Walking with Anne Brontë: Insights and Reflections

Anne Bronte

Walking with Anne Brontë: Insights and Reflections (edited by Tim Whittome, 2023) makes a passionate case for elevating the youngest of the Brontë sisters to her rightful place in English literature.

A collection of essays and personal reflections by Anne Brontë scholars and aficionados, this book will go a long way to the understanding and appreciation of Anne’s fortitude as a woman and her genius as a writer.

The following is excerpted from Tim Whittome’s Introduction to Walking with Anne Brontë, reprinted with permission.

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“It is a sad fact that Anne Brontë has come to be regarded by posterity as the Cinderella of the famous trio of sisters. Critics have been off-hand about her two novels, tending to dismiss them as mere talent against her sisters’ genius.” (Arnold Craig Bell, The Novels of Anne Brontë, 1992)

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“[Anne Brontë] has been passed over—both as a writer and as an individual—by successive Brontë biographers as less than nothing, or dismissed with a gesture of condescension as affording only a pale replica of her sisters’ genius … For in the last resort Anne Brontë must be judged by the high character which she displayed not only at the end but at every turning in her life. It is for what she was, quite as much as for what she created, that one wants to know more of her.” (Winifred Gérin, Anne Brontë, 1959)

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anne bronte

Learn more about Anne Brontë
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“Dear gentle Anne” and getting to the truth

“Dear gentle Anne,” as Charlotte Brontë’s friend Ellen Nussey viewed the youngest Brontë sibling, has traditionally been many people’s impressions of Anne Brontë. In recent decades, however, there has been far more of a focus on what Juliet Barker has referred to in her seminal biography of the Brontës as Anne’s “core of steel.”

This has been coupled with an admiration for Anne’s own stated desire to “tell the truth” in her two novels and a sense that her personal attributes of courage and duty may well have exceeded those exhibited by Charlotte and Emily.

These enduring qualities have steadily come to replace much of the frequently dismissive personal comments and ambiguous literary commentary that bizarrely defined Anne’s reputation in the writings of early Brontë biographers and interpreters.

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Walking with Anne Bronte - edited by Tim Whittome

Walking with Anne Brontë is available
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Discarding unfair commentary and grudging admiration

I decided to open this introduction with commentary from some of the writers who have chosen to highlight some of this denigration, if only to destroy it.

Even some of Anne’s own early biographers such as W. T. Hale were apparently not too sure how far they could go in admiring her. In life, things were never easy for Anne Brontë; and in death, her legacy has frequently been dismissed as if it has been all too much and too unreal to have three talents in one family. 

This present work is unfortunately littered with unfair commentary about the youngest Brontë sibling by other writers—I consider May Sinclair (The Three Brontës, 1912) to be among the worst of the early writers along with Ellis Chadwick who saw only two geniuses (Emily and Charlotte) in the family and everyone else as contributing to making them sound even better. 

Another early Brontë biographer, Clement Shorter, opened a description of Anne in The Brontës and Their Circle (1914) by proclaiming that both “Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall would have long since fallen into oblivion but for the inevitable association with the romances of her two greater sisters” (my emphasis added).

While some of Anne Brontë’s more recent biographers and critics have successfully emulated the earlier panache of these earlier Brontë scholars and have emerged with fully engaging accounts, others have demonstrated the tactical aplomb of good defense lawyers with strength-based assessments of their “client.”

In a similar way, my coauthors and I have also chosen to shine a spotlight on Anne’s earlier critics if only swiftly to destroy their potential reach and acceptance with fairer academic and personal assessments—assessments designed (with hopefully some panache added) to override the hasty conclusions of former prejudiced judges and to convince the jury of current readers with a more judicial-minded reasoning behind our loyalty to Anne.

Even today, some of the older and more prejudiced opinions prevail; and it is reasonable to add, since I live here, that Anne Brontë is not very well known in the United States.


In the context of the Brontë family

For those who are familiar with Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, it would not be entirely inaccurate to suggest that Anne’s profile here is not that much greater than that of Margaret Dashwood, the younger sister of Elinor and Marianne—in other words, Anne has a tendency to be viewed as a character of marginal interest who occasionally distracts the otherwise disengaged reader with her prattle.

Working down the age range from the eldest to the youngest of the Brontë siblings who survived childhood, it has often seemed to me that the exhaustion that surrounds intense literary and other critical attention on members of the Brontë family typically stops at Emily.

In the process, Branwell Brontë is largely dismissed as too great a problem while their elder siblings Maria and Elizabeth sadly died too young to leave much of a trail for biographers and critics.

It is almost superfluous to say that this paradigm has led to Anne inevitably becoming overshadowed or just “included” in other critical works that primarily focus on Charlotte and Emily. I am surely not the only admirer of the Brontës who has found this highly annoying and irritating.

If instead of working our way down from Charlotte’s undeniable literary achievements, we were to work ourselves up from looking into the literary and personal world of the youngest to the eldest surviving sibling, what would the literary world think if we were still to stop after admiring Emily’s life and achievements and decided to ignore Charlotte? The idea would be unthinkable, right?

Forgetting the brilliant writer of Jane Eyre and Villette would seem irrational and even criminal in literary circles. It seems superfluous to point out that their troubled brother, Branwell, is typically viewed sparingly in both directions.

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Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

The Impressive Lessons of Agnes Grey
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The call to join “Team Anne”

In short, my fellow authors and I feel that it should be just as unthinkable to ignore Anne’s literary legacy as the compelling writer of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, fifty-nine beautiful poems, two self-penned “diary papers,” and five interesting or heartbreaking letters as it would be to ignore Charlotte’s.

Biographer Edward Chitham, at the 1994 Anne Brontë conference organized by the Brontë Society in Scarborough, had every reason for saying at the outset of one of the talks that he was an “Anne person.” He still is, as am I, and several writing here would assert the same.

Taking Mr. Chitham’s memorable comment as the inspiration for much of my own devotion to the memory of Anne, I wanted to put together an anthology of like-minded admirers of the youngest Brontë.

Our goal has been to bring together a “Team Anne” approach toward showcasing Anne’s literary talents and interesting personality to those that either have not heard of her, avoid thinking too much about her achievements if they have, or who have too often been wary of declaring their deep affection for her in company otherwise disposed to revere Charlotte and Emily as the only writers of consequence in the family.

We also hope that Walking with Anne Brontë will be viewed as a worthy addition to the growing body of work written by those who have already absorbed the lessons of Anne Brontë’s life and who understand the literary power of her novels and poetry.

In this regard, I was very struck by a comment that Samantha Ellis wrote in Take Courage in which she was surprised to discover that “most of the volunteers” who work for the Brontë Parsonage and Museum “say that Anne is their favorite.”

Ms. Ellis is one of my favorite interpreters of Anne’s life and work, and she goes on to wonder:

“Why she is ignored, or written off as boring? Why isn’t she read as much as her sisters? Why was her work suppressed, why is it underrated even now, and what does that say about what women still are and aren’t allowed to say? And what can I learn from her life and from her afterlife?” (Samantha Ellis, Take Courage, 2017)

These are typical reflections when it comes to thinking about Anne Brontë. As we walk with Anne and listen to some of her own insights and reflections in the pages ahead, readers will hopefully come to understand more of why Ms. Ellis was prompted to ask these questions.

Most of the time when many of us look at the Brontë literary landscape, we find ourselves wanting to learn as much about Anne as scientists eager to study some interesting geological formation in a hitherto undiscovered or overlooked country …

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
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Anne Brontë: Out from her sister’s shadows

I need to make it clear to our readers from the outset that while everyone writing in this book fully admires the literary achievements of Charlotte and Emily Brontë and is as devoted to them as they are to Anne, we do rightly feel a mixture of surprise and sense of aggrievement that Anne is the overshadowed sibling among the three sisters.

We feel this loss as unwarranted, and like Elizabeth Langland has said in a memorable conclusion to her study of Anne in Anne Brontë: The Other One, we really need to flip Mary Ward’s earlier assessment of Anne as “like them [Emily and Charlotte], yet not with them” to “unlike them, yet with them.”

I have always remembered and cherished this defiant and memorable observation and it helped to shape my subsequent appreciation of Anne in the years since.

Those who do end up reading Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall could be forgiven for asking why it has seemed so hard for others to see the intricacies of this unique “geological” literary formation: Is it because one or both dusty books can only be seen on a hard-to-reach upper shelf or are only available to the knowing reader online as is the case with my local library system?

Anne Brontë used to love the “distant prospects” on the moor above Haworth according to Charlotte in a letter she wrote to her literary reader, William S. Williams, May 22, 1850.

Maybe this is how not Anne’s, but Emily’s and Charlotte’s literary reputations have been seen by those who choose to focus their effortless attention on the brightest of the distant stars and not on the more intricate shades of the abundant life nearby that maybe requires a variety of instruments and tools to see.

For me, either I can find Anne in those same distant prospects of sunrises, sunsets, and bright stars or I can find her close by requiring my closest attention. Rewardingly so, it has to be said, and I would argue that it is better to view the achievements of all three sisters in the same way.

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Contributed by Tim Whittome: Tim is originally from England and spent all of his childhood and early adulthood there, and now lives in Washington State. He first “walked” with Anne Brontë when he was in his late twenties; and he has been inspired by her ever since. Tim is devoted to honoring the memory of not just Anne Brontë, but also those of Anne and Margot Frank. In 2021, Tim edited and published “Meeting” Anne Frank, which he has donated many copies of to those who knew Anne and Margot, to members of the British and Dutch royal families, various luminaries in the Anne Frank world, and school and public libraries.

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