Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life review – Rescuing a reputation
Pious and meek? Samantha Ellis paints a much more vivid picture of the youngest Brontë
The Bronte Sisters by Patrick Branwell Bronte, which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photograph: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images
Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life
Chatto and Windus
In 2009 the Canadian writer and artist Kate Beaton produced a comic strip called Dude Watchin’ with the Brontës. In it, Charlotte and Emily lust after a succession of hilariously surly, glowering boors while an irritated Anne grumbles in the background. “So passionate,” says Charlotte, as another brooding brute goes by. “If you like alcoholic dickbags,” says Anne. Her sisters aren’t pleased. “No wonder nobody buys your books!” snaps Emily.
I love this cartoon, not just because it’s very funny, but because it captures something crucial about Anne Bronte. Yes, she is much less well known than her sisters. But in her own way, she was a more radical writer. While they elevated elements of the gothic to high art that still has the power to thrill 170 years later, Anne kept her feet firmly on the ground and in doing so created one of the most gripping, groundbreaking feminist novels of the 19th century.
Do I sound a bit defensive? Well, us Anne fans often do. For most of the last 170 years she’s been seen, as Samantha Ellis puts it, as “boring. Gentle. Pious. Meek. The less talented Brontë, the one in her sisters’ shadow, the other Brontë.” But in recent years things have been changing. Last year saw the publication of Sam Baker’s excellent thriller The Woman Who Ran, a modern retelling of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. More recently, To Walk Invisible, Sally Wainwright’s superb BBC film about the Brontës, showed Anne as a determined young woman, passionate about her work.
And now comes Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life. In her first book, How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis looked at the fictional women who had been her role models growing up – including Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw. In Take Courage, Ellis turns her attentions to a real-life heroine, and the result is a perfectly pitched combination of biography, literary criticism and personal memoir. This is not just an enormously readable book about Anne Brontë, it’s a book about writing a book about Anne Brontë, and as Ellis heads off to Haworth to explore Anne’s world, she applies what she’s learned to her own life, which is taking some new and exciting turns.
This personal approach might feel self-indulgent if Ellis weren’t such an engaging, perceptive and sympathetic writer. Luckily she is, and her personal approach is the source of both the book’s immense charm and also its considerable power. All biographers are subjective, whether they admit it or not, and there’s something refreshing about one who freely admits that she’s enraged by Charlotte’s patronising attitude to her sister, finds it hard to forgive Elizabeth Gaskell for the effect she had on Anne’s reputation and feels immense sympathy for the Brontës’ father Patrick, an Irish immigrant who supported his brilliant children’s creativity and, after all six had died, continued to campaign for social justice.
While the entire family gets their fair due, Take Courage is still all about Anne, who comes to vivid life in its pages. Ellis herself shared the general view of the youngest Brontë until she read the last letter Anne ever wrote. It’s full of Anne’s desire to live and her ambition to do more in the world, and it clearly wasn’t written by a meek saint who was content to die young. It was written by the brave, questioning woman whose last words were “Take courage”, the woman who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. That book is a stark depiction of an abusive marriage in which the “bad boy” husband is portrayed not as a romantic, brooding Heathcliff, but as a petulant monster, and in which the heroine, Helen Graham, finds joy and fulfillment by striking out on her own.
Ellis is inspired by Anne’s bravery as a woman and as a novelist, and ultimately the book is a deeply moving depiction of how reading and writing allows us to forge an emotional and intellectual connection with someone who died over a century before we were born. By the time Ellis reaches Anne’s grave, on a sunny hillside in Scarborough, she’s in tears, and so was I.
And I kept thinking of a Sydney Morning Herald story Ellis read during her research. It was by a Christian woman whose violent fundamentalist husband censored her reading. He allowed her to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, because how scandalous could a Victorian novel be? But reading about Helen’s abuse helped the woman muster the strength to leave her own abusive husband. Anne Bronte died yearning to do more good in the world. As this brilliant book shows, her exhortation to “take courage” still rings out to her readers, as clear and true as ever.
Anna Carey’s latest novel The Making of Mollie was shortlisted for an Irish Book Award in 2016