perfidy waged out of jealousy against a recently deceased sibling. Either way, Charlotte largely succeeded in hiding Anne’s work from readers’ eyes for the better part of two centuries.
As I’ve said I have yet to catch up on reading Anne’s work, so this is by no means an exhaustive review of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey or any of Anne’s poetry. But, aside from the literary value of Anne’s work, we can appreciate its value in challenging all of us to have the courage to walk firmly through this world without flinching from its realities. Anne’s work was shocking in its day and derided by many critics – Charlotte being one of the principals – because she refused to gloss over the seedier aspects of Victorian life. Instead, she forced her readers to face head-on the moral turpitude, misogyny and hypocrisy of her day. Answering critics who claimed her work was just too abrasive for gentle society, Anne responded by reaffirming that the only way to face evil in this world is to give it the full light of day – unvarnished and honest:
When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? 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? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts–this whispering ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.
This is not the meek and docile young Anne as she is normally envisioned, nor the “gentle, retiring inexperienced writer” portrayed in Charlotte’s postmortem condescension. These are the words of a strong woman, living in a time when strength was neither encouraged nor accepted from women, challenging us all to face down the sin and misery of our world rather than hide them behind a socially acceptable facade.
As I’ve already noted, Anne’s refusal to look past and excuse the vices of her day did not put her in good standing with some of her contemporaries. But, that was the 1800s, Victorian England – we’ve progressed well beyond that. Haven’t we? Surely today we wouldn’t patronize, hush-up, marginalize and vilify someone simply for pointing out the difficult and painful shortcomings of our society. Right? Unfortunately, no. Today we as a society are just as likely to shun anyone who puts us in danger of straying across the possibility that everything isn’t as it should be and maybe, oh maybe, we just might have some damnable responsibility to get off our ass and do something about it. Sure, social media makes it easy and fun for people to bitch about any number of things in a manner that would have been inconceivable to the Brontes and their peers. But sharpen that complaining into the point of personal responsibility and aim it at anyone – least of all he who is bitching loudest – and it suddenly becomes very awkward and unacceptable.
In this sense we could say that the propensity of Anne’s day for looking past societal evils hasn’t improved over the ensuing decades so much as it has morphed into something different, but no less noxious. In the good ol’ days, responsibility for overcoming societal woes was best avoided by simply pretending the woes didn’t exist. This was the weakness of spirit Anne challenged by portraying vice with honesty, and forcing her readers to look at its inglorious toll on society. Today we no longer comfort ourselves so much by ignoring vice – social media and a 24-hour cable news cycle have made that largely impossible. Rather, we revel in pointing fingers at its existence, so long as the pointing never comes back to our direction. The first and last remedy for any problem in this model is to find someone, anyone to blame, as if appointing a person or group to vilify will rectify the problem. It is ever so much easier to take this tack than to accept the fact we all are corporeal members of society, and thus all individually bear some responsibility for its outcomes. This is the same painful sense of personal responsibility Anne sought to impart to her readers. Thus, while the times have changed significantly since Anne’s death, the need remains to seek out truth, to face injustice head-on and bear our own personal share of society’s burdens.
Of course, none of us have the power to single-handedly alter social progress or eradicate social injustice. What we do have power over is the course of our own lives, and the God-given capacity to captain our lives with unflinching virtue. This is our first and greatest responsibility – to tend to our own virtue first. With dedicated effort we all have the capacity to make great positive changes – far more so when we work with others, and care not who receives the credit. But our personal virtue, and our jealous guardianship of its sanctity, is an absolute prerequisite to inspiring and demanding virtue in others, and ultimately altering society’s course to a more favorable heading.
This is a lifelong effort that requires a foundation laid in youth; it cannot be started fresh in adulthood with no prior preparation. The problem, as Anne points out, is we all-too-often shield our youth from the realities of this world through “delicate concealment of facts.” We naturally desire to protect our children from harm, but when we fail to prepare them for evil’s existence we make them easy prey once they’re old enough to stray beyond our grasp. Anne deals with this issue cogently in two separate quotes, one addressed to the raising of young men, the other for their female counterparts:
If you would have your son to walk honourably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them – not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone.
I would not send a poor girl into the world, ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself.
Given that Anne was raised and lived in a society that had fundamentally different methods and standards for raising its male and female progeny, it isn’t hard to understand why she penned two different quotes on this topic – one for young women, another for young men. But, if we look past that and consider the content, we see that Anne treats both essentially the same (she was, after all, a ground-breaker in early feminism). Whether preparing a young man or a young woman for adult life, the same approach applies: We must educate them to the “snares and pitfalls” of life, not hide them “with branches and flowers.”
There is an important distinction to be made here between sheltering our youth on one hand, and protecting them while also appropriately preparing them on the other. On one hand we can – and often today are encouraged to – hide our children from the very existence of vice and evil, comforting ourselves with the wholly unrealistic expectation that our kids won’t someday have to face these ills on their own. On the other hand we can provide our youth sufficient protection from vice and evil, while simultaneously pointing out and openly discussing the same, thereby strengthening and training our children to do battle – either moral or physical – with the darker side of our world when they stride into it on their own.
It is reasonable for responsible parents to wish for their children to inherit a world free of injustice. And, we all should work towards that end, using whatever God-given talents we have in the fight. But, it also would be irresponsible for us to raise our children as if that world actually exists, rather than preparing them to take our place in the never-ending struggle of its pursuit. This is the essence of virtue: having the moral and physical courage to pursue a perfect world, even with the realistic knowledge that perfection is a lofty target in this life. Anne had the courage to walk this path, and in her brief career and life she helped shine light on the path for those who followed. If we walk boldly through life with virtue, and teach and prepare our children to do the same, we too may live up to her example.