Anne: the least-known Bronte sibling

Samantha Ellis's new book argues that Anne Bronte is as worthy of praise as either of her sisters.


Having adored Samantha Ellis's How to be a Heroine celebrating the inspirational women and girls of fiction, from Katy Carr to Lizzie Bennett  and of course the Bronte sisters  I had high hopes for her follow-up. In Take Courage, Ellis has placed a magnifying glass on Anne Bronte, the littlest-known sister and a writer Ellis once had little time for.

I have to admit that, while familiar with the novels of “Acton Bell”, as Anne was known, I have never read them cover to cover. But, in the wake of Ellis’s biography, I’m keen to do so, especially The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, for which she makes a convincing case as a feminist tract with a heroine far superior to either Cathy or Jane Eyre.

Many words have been written about the Brontes, and many more will be in the future. It is not hard to see why; three women raised in relative isolation and rural penury in an era when women were only wives and mothers, not writers; an alcoholic, philandering wastrel of a brother; an idealistic and encouraging father (far ahead of his time) and, of course, the great, influential literary treasure chest that they produced before their premature deaths. Ellis’s book doesn’t uncover much that is new but that isn’t really her objective.

Instead, she walks the streets Anne walked, and seeks to understand the youngest Bronte sister: What motivated her? What were her dreams and desires? How did her relationship with her sisters — the troubled Emily and (in Ellis’s view) the condescending Charlotte — shape her writing? How much of her experience as a governess did she bring to Agnes Grey; how much of herself did she see in Helen, who becomes the mistress of her own life?

It’s a fascinating exploration, even if you’re not a Bronte obsessive (if you are, this may not be the in-depth study for you). Ellis frames her chapters with the different influences in Anne’s life, from brother Branwell to aunt Elizabeth; her professional life; and her sisters and their childhood games. She traces how Anne grew as a writer and poet, how she committed her hopes and dreams into fiction but never lost herself to it, in the way that Ellis suggests Emily and Charlotte could. Most of all, this is an enthusiastic celebration of a forgotten powerhouse of Victorian literature; a woman who should be remembered for her own work, and not just as the sibling of two more famous writers.

How to be a Heroine was a personal book; as much a moving memoir of Ellis growing up the daughter of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants as a dissection of how women have been characterised in fiction. She only occasionally strays into the personal with Take Courage, which is a shame as the book would have been richer for it; after all, she makes a virtue of how Anne poured out her soul on the page. Nonetheless, Take Courage is a refreshing, accessible piece of literary scholarship.


Jennifer Lipman is a freelance journalist

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