Acton Bell was the Best of them

It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Acton Bell.  After all, this was a writer overshadowed by better-known siblings Currer Bell and Ellis Bell.

What?  You haven’t heard of them either?

Ah, you must not be a collector of first editions or a student of literary history.  You see Currer Bell published a novel entitled Jane Eyre, while Ellis was responsible for a tome entitled Wuthering Heights.

first edition tenant of wildfell hall

Yes, they were.  Google the first editions if you don’t believe me.

All right.  In their era, it was difficult to get published, so the Brontë sisters sold their work under male pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer being the sobriquets chosen by Emily, Anne and Charlotte.  But while even the most casual readers are familiar with the work of Emily and Charlotte–either via the written word or the countless TV and film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (or, for absolute bizarreness, the music video of the latter)–very few have been exposed to Anne’s work.

There is a reason for that.  Charlotte, who was the only one who didn’t die terribly young, kept Anne’s novels from being reprinted after her death (she is also rumored to have burned a manuscript of a second novel by Emily).  So while Charlotte’s work was becoming ever more well known, Annes languished, only beginning to get critical recognition much later, with the early feminist movement.

Political use of her work aside, it’s a true pity that Anne seems to be the forgotten sister (brother Branwell, by all accounts, squandered any talent he might have had due to a dissipated lifestyle).  Judging simply by her writing, she seems to have been, by far, the best of the three.

Yes, I know. That’s supposed to be Emily, the firebrand whose prose scars you as you read.

Yes, it’s true that Emily’s writing, and her characters are both more memorable than Charlotte’s.  They are tortured, egoistic souls stymied by their preferences and circumstances and as melodramatic as it is possible to be.  Definitely better than Charlotte’s stultifying boredom (yes, I know there was a madwoman in a tower.  Still boring)…

Anne Brontë by Branwell Brontë

But Anne, as a novelist, took more risks than Charlotte, and wrote a clearer, better-paced story than Emily.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the best of the Brontë novels.  If you don’t believe me, that’s because you haven’t read it.  It contains sympathetic protagonists who defy the conventions of their time enough that they feel almost modern, and the story is about the way they struggle against those conventions and the consequences of rebellion.  Also, it has an antagonist who deserves to be despised.

Though the novel’s re-acceptance into 19th century canon is cause for rejoicing, it’s a bit unfair that it’s been tarred with the “early feminist novel” brush.  That alone will keep many people from approaching this book–anyone familiar with the writing of Kate Chopin will have learned their lesson: writing that only survives because of a political push is always terrible, even if the politics are sound.  It’s a pity that this should be so because Anne’s novel is actually good literature, despite the anger that might or might not have informed some of its more memorable scenes.

Yes, the very act of writing and publishing this book was a feminist act (as was that of Wuthering Heights, which is just about the most un-feminist book I can think of), and yes, when Anne’s protagonist leaves her husband, it was the first time something like that had happened in a major English novel.

But there are more important things going on in this book, and the political significance, whether contemporary or post-mortem, was given to it by others.  It’s really just a book about characters dealing with their world as best they can.  And it excels in that light.

So go to your library and ask them for something by Acton Bell.  Hopefully, a librarian should know what you mean… if not, send them here!

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3 comments

  1. I only read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall recently and was very surprised at how much I enjoyed it. As you point out, Jane Eyre and Withering Heights are still very popular, whereas TToWH barely gets a look in, so I expected the latter to be fairly dull – and it wasn’t at all!

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    1. Agreed. I was worried about the same thing, and was equally pleasantly surprised. Only after reading it did I learn that Anne’s work was suppressed by Charlotte, which caused it to fall out of the public eye for ages. I won’t speculate on her reasons for doing this – it’s not really fair to assume things about someone who’s been dead for 150 years, after all – but it does lend a certain credence to the rumor that Charlotte might actually have burned Emily’s second novel.

      Liked by 1 person

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