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!


Reflections Upon Big Eyes

Tim Burton Big Eyes movie poster

María Evangelina Vázquez, who wrote this wonderful piece on Blake’s Poetry a few months ago, is back.  As is becoming a habit, she brings something completely new to the Classically Educated table: a thoughtful review of a modern film.  In keeping with our tradition, however, she deals with the subject from a different angles, which tie many isolated incidents together – and provoke thoughtful reflection.  If you enjoy this piece, and can read Spanish there is a repository of her articles here

Big eyes stare back at us. It’s like in Las Meninas by Velázquez; we ask ourselves: are we looking at the characters on the painting or are they looking at us? It is true that very often those things we cannot see directly, those that are hidden, are the most important ones. We have the iceberg theory by Hemingway which supports this idea. And now we have Big Eyes, the film by Tim Burton, based on a true story. In this movie we get to know the life of Margaret Keane: the real artist behind the paintings that were attributed to her husband, Walter, for around ten years.

It is not the first time that a woman is shadowed by a man who takes credit for her work; that is what happened to French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who began writing as ghost writer for her husband. Other women such as the well known Brontë sisters used male pen names when signing their first texts; and even in our times, J.K. Rowling signed her books with her initials so that the audience would think the author was a man.

Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell Poems

While some may still have to conceal their identity, others are often tempted to show themselves off more than they should. Social networks encourage us to share images of our private lives with others. What’s the limit, where do we draw the line? Our eyes are often overstimulated and we see so many things that a great part of these images go unnoticed and we cannot always decide what is relevant and what is accessory. It’s like in “The Purloined Letter” by E.A. Poe: the most obvious place for the letter is overlooked. We have an appetite to see more and more. And although we cannot possibly process all the information available, we look for images everywhere and try to make sense of what we see. We often don’t pay attention to images that we should see or that could interest us if we only gave them the chance to show themselves. On the other hand, we usually end up paying more attention to those images that are easy to digest, or that the media offer us with just one click.

The movie Big Eyes focuses precisely on what we see, what we want or are allowed to see, what we decide to show to others, how we mask ourselves because we don’t have the strength to assume who we truly are, or because society just makes it complicated for us to do so. Margaret is a talented artist who paints enormous, expressive eyes. These eyes are way out of proportion but they are what make her characters so special, and they become her trademark, like Modigliani’s long necks (in Argentina we have paintings by Lino Enea Spilimbergo, which also emphasize the eyes).

Margaret Keane Painting

Is it not a remarkable paradox that the artist who painted those huge eyes couldn’t be seen? Keane’s eyes remind me of John Steinbeck’s gigantic pearl, one that was so big that it could not be sold; a promising rarity that, however, could not find its place in the market. That’s what happened to Margaret’s paintings until the art market found a place for her. It has long been proven throughout human history that commercial success does not imply quality in art (and I should say in any other area), and that the lack of it does not imply poor quality of work either. The most significant example for what I’m saying is Vincent Van Gogh. He has bestowed great gifts on our eyes; nevertheless during his life he was quite invisible to those in charge of selecting masterpieces.

It is true that Margaret struggled and suffered psychological abuse for many years until she could stand up to her husband, to society, but she finally got the recognition she was looking for. We should ask ourselves: how many more Margarets are out there? Invisible all their lives… Sometimes just one look is enough to save them.