The least known and arguably the best writer among the justly lauded Bronte siblings was the youngest, Anne, who was born on 17 January 1820. As Jane Austen was a seminal writer in the Regency era, Anne Bronte – writing under the male pseudonym, Acton Bell – help shaped Victorian literature while her works openly challenged every social convention regarding a woman’s “place” in English culture.
Anne published only two novels during her lifetime, but they were both excellent. The first, Agnes Grey, was excellent literary revenge on the horrible family with whom she had her first position as a governess, and the second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, “is considered to be one of the first sustained feminist novels”. Published in 1848, it profoundly shocked the Victorians:
In seeking to present the truth in literature, Anne’s depiction of alcoholism and debauchery was profoundly disturbing to 19th-century sensibilities. Helen Graham, the tenant of the title, intrigues Gilbert Markham and gradually she reveals her past as an artist and wife of the dissipated Arthur Huntingdon. The book’s brilliance lies in its revelation of the position of women at the time, and its multi-layered plot. It is easy today to underestimate the extent to which the novel challenged existing social and legal structures. May Sinclair, in 1913, said that the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. Anne’s heroine eventually left her husband to protect their young son from his influence. She supported herself and her son by painting while living in hiding, fearful of discovery. In doing so, she violated not only social conventions, but English law. Until 1870, when the Married Women’s Property Act was passed, a married woman had no independent legal existence apart from her husband; could not own property, sue for divorce, or control custody of her children. If she attempted to live apart, her husband had the right to reclaim her. If she took their child, she was liable for kidnapping. By living on her own income she was held to be stealing her husband’s property, since any property she held or income she made was legally his.
Her sister, Charlotte Brontë, found the book too coarse and scandalous to approve of. Although Charlotte’s best-known work, Jane Eyre, had been declared a rather naughty novel when it was published the year before, its defiance of cultural norms for women paled beside the depiction of Helen Graham. Moreover, Charlotte had always had condescending attitude toward her shy baby sister, and after Anne death on 28 May 1849, Charlotte forbade the republishing of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It wasn’t from jealousy; Charlotte loved her little sister and was devastated at her death. She wanted to “save” Anna’s posthumous reputation. Unfortunately, this is why Anne is the least-known Bronte sister.