With Anne Brontë approaching her bicentenary, it does seem a shame that the main thing people have to say about her is that she is forgotten. Underappreciated. The third Beatle. The very title of this biography underlines its defensive stance – despite her literary celebrity, it has still been necessary to go ‘in search’ of her. Nick Holland runs an Anne Brontë blog and this book is clearly a real passion project. Indeed, it is highly unusual to read a biography with such an openly partisan attitude towards its subject. Between this and his early admission that he had taken the lack of solid evidence around Anne’s life as a licence to speculate, the reader realises rapidly that Holland is doing for Anne Brontë what Mrs Gaskell did over a hundred fifty years ago for Anne’s sister Charlotte.
Beginning in 1820 with Anne’s birth, Holland tells his story with full imaginative verve and detail. It was a cold winter, the previous year’s harvest had failed, it was the best of times and the worst of times. When the family moved to Haworth, Holland imagines the baby Anne being passed back and forth between her mother and father’s arms and describes it confidently as fact. Early on, he also refers to Agnes Grey‘s potted history of her family as a reference point for Anne’s own relations.
At university, I studied Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, or The History of the Kings of Britain. I fell in love with it. It was bonkers. There were names of people who had never existed and deeds which had never taken place and it was all down as fact. However, I learnt an important lesson about early historical scholarship. Where there was no evidence, writers such as Geoff would pray to God and then keep on writing, believing God to be guiding their pen, no matter what it was that came out. Since then, whenever I read a biography and it stumbles into speculation, I try to ask myself whether the writer is doing their best with limited material or if they are going full-on Geoffrey. Unfortunately, there were quite a few moments where Holland’s undoubted enthusiasm causes him to stumble into Geoffrey territory.
As a personal pet Brontë fan peeve, I found it odd that Holland had made so little effort to interrogate the reliability of his source material. He cites John Greenwood, the Haworth stationer, as a reliable primary source while making no reference to how Greenwood was someone who tried to make money out of over-stating his relationship with the family. In actual fact, he sold the sisters paper and not a great deal else. After their deaths though, Greenwood sought to ingratiate himself with Mrs Gaskell by posing as a close family friend. Charlotte’s widower found him infuriating. Similarly, Holland goes to great pains to point out instances where Charlotte was unfair to Anne but then writes flatteringly of Ellen Nussey who was after all Charlotte’s sycophant.
Having read quite a few Brontë biographies, there does come a point where no matter the passion behind them, they do run the risk of appearing repetitive. Holland ticks through all the well-known Brontë myths but in contrast to Samantha Ellis’ recent Anne Brontë memoir Take Courage, he does not try to engage with them any further. For instance, he mentions Lady Amberley’s famous quote approving of Agnes Grey as something that should be given to all families with governesses as a ‘reminder to be human’ but, unlike Ellis, Holland does not dig down deeper to said Lady’s incredulity that well-bred people would actually behave like the Bloomfields or the Murrays. Unfortunately, this does mean In Search Of lacks much in the way of original interpretation.
Most troubling of all is Holland’s insistence that Anne Brontë’s love for William Weightman was an ‘all-consuming conflagration’ which dominated her entire life. At this point, Holland’s speculation reaches a fever pitch of its own, imagining clandestine meetings and declarations and planned futures together. There is no evidence. Charlotte made some catty remarks in a letter and Anne once wrote a poem with a message that it was sad he had died so young. Juliet Barker’s The Brontës establishes fairly firmly that Anne passed up various opportunities to visit Haworth when Weightman was there, indicating that she probably had no strong feelings about him. Even if she did find him attractive, it is disrespectful to imply that he must have become her reason for being. Not only is this a big Geoffrey-of-Monmouth moment, but it is also very reminiscent of when scholar Virginia Moore couldn’t read Emily Brontë’s handwriting and mistook the poem title ‘Love’s Friendship’ for ‘Louis Parensall’ and decided Emily must have had a French lover. Charlotte Brontë was the one who had the all-consuming conflagrations for men, her sisters were too busy writing.
As an ardent fan of Anne Brontë, it was strange for me to be raising my eyebrows at the lengths to which Holland goes to paint her in a positive light. He claims one of the Robinson girls who was known for charitable giving in adulthood as a sign that Anne’s teaching took root, not really acknowledging that charity was rather the province of the upper-class married woman. Weirdly though, Holland also cites the episode of Anne supposedly tying the Ingham children to her desk as fact, even though many scholars have speculated that Mrs Ingham made this up out of embarrassment when her family became linked with the ghastly Bloomfields in Agnes Grey.
I also wondered at Holland’s peculiar retelling of the Mrs Collins episode. That lady was the wife of John Collins, one of the Keighley curates, a man with violent and alcoholic tendencies. Patrick Brontë had advised Mrs Collins to take her child and leave her husband. Holland would have it that she followed this advice immediately. She did not. Mrs Collins stayed with her husband, had another child, was beaten more and caught a sexually transmitted disease from him and then was finally abandoned. The positive outcome is that she got back on her feet and opened a boarding house, visiting the Haworth Brontës to show that things had come good again. Her story is frequently cited by Brontë scholars as a possible inspiration for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While Holland may be simplifying the story for his readers, it was odd that he quoted Charlotte’s letter saying ‘In Charlotte’s words, [Mrs Collins] had ‘triumphed over the hideous disease of staying with a man who did not love her and who had mistreated her’. Charlotte was not talking about the metaphorical disease of an abusive marriage. Charlotte was talking about actual venereal disease, which Mrs Collins had recovered from medically. Did Holland not understand that or was he trying to sanitise that fact? If so, why?
The florid style of Holland’s narration gives the book an easy flow and I did wonder whether he might have been better suited to writing a piece of biographical fiction instead. When he describes certain moments such as Branwell’s dismissal from Thorp Green and imagines Emily and Charlotte asking questions while Anne ‘stared fixedly at the floor’, a distinct departure has been made from the realms of biography. Holland’s telling of how Charlotte ‘coldly’ refused to speak to her sister when she arrived at Roe Head is not something I have read in any other biographies and he cites no sources. It then becomes difficult to know how far Holland is to be trusted as a historian.
In Search Of Anne Brontë is both pacey and full of passionate feeling for the woman at its heart. It is possible that it would have been a more enjoyable read for a newcomer to the Brontë story, although Holland’s use of sources does cause concern. I cannot fault his championing of Anne Brontë as a writer – I bought this book with some of my Christmas vouchers, highly excited to discover another biography of Anne so it is with great regret that my review has had to be so critical. I agree with the substances of many of his major points; Anne Brontë has been ridiculously neglected as a writer, her sister Charlotte absolutely did do her no favours at all in how she treated Anne after her death and she does deserve wider attention. It’s just that in searching for Anne Brontë, Nick Holland appears to have looked first and foremost within his own imagination and that has led to a a biography ultimately lacking in substance.
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Published by History Press Limited on 2017-05
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Literary, Women, Social Science, Women's Studies
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