Anne Brontë serves a twofold purpose in the study of what the Brontës wrote and were. In the first place, her gentle and delicate presence, her sad, short story, her hard life and early death, enter deeply into the poetry and tragedy that have always been entwined with the memory of the Brontës, as women and as writers; in the second, the books and poems that she wrote serve as matter of comparison by which to test the greatness of her two sisters. She is the measure of their genius — like them, yet not with them.
Many years after Anne’s death her brother-in-law protested against a supposed portrait of her, as giving a totally wrong impression of the “dear, gentle Anne Brontë.” “Dear” and “gentle” indeed she seems to have been through life, the youngest and prettiest of the sisters, with a delicate complexion, a slender neck, and small, pleasant features. Notwithstanding, she possessed in full the Brontë seriousness, the Brontë strength of will. When her father asked her at four years old what a little child like her wanted most, the tiny creature replied — if it were not a Brontë it would be incredible! — “Age and experience.” When the three children started their “Island Plays” together in 1827, Anne, who was then eight, chose Guernsey for her imaginary island, and peopled it with “Michael Sadler, Lord Bentinck, and Sir Henry Halford.” She and Emily were constant companions, and there is evidence that they shared a common world of fancy from very early days to mature womanhood. “The Gondal Chronicles” seem to have amused them for many years, and to have branched out into innumerable books, written in the “tiny writing” of which Mr. Clement Shorter has given us facsimiles. “I am now engaged in writing the fourth volume of Solala Vernon’s Life,” says Anne at twenty-one. And four years later Emily says, “The Gondals still flourish bright as ever. I am at present writing a work on the First War. Anne has been writing some articles on this and a book by Henry Sophona. We intend sticking firm by the rascals as long as they delight us, which I am glad to say they do at present.”
That the author of “Wildfell Hall” should ever have delighted in the Gondals, should ever have written the story of Solala Vernon or Henry Sophona, is pleasant to know. Then, for her too, as for her sisters, there was a moment when the power of “making out” could turn loneliness and disappointment into riches and content. For a time at least, and before a hard and degrading experience had broken the spring of her youth, and replaced the disinterested and spontaneous pleasure that is to be got from the life and play of imagination, by a sad sense of duty, and an inexorable consciousness of moral and religious mission, Anne Brontë wrote stories for her own amusement, and loved the “rascals” she created.
But already in 1841, when we first hear of the Gondals and Solala Vernon, the material for quite other books was in poor Anne’s mind. She was then teaching in the family at Thorpe Green, where Branwell joined her as tutor in 1843, and where, owing to events that are still a mystery, she seems to have passed through an ordeal that left her shattered in health and nerve, with nothing gained but those melancholy and repulsive memories that she was afterwards to embody in “Wildfell Hall.” She seems, indeed, to have been partly the victim of Branwell’s morbid imagination, the imagination of an opium-eater and a drunkard. That he was neither the conqueror nor the villain that he made his sisters believe, all the evidence that has been gathered since Mrs. Gaskell wrote goes to show. But poor Anne believed his account of himself, and no doubt saw enough evidence of vicious character in Branwell’s daily life to make the worst enormities credible. She seems to have passed the last months of her stay at Thorpe Green under a cloud of dread and miserable suspicion, and was thankful to escape from her situation in the summer of 1845. At the same moment Branwell was summarily dismissed from his tutorship, his employer, Mr. Robinson, writing a stern letter of complaint to Branwell’s father, concerned no doubt with the young man’s disorderly and intemperate habits. Mrs. Gaskell says: “The premature deaths of two at least of the sisters — all the great possibilities of their earthly lives snapped short — may be dated from Midsummer 1845.” The facts as we now know them hardly bear out so strong a judgment. There is nothing to show that Branwell’s conduct was responsible in any way for Emily’s illness and death, and Anne, in the contemporary fragment recovered by Mr. Shorter, gives a less tragic account of the matter. “During my stay (at Thorpe Green),” she writes on July 31, 1845, “I have had some very unpleasant and undreamt-of experience of human nature.... Branwell has ... been a tutor at Thorpe Green, and had much tribulation and ill-health.... We hope he will be better and do better in future.” And at the end of the paper she says, sadly, forecasting the coming years, “I for my part cannot well be flatter or older in mind than I am now.” This is the language of disappointment and anxiety; but it hardly fits the tragic story that Mrs. Gaskell believed.
That story was, no doubt, the elaboration of Branwell’s diseased fancy during the three years which elapsed between his dismissal from Thorpe Green and his death. He imagined a guilty romance with himself and his employer’s wife for characters, and he imposed the horrid story upon his sisters. Opium and drink are the sufficient explanations; and no time need now be wasted upon unravelling the sordid mystery. But the vices of the brother, real or imaginary, have a certain importance in literature, because of the effect they produced upon his sisters. There can be no question that Branwell’s opium madness, his bouts of drunkenness at the Black Bull, his violence at home, his free and coarse talk, and his perpetual boast of guilty secrets, influenced the imagination of his wholly pure and inexperienced sisters. Much of “Wuthering Heights,” and all of “Wildfell Hall,” show Branwell’s mark, and there are many passages in Charlotte’s books also where those who know the history of the parsonage can hear the voice of those sharp moral repulsions, those dismal moral questionings, to which Branwell’s misconduct and ruin gave rise. Their brother’s fate was an element in the genius of Emily and Charlotte which they were strong enough to assimilate, which may have done them some harm, and weakened in them certain delicate or sane perceptions, but was ultimately, by the strange alchemy of talent, far more profitable than hurtful, inasmuch as it troubled the waters of the soul, and brought them near to the more desperate realities of our “frail, fall’n humankind.”
But Anne was not strong enough, her gift was not vigorous enough, to enable her thus to transmute experience and grief. The probability is that when she left Thorpe Green in 1845 she was already suffering from that religious melancholy of which Charlotte discovered such piteous evidence among her papers after death. It did not much affect the writing of “Agnes Grey,” which was completed in 1846, and reflected the minor pains and discomforts of her teaching experience, but it combined with the spectacle of Branwell’s increasing moral and physical decay to produce that bitter mandate of conscience under which she wrote “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.”
“Hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature. She hated her work, but would pursue it. It was written as a warning,” — so said Charlotte when, in the pathetic Preface of 1850, she was endeavouring to explain to the public how a creature so gentle and so good as Acton Bell should have written such a book as “Wildfell Hall.” And in the second edition of “Wildfell Hall,” which appeared in 1848, Anne Brontë herself justified her novel in a Preface which is reprinted in this volume for the first time. The little Preface is a curious document. It has the same determined didactic tone which pervades the book itself, the same narrowness of view, and inflation of expression, an inflation which is really due not to any personal egotism in the writer, but rather to that very gentleness and inexperience which must yet nerve itself under the stimulus of religion to its disagreeable and repulsive task. “I knew that such characters” — as Huntingdon and his companions — “do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps the book has not been written in vain.” If the story has given more pain than pleasure to “any honest reader,” the writer “craves his pardon, for such was far from my intention.” But at the same time she cannot promise to limit her ambition to the giving of innocent pleasure, or to the production of “a perfect work of art.” “Time and talent so spent I should consider wasted and misapplied.” God has given her unpalatable truths to speak, and she must speak them.
The measure of misconstruction and abuse, therefore, which her book brought upon her she bore, says her sister, “as it was her custom to bear whatever was unpleasant, with mild, steady patience. She was a very sincere and practical Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy communicated a sad shade to her brief, blameless life.”
In spite of misconstruction and abuse, however, “Wildfell Hall” seems to have attained more immediate success than anything else written by the sisters before 1848, except “Jane Eyre.” It went into a second edition within a very short time of its publication, and Messrs. Newby informed the American publishers with whom they were negotiating that it was the work of the same hand which had produced “Jane Eyre,” and superior to either “Jane Eyre” or “Wuthering Heights”! It was, indeed, the sharp practice connected with this astonishing judgment which led to the sisters’ hurried journey to London in 1848 — the famous journey when the two little ladies in black revealed themselves to Mr. Smith, and proved to him that they were not one Currer Bell, but two Miss Brontës. It was Anne’s sole journey to London — her only contact with a world that was not Haworth, except that supplied by her school-life at Roehead and her two teaching engagements.
And there was and is a considerable narrative ability, a sheer moral energy in “Wildfell Hall,” which would not be enough, indeed, to keep it alive if it were not the work of a Brontë, but still betray its kinship and source. The scenes of Huntingdon’s wickedness are less interesting but less improbable than the country-house scenes of “Jane Eyre”; the story of his death has many true and touching passages; the last love-scene is well, even in parts admirably, written. But the book’s truth, so far as it is true, is scarcely the truth of imagination; it is rather the truth of a tract or a report. There can be little doubt that many of the pages are close transcripts from Branwell’s conduct and language, — so far as Anne’s slighter personality enabled her to render her brother’s temperament, which was more akin to Emily’s than to her own. The same material might have been used by Emily or Charlotte; Emily, as we know, did make use of it in “Wuthering Heights”; but only after it had passed through that ineffable transformation, that mysterious, incommunicable heightening which makes and gives rank in literature. Some subtle, innate correspondence between eye and brain, between brain and hand, was present in Emily and Charlotte, and absent in Anne. There is no other account to be given of this or any other case of difference between serviceable talent and the high gifts of “Delos” and Patara’s own “Apollo.”
The same world of difference appears between her poems and those of her playfellow and comrade, Emily. If ever our descendants should establish the schools for writers which are even now threatened or attempted, they will hardly know perhaps any better than we what genius is, nor how it can be produced. But if they try to teach by example, then Anne and Emily Brontë are ready to their hand. Take the verses written by Emily at Roehead which contain the lovely lines which I have already quoted in an earlier “Introduction.” Just before those lines there are two or three verses which it is worth while to compare with a poem of Anne’s called “Home.” Emily was sixteen at the time of writing; Anne about twenty-one or twenty-two. Both sisters take for their motive the exile’s longing thought of home. Emily’s lines are full of faults, but they have the indefinable quality — here, no doubt, only in the bud, only as a matter of promise — which Anne’s are entirely without. From the twilight schoolroom at Roehead, Emily turns in thought to the distant upland of Haworth and the little stone-built house upon its crest: —
There is a spot, ’mid barren hills,
Where winter howls, and driving rain;
But, if the dreary tempest chills,
There is a light that warms again.
The house is old, the trees are bare,
Moonless above bends twilight’s dome,
But what on earth is half so dear —
So longed for — as the hearth of home?
The mute bird sitting on the stone,
The dank moss dripping from the wall,
The thorn-trees gaunt, the walks o’ergrown,
I love them — how I love them all!
Anne’s verses, written from one of the houses where she was a governess, express precisely the same feeling, and movement of mind. But notice the instinctive rightness and swiftness of Emily’s, the blurred weakness of Anne’s! —
For yonder garden, fair and wide,
With groves of evergreen,
Long winding walks, and borders trim,
And velvet lawns between —
Restore to me that little spot,
With gray walls compassed round,
Where knotted grass neglected lies,
And weeds usurp the ground.
Though all around this mansion high
Invites the foot to roam,
And though its halls are fair within —
Oh, give me back my Home!
A similar parallel lies between Anne’s lines “Domestic Peace,” — a sad and true reflection of the terrible times with Branwell in 1846 — and Emily’s “Wanderer from the Fold”; while in Emily’s “Last Lines,” the daring spirit of the sister to whom the magic gift was granted separates itself for ever from the gentle and accustomed piety of the sister to whom it was denied. Yet Anne’s “Last Lines” — “I hoped that with the brave and strong” — have sweetness and sincerity; they have gained and kept a place in English religious verse, and they must always appeal to those who love the Brontës because, in the language of Christian faith and submission, they record the death of Emily and the passionate affection which her sisters bore her.