Fans of the novels and poems written by the sibling inhabitants of Haworth Parsonage always have a Top Brontë. Fame-seeking Charlotte and mysteriously reclusive Emily usually grab the limelight. My father reread Emily’s only novel every five years, annotating his student copy of Wuthering Heights and monitoring his opinions depending on how his own love life was going. He shared his choice with the playwright and journalist Samantha Ellis, until the day she read Anne’s final letter, and was taken aback as its sudden significance ‘catches at my heart’, making her wonder about the less wowed, less known, youngest sister.
This wonderful biography begins at a disadvantage. All but five of Anne’s letters are missing. The surviving biographical facts can fit a single page. But Ellis’s first solution is to tell Anne’s story through the characters at the centre of her life. Chapters are devoted in turn to the children’s heroic mother, Maria; their selfless aunt; their bereft Reverend father; the controlling Charlotte; the uncompromisingly independent Emily; and their brother Branwell, who Charlotte says ‘thought of nothing but stunning (drugs) and drowning (drink) his distress of mind’, jointly provide a prism through which Ellis’s elusive protagonist emerges.
Providing the reassuring plain-speaking in this extraordinary household is Tabby, the moor-rooted, emotionally indispensible housekeeper. But it is Anne’s quiet good sense and loyalty that at first dignifies and distinguishes her. The early fictional landscapes of Gondal, the children’s jointly imagined world, established a strong connection between Emily and Anne. At first overshadowed and overprotected by Charlotte, Anne earned her sisters’ respect when she took a job as a governess. Branwell’s affair with the wife of Anne’s employer had disastrous consequences, as disgraced brother and guilt-stricken sister returned home.
Ellis’s other prime source lies in Anne’s two daringly autobiographical novels, each written ‘with such clarity, such vigour’. Not only do they describe the mid-19th-century woman’s predicament as she abandons the ‘delicate concealment of facts’ with unprecedented honesty, but they draw unhesitatingly on Anne’s own life. In Agnes Grey (1847) the unflinching cruelty of the privileged child’s treatment of the dependent governess mirrors Anne’s first-hand experience of hierarchical Victorian society. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) Branwell’s drunkenness is the inspiration for the chemically addicted husband from whom Helen, the protagonist, must escape in order to ‘make a woman of herself’.
The narrative thread of Take Courage is given further emotional punch by Ellis’s own story, which runs in parallel to that of Anne. Interlacing references to the writings of Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson, Ellis finds an arresting compatibility with Anne through her own long-term health problems as well as her sense of lack of fulfilment and of feeling ‘boxed-in’. As Ellis engages with Anne’s life, her own tentative real-life romance grows while she invites us with engaging intimacy to follow her route to self-discovery.
As her private circumstances begin to shift, Ellis lives and breathes Anne’s life, walks the Haworth moors and the London streets and travels to Scarborough, drinks whisky (‘Branwell’s top tipple’), and eats porridge for breakfast every day, just as Anne herself chose to do. Through immersing herself in the quotidian detail, the feeling of being a Brontë becomes movie-screen vivid, irradiating the poverty, the carpet-less floors, the curtain-less windows, the relentless peeling of potatoes, the motherlessness and the unrequited love as the genius of creativity flourishes within the bleak parsonage walls. Ellis also writes at first hand with arresting beauty of the landscape around Haworth, where ‘rain made the moors’, of the extraordinary phenomenon of a ‘bog burst’, of the treeless landscape that ‘feels like all horizon’.
In the final chapter resolution comes both with a marriage and a death. It is in Anne’s dying in 1849 that her determination of spirit and zest for living becomes most marked, and, in Ellis’s empathetic hand, most moving. By the time Anne arrives to die in Scarborough her hazy image has been sharp-focused, revealing a woman of astute psychological insight and gutsy resilience. If the experience of reading Anne’s poems feels for Ellis ‘like being let in on secrets’, that feeling is mirrored for the reader of Ellis’s illuminating book.
Juliet Nicolson’s books include A House Full of Daughters.