I found Anne Bronte’s novel Agnes Grey in a second-hand bookstore during my university years and bought it because I’d read her sisters’ novels but heard little about her. As I read it, I was intrigued. Emily and Charlotte Bronte are household names, but Anne is usually forgotten and fewer people have read her novels.
In my final year of university, I had the opportunity to take an independent studies course, where I could choose my own topic to study and research it on my own. My favourite professor, from my first-year English class, was my supervisor. As I considered several topics to study, Anne Bronte stood out. I wanted to know more about this little-known author.
I read Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall again in the summer before classes started. That fall, I spent a lot of time in the library, reading articles about Anne and her works and even tracking down contemporary reviews of her novels. It was fascinating. Anne’s novels were usually compared to her sisters’ novels and most people preferred her sister’s. While Wuthering Heights is probably my all-time favourite novel, I prefer Anne’s novels to Charlotte’s.
One of the things that really caught my attention was learning the context for the novels and seeing how Anne was a social reformer. Like Charles Dickens and many other nineteenth century writers, she wrote “to teach and to entertain”—to make a difference in her society. In doing so, she trampled on some toes, because even Charlotte considered The Tenant a “mistake.” I’ve often thought of this third sister as shy and submissive, yet when I read her work, I see a crusader, one who wasn’t afraid to say what she thought about the evils of her day.
The differences between Agnes Grey and The Tenant clearly reveal Anne’s improvement as a writer. The Tenant had a better plot and a more complicated structure—a structure so complicated, in fact, that her reviewers usually didn’t like it. I found myself wishing that she hadn’t died before she turned thirty, because surely there was another masterpiece just waiting to be written.
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