Victorian Literature Anne Brontë
by
Rebecca Styler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0027

Introduction

After a long period of marginalization within the Brontë family myth, as the quiet and less original one amid sibling geniuses, Anne Brontë (b. 1820–d. 1849) is now well established as a writer to be taken on her own terms. Her two novels and fifty-nine attributed poems show her bold engagement with social, religious, and aesthetic concerns of the early Victorian era. This revised reputation rests much on reappraisals of her best-known work, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which was an immediate success, but Brontë’s subsequent literary reputation was virtually nil until the late decades of the 20th century. The ubiquitous tendency for over a century to approach the Brontës as a cohesive group, fostered by a fascination with their biographical eccentricities, did no favors for Anne, whose preference for rational realism led many to think her works prosaic in comparison with the heroic, passionate tone of Emily’s and Charlotte’s writings. Reappraisals of Anne Brontë’s work, from the 1950s onward, locate her in a tradition of didactic rationalists, such as Samuel Johnson, Hannah More, and Maria Edgeworth, emphasizing her dissent from the values of romanticism. Her fiction was appreciated for its satiric critique on morals, manners, religion, and education, although comparisons with her sisters continued to reaffirm Anne’s status as a “minor” writer, and a biographical approach to her writings often obscured her art. Feminist critics were slow to take up Anne Brontë, but since the 1990s the treatment of gender in her fiction has been a major focus of criticism, which has placed her in the Enlightenment feminist tradition alongside writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. While the majority of criticism since the 1990s addresses The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, insightful considerations have also emerged of her first novel, Agnes Grey (1847), of the poetry, and of her sparse personal writings and artwork. Recurrent themes in criticism of Brontë’s fiction, as well as realism and feminism, are masculinity, education, theological reflection, narrative experimentation, and representations of selfhood and of the female as professional. Attention has also been given to the woman as artist in The Tenant and to the significance of animals in Agnes Grey. Brontë’s poetry, often discussed comparatively with that of Emily Brontë, has been addressed in terms of masked emotion and conflicted subjectivity (comparable in places with Christina Rossetti) and for its critical engagement with the spiritual ideals of romanticism and with aspects of Victorian Christianity. In the constant flow of publications on the Brontë group, including companions, biographies, essay collections, and the dedicated Brontë Studies journal, Anne Brontë’s literary works are now generally well represented.

General Overviews

This section includes critical overviews of Brontë’s oeuvre and some overviews of the works of the Brontës collectively. On Anne Brontë specifically, Langland 1989 is the best starting point. This broadly feminist appraisal of Brontë’s oeuvre is also manifest in Frawley 1996 and Jay 2000. The earlier works listed here, which discuss all three Brontë sisters, distinguish Anne Brontë’s fictional interests and style from her siblings, but they tend to reaffirm her status as a minor writer: Eagleton 1975 frames her work in terms of class; Craik 1968, in terms of rational realism. Of the literary biographies, insightful works are Winnifrith 1988 (cited under Biography: The Brontë Family) and Ingham 2006. Harrison and Stanford 1959 (cited under Biography: Anne Brontë) is noteworthy as the first critical engagement with all of Anne Brontë’s writings, although it tends to treat her work as transformed autobiography. Chitham 1979 (cited under Selected Editions: Poems) includes some useful general material about Brontë’s literary influences. Of works devoted to the Brontës as a group, Thormählen 2012 is the most comprehensive introduction to themes and critical history. Ingham 2006 is a good introductory overview, while Glen 2002 offers a series of comparative considerations of the works of the Brontës in conversation with each other.

  • Craik, W. A. The Brontë Novels. London: Methuen, 1968.

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    Eschews a focus on Brontë’s life context to consider her kinship with 18th-century writers such as Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Presents her as an independent social critic and satirist, creating strong-minded fictional heroines.

  • Eagleton, Terry. Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës. London: Macmillan, 1975.

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    Considers class tensions in the novels, with a clear but rather brief and polemical argument for Brontë’s fiction as a straightforward articulation of bourgeois ideology.

  • Frawley, Maria H. Anne Brontë. New York: Twayne, 1996.

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    Takes self-fashioning and subjectivity as the central themes in an enlightening feminist study of Brontë’s fiction and poetry.

  • Glen, Heather, ed. Cambridge Companion to the Brontës. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521770270E-mail Citation »

    References to Anne Brontë appear passim (and are indexed) in rather general themed essays, some of which contain valuable comparative discussions of the novels and poetry of the three Brontë sisters.

  • Ingham, Patricia. The Brontës. Authors in Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    This volume introduces lives, social context, and writers’ treatment of key political/social themes in general terms—under headings such as race, gender, the psyche—and their legacy in popular culture, including a brief discussion of adaptations of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne Brontë references are indexed. A good general student companion. Reissued in 2008.

  • Jay, Betty. Anne Brontë. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House, 2000.

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    After a biographical outline, gives a feminist analysis of the novels and sets Brontë in a specifically female poetic tradition. Useful annotated bibliography.

  • Langland, Elizabeth. Anne Brontë: The Other One. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan Education, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-20058-0E-mail Citation »

    Frames discussion of Brontë’s oeuvre in terms of anti-romantic realism and foregrounds “the Woman Question” as a key context to Brontë’s fictions of female development. Useful chapter on critical history, with annotated bibliography.

  • Thormählen, Marianne, ed. The Brontës in Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139028066E-mail Citation »

    The most comprehensive scholarly companion, containing forty-two essays that explore the sisters’ works in relation to social, political, and cultural contexts. Includes essays on biography, print culture, responses, critical trends, and themes. Selected essays are listed in subsections of Criticism in this article.

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