Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
It sometimes feels as though Anne Brontë is one of the great mysteries of English Literature: not as well-known as her sisters, she is often on the periphery (or entirely absent) from discussions about the Brontës. Whilst I have to say that I prefer the writing of Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre and Villette are by far my favourite Brontë novels), I’ve always been more drawn to Anne as a person. Her passion and faith shine through both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, marking her as someone with deep principles willing to write works that fly in the face of social convention to raise awareness of issues close to her heart. I was eager, therefore, to read Samantha Ellis’ book all about Anne and her view of the world.
Finding that there are limited sources directly from Anne’s hand to put together what she was truly like as a person, Ellis decides to use the people around Anne to discover more about her. Each of the 10 chapters looks at Anne’s relationship with a key person (or character) from her life, drawing out particular lessons on how Anne came to view the world around her. These chapters are arranged very carefully, running more or less chronologically through Anne’s short life, with the final chapter looking at Anne herself through the lens of her last days and words.
This is not a biography, nor does Ellis ever claim it to be. She is piecing together who Anne Brontë was as a person: what her hopes, dreams and fears were, and how she came to create the work that she did. It becomes a journey that is as much about Ellis herself as Anne: she is searching for a link, a connection between herself and Anne. For the most part, this is an aspect of the book that works well; through Ellis’ journey, the reader begins to see parts of themselves in Anne. Nowhere is this clearer than in the final chapter, as Anne’s life draws to an end: no-one who knows me in real life will be at all surprised that I cried during this chapter, but I was surprised at just how emotional I got. Over the course of the book, Ellis brings Anne to the reader as a friend, someone that is more than just words on a page. Anne’s last words of ‘take courage, Charlotte, take courage’ (p. 313) are particularly poignant given how Ellis has painted the picture of this brave young woman throughout the book.
However, there were a couple of points over which I strongly disagreed with Ellis. One of the biggest issues I had with the book was Ellis’ treatment of Anne’s faith. Ellis is not a Christian, but I was surprised to see her water down Anne’s faith so dramatically. I doubt that the Anne who wrote the words ‘I felt that God was mine’ (‘In Memory of a Happy Day in February’) would be entirely comfortable with her faith being described as simply a way to make good decisions. In my eyes, it is clear through Anne’s writing that her faith is very personal and that she would consider herself to have a strong relationship with God. Yes, she had times of doubt, but she held onto her faith through it all.
My other issue with the book was the way that Ellis wrote about Charlotte. I do not doubt that Charlotte’s actions during Anne’s life, and particularly after her death, have contributed to Anne falling out of history somewhat. The most obvious example of this is clearly the blocking of a second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which eventually led to the most common editions today actually originating from a highly doctored and unauthorised manuscript that was cut to fit in one volume. (One of my new goals is to get my hands on one of the rarer but ‘better’ editions.) However, reading the chapter on Charlotte, somewhat cruelly subtitled ‘or how (not) to be a sister’, I have the poem Charlotte wrote after Anne’s death going round my head:
‘There’s little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave:
I’ve lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save.’ (‘On the Death of Anne Brontë’, ll.1-4)
Can it be true that the woman who wrote those lines was a terrible sister? I think Ellis may be being a little harsh on Charlotte. As the eldest of three girls, I think I can see threads of the complicated, intense, and loving relationship that exists between sisters; I would hate to think that future generations might analyse things my sisters and I have said about each other in the heat of the moment or in personal comments to friends (such as Charlotte’s letters) and come to the conclusion that we had vendettas against each other when nothing could be further from the truth!
All in all, this book is a must-read for fans of the Brontës, whether you are a fan of Anne or not. Die-hard Charlotte fans might struggle with some parts of the book, but it is definitely worth reading to get a complete picture of who Anne was. Ellis’ writing is very readable, and she makes the whole exploration of Anne’s identity so personal that it would be hard not to become engaged with the world of the Brontës. I would hope that reading this book might inspire many to read Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and truly appreciate Anne on the same level as her sisters.