Review: Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life, Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine was my favourite read of 2014.  It still sits on my Favourite Books Shelf.  I was however surprised to discover several years later that she was writing a book on Anne Brontë as the opening pages of Heroine see Ellis confess to being a lifelong Emily and Heathcliff fan.  The book then sees her decide that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre offers a better role model for life.  Anne did not get much of a look in.  Clearly some kind of conversion experience had occurred in the intervening period.  It is but seldom that a favourite author takes on one’s favourite Brontë so I knew immediately that Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life was going to be a hit.  Not only that though, it was one of my favourite reads of Brooding about the Brontës.  

Ellis confesses to having long believed in the popular view of Anne as a ‘virginal Victorian spinster, sweet and stoic, selfless and sexless, achieving very little before wasting away at twenty-nine’.  Famed for a death scene akin to that of Dickens’ Little Nell, Anne was described by her sister Charlotte to have been preparing for an early death since childhood.  For Ellis, Anne Brontë had as much gusto as Beth March from Little Women.  Basically, she was boring.  But then a chance encounter with the Brontë archive and the opportunity to read the last letter that Anne wrote before her death prompted Ellis to see the woman in a different light.

Having read Anne’s last letter myself, it is a very poignant piece.  The idea of holding it in one’s hand must have added a particular power.  Anne wrote the letter five weeks before her death, desperately ill with the tuberculosis that would claim her life.  Ellis describes how her writing was ‘achingly neat’, particularly important given that she was cross-writing.  But more than that, Anne’s letter was an act of defiance.  Her sister Charlotte had already been in touch with Ellen Nussey before to instruct her to refuse Anne’s request to accompany her to Scarborough and now Anne was writing to convince Ellen to do otherwise.  However much Charlotte might tell the world that Anne had been keen to leave it, the letter indicates otherwise.  Anne describes how she has ‘many schemes in my head for future practise – humble and limited indeed – but still I should not like them all to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose.’  Anne was twenty-nine, full of plans and wanted to live.  Caught by the emotion behind the letter, Ellis determined to find out more about the most neglected of the Brontës.

Ellis’ book is not a typical biography.  Like How to be a Heroine, it is more of a bibliomemoir, with Ellis’ own life and personal musings intertwining with her analysis of Anne Brontë.  Over the course of the year, she meets a man, ponders whether he is going to be her boyfriend and by the end of the book, he is about to become her husband instead.  She ponders the tragedy that she has already lived eleven more years than Anne got and that Anne died with so much potential unrealised but where other biographers sigh and pontificate, Ellis is refreshingly angry about the waste of talent.  Yet although this is a meditation on Anne as much as it is a memoir, Ellis has nonetheless done her research in detail and considers her sources with care.  She considers what Anne herself would want to be remembered for and the legacy she would have wished to leave behind her.

Each chapter of Take Courage focuses on Anne’s relationship with a different figure within the family and what they meant to her, from the mother Maria who Anne never remembered right down to Tabby the housekeeper.  Each are felt to represent a different facet to Anne’s character, with Emily being her partner in creativity, Tabby having given Anne an understanding of the working classes and then via Branwell, Anne learnt the peril of bad relationships.  Ellis entitles Aunt Branwell’s chapter as ‘Elizabeth’ because she points out that ‘history has not been kind to spinsters’ and as a long-term single woman herself, Ellis refuses to pigeonhole another woman in that role.  I respect the theory but it feels weird to call Aunt Branwell anything else.  Elizabeth.  Elizabeth.  Hmm.

The family member who earns the most opprobrium is – unsurprisingly – Charlotte.  Her chapter in Take Courage is subtitled ‘How (not) to be a sister’.  In the story of Anne Brontë, Charlotte’s conduct has carved herself the villain role.  Anne’s novel Agnes Grey depicts a sister relationship where the elder babies the younger and many scholars believe this to have mirrored Anne’s own relationship with Charlotte.  Letters between Charlotte and her loyal friend/sycophant Ellen Nussey always tend to take a patronising tone whenever the subject of Anne came up.  As Ellis notes, Charlotte ‘tried to protect Anne but she never really trusted her’.  Charlotte was distressed when going through Anne’s papers after her death to discover how little she knew her sister.  Yet, this did not stop Charlotte from deciding that she knew best and that Tenant of Wildfell Hall was ‘hardly worth preserving’.

It is a strange thing to see the sibling rivalries from nearly two centuries played out in the fields of biography – everyone seems to feel the need to pick a sister and very few Brontë biographers manage to keep themselves free of partisan feeling.  Claire Harman, author of Charlotte Brontë: A Life, wrote a review of Take Courage that clearly felt the sting of Ellis’ criticism of Charlotte.  Oddly, one of Harman’s critiques was that Ellis did not acknowledge enough of Anne’s difficulties, specifically her speech impediment.  Juliet Barker pointed out in The Brontës that the only person who ever stated Anne to have had a speech impediment was Charlotte and indeed the tone of the letter where she does so seems more like a dig at her sister rather than a statement of a disability.  It is difficult bordering on impossible to defend Charlotte for the damage she inflicted on Anne’s posthumous reputation.

Indeed, one of the biggest revelations for me in Take Courage was how badly butchered Anne’s second novel was after its author’s death.  With Charlotte refusing to allow a third edition, Tenant ended up pirated by an unscrupulous publisher who cut it down to one-volume form and also kept in the typos which Anne Brontë had corrected.  Going through the biggest areas of difference, Ellis’ anger was palpable and roused my own.  I had had no idea before reading this that Tenant is still routinely published in this mutilated form even now.  I even realised when I looked at my own copy that it too was affected.  Detailed research (and an online order of a copy that claimed to be ‘complete and unabridged’ but also proved to be a mutilated edition) and I landed on the Oxford University Press edition as the best way to go.  I re-read the whole book in the appropriate format – somehow, it just felt better.

Ellis clearly identifies more strongly with Tenant than Agnes Grey.  Many find Agnes to be lacking in fire but I think that Ellis also struggles to engage with the religious side of Anne Brontë.  Both Agnes and Tenant are peppered with specific scriptural references and while Charlotte’s novels do deal with matters of faith and conscience, they do not grapple in the same way that Anne’s do.  Anne’s piety makes her less fashionable in the modern era but it has always been one of the aspects which impressed me about her.  Anne is not an easy Christian picking and choosing what pleases her, she sets up her characters to struggle and fight and make difficult choices and still ultimately choose the Narrow Way.  Anne was the Brontë of Steel and her faith was a huge part of that.  It is easy to prefer the fire and brimstone of Tenant over Agnes Grey but recollect that Agnes is a woman who battered some birds to death because she knew it was the right thing to do.  Agnes too has a battle cry.

As Ellis considers why Anne has been so long neglected, she ponders whether it is perhaps because she was too radical.  Helen Huntingdon started out as a young woman charmed by a ‘sexy, dangerous man’ – so far, so Brontë.  However where Jane Eyre keeps running back and Cathy and Heathcliff destroy each other, Helen instead ‘sees the light and leaves him.’  Previous to this, Helen actually shut her door against her husband.  She had the temerity to put the needs of their infant son before his.  Heroines in Charlotte’s novels always seem to abase themselves before the objects of their affections, even the otherwise glorious Shirley Keeldar will only take a husband if he can ‘master her’.  Emily’s depiction of love is best categorised as ‘other’.  Anne dared to suggest that just maybe, you should pick a partner in life who is actually worthy of your respect.  Revolutionary though it was, ‘it wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear in 1848’.  Even now though, women watch costume dramas to see the woman in the big dress swept off her feet by the grouchy rich man who suddenly becomes quite nice really.  They are not necessarily looking for a lesson in avoiding waste-of-space scoundrels.

The preface that Anne wrote to the second edition of Tenant though shows that no matter what Charlotte thought, she meant every word she had written and she was keen to get her message out as far as she could.  At heart, Anne was a teacher.  She left the classroom, but not the act of teaching itself.  She had felt sorrow for her pupils, the Robinson girls, as she witnessed their mother’s ruthlessness in getting them husbands regardless of the qualities of the men involved.  Both Anne’s novels express disapproval of the marriage market.  She clearly believed that upper class girls got a raw deal.  Anne never liked to see those with power abusing those who were vulnerable, whether it be birds in a nest being tortured by a vicious little boy or young girls being sacrificed like lambs to be wives.  Her last letter illustrates that she had much more to say, many more plans to try to make the world a fairer place.  Anne Brontë wrote with purpose and passion, just not the type of passion that we are used to.

Any biography of Anne Brontë will necessarily have to resort to some speculation.  There simply is not enough evidence available to do anything else.  Yet despite Ellis’ chatty style, she does engage with her sources critically, querying even some of the more famous verdicts on Anne’s writing.  When Ellis does follow her own theories, she is open enough with the reader to acknowledge it, meaning that I had more faith in her as a biographer than in my other recent Anne read, In Search of Anne Brontë.  There’s no way of knowing for sure, but Ellis’ suggestion that Anne was the one who destroyed the Gondal stories seemed as reasonable as any other explanation I have read.  Take Courage may offer up a fair amount of about Samantha Ellis herself, but it remains a well-written and highly compelling biography which got me thinking about Anne Brontë in a completely different way.

It is easy to know all the bare facts right down to what she called her one of the toy soldiers or about that time she sassed her aunt who had asked her where her feet were (Anne’s answer ‘On the floor, Aunt’) but repetition of these only reduces Anne still further into the cardboard figure she has become within the mythology.  I share Ellis’ indignation at the snide critics who label her the least essential Brontë, famous for her sisters rather than for her own work, a ‘watercolourist’ in literature, the ‘least industrious Brontë’ – two novels by the age of twenty-nine and a stack of poetry!  Much of this while holding down a very stressful full-time job!  Emily only ever wrote one book!  For its passionate defence of Anne’s posthumous reputation alone, Take Courage is well worth reading, but more than that, when it comes to Anne’s writing, Ellis has the passion of the newly converted and that is wonderful to read.  Anne’s novels are about life, not the fantasies written by her sisters, she wrote about taking the life you have and making it into the best possible one it could be.  Her own span on this earth may have been short, far too short, but her message was clear and deserves to be heard.

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Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
Published by Chatto & Windus on February 28th 2017
Pages: 352
ISBN: 1784740217

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2 thoughts on “Review: Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life, Samantha Ellis

  1. I love the description of Anne as the Beth March of the Brontë family!! That’s definitely how I’ve historically pictured her, but I must say your Brooding About The Brontës series really has me coming around 😉 And I really appreciate your insights about Helen as well, I really hadn’t thought about her as a radical before… keep up the great work, doll, you’re still killing it!!

    1. Really interesting – Ellis seems to think that Alcott based Beth March mostly on her own late sister but also partly on the Anne Brontë she had read about in Mrs Gaskell’s biography. That isn’t how I picture Anne at all but I think the Brontë family are the ultimate example of how a fictional afterlife can completely overshadow what someone was actually like. I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying the Brooding about the Brontës – it’s been so much fun to read and write about! 🙂

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