Literature written by women in the nineteenth century kept a lid on the uglier feelings that surface when you’re denied the opportunity to make a living. If you took Jane Austen novels as reliable historical documents, you’d think women felt no rage. Pride and Prejudice is driven by the imminent threat that six women will be left destitute if one man should suddenly die; the women express little more than mild vexation.
Charlotte Brontë, a few decades later, went some of the way towards expressing fury — Jane Eyre famously cried, “I am a free human being with an independent will”. But the outburst stems from moral angst; Charlotte leaves the real unseemliness of women trying to earn their own money to her sister, who is the exception to my rule.
I don’t mean Emily; I mean Anne, who died 200 years ago today. She has been overlooked in comparison to her two sisters. Her achievement is no less remarkable; but her subjects are far less palatable, which perhaps explains her absence from the canon.
Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, tracks the rapid disillusionment of a governess who — unlike saintly Jane Eyre — finds herself disliking her charges (who sound, to be fair, much more evil than Jane’s). Agnes finds a way out of servitude by marrying a rather limp, uninspiring man (a cousin of Austen’s Mr Collins, perhaps) — not for love but for security. Meanwhile one of her lively, shrewd charges, Rosalie, is reduced to a bitterly regretful, miserable young woman by an excellent marriage to the most eligible (but horrible) bachelor in the county.
This plotline is developed in Anne Brontë’s second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall — seen as unbearably crass in its time. A marriage between a loving and virtuous wife to a wealthy, volatile man (if Agnes Grey is a variation of Jane Eyre, Wildfell Hall could be a sequel) becomes a tale of graphic, severe domestic abuse and psychological manipulation. In leaving her husband, the heroine breaks the law; at one point, the once-meek Helen actually dares to slam a door in her husband’s face.
The novelist (and suffragist) May Sinclair wrote that “the slamming of her bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.”
Anne was further ahead of her time than either of her sisters. Contrary to what Jane Austen would have us believe, some 19th century women really were furious about their lot (the rage of the sisters in the recent excellent adaptation of Little Women is not just a contemporary projection). 200 years after Anne Brontë ‘s untimely death, we’re finally realising it.