Anne Brontë and the Trials of Life

by Robert Butterworth (Author)
Monographs XII, 166 Pages


The trials Anne Brontë experienced in her lifetime left her with a deep interest in the psychology of suffering. This study, which considers both her novels and her poetry, focuses on the exploration of suffering in her work by examining her anatomisation of the trials her characters face and the strategies they deploy to cope with them. The novel Agnes Grey is read as a study of a woman working in circumstances in which her professionalism is unacknowledged and denied, while The Tenant of Wildfell Hall depicts an individual who is trapped in a deeply alien and uncongenial environment. Equally, struggles to face adversity, achieve happiness and find and retain religious faith form the subjects of her poetry. The book concludes by considering the common ground between Brontë’s heroines and their experiences and her overall views about how to confront life and its trials.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Introduction: Anne Brontë and Her Trials
  • Chapter 2: Agnes Grey: The Professional Adrift
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • Chapter 3: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Coping with an Alien Environment
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • V
  • Chapter 4: Struggle in Anne Brontë’s Poetry
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • Chapter 5: Conclusion: The Heroines and Their Predicaments
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Anne Brontë
  • Other
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index

| vii →


As a result of being one of three famous sisters, Anne Brontë has had a lot of difficulty in being seen in her own right. She has been constantly compared to her two sisters and very much seen through the filter of her sister Charlotte. She has been troubled by the former of these problems from the very start. As Sally Shuttleworth relates, Agnes Grey’s publication suffered from being overshadowed by the novels published in the same year by her siblings:

As a novel about a governess, it appeared to be following Jane Eyre, but without any of the sensational drama of that tale. Coupled with the tempestuous Wuthering Heights, it also seemed colourless.1

Thus, the reviewer in the Atlas found it wanting the power and originality of Wuthering Heights, going on to comment on its being, though, ‘infinitely more agreeable. It leaves no painful impression on the mind – some may think it leaves no impression at all’;2 and the reviewer in Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper thought Agnes Grey ‘a sort of younger sister to Jane Eyre; but inferior to her in every way’.3 Though with no other Victorian writer – Charles Dickens, say, or Elizabeth Gaskell, or George Eliot, or William Makepeace Thackeray – does criticism start from a comparison with other contemporary writers, the habit of considering Anne Brontë in the context of other writers who just happened to be her sisters has continued for a very long time, and often to her detriment. As Marianne Thormahlen points out in her survey of the development of Anne Brontë’s reputation, ← vii | viii → Elizabeth Langland’s 1989 book Anne Brontë: The Other One, for instance, mentions on its very first page Anne’s ‘greater sisters’.4

A second obstacle to the proper appreciation of Anne Brontë’s works has been the influence of the ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’ that Charlotte Brontë wrote in 1850 about her recently deceased sisters.5 In this, she praises Emily’s poems as no ‘common effusions’; Anne’s poems, however, merit being described merely as having ‘a sweet sincere pathos of their own’, and this is in the eyes of ‘a partial judge’.6 If this somewhat damns with faint praise, Charlotte later makes clear her opinion that in the volume of poetry the sisters published ‘all of it that merits to be known are the poems of Ellis Bell’.7 She is even more damning and dismissive of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: ‘The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived.’8 This may have been written with the best of motives, as Lucasta Miller suggests:

It is doubtful whether she truly and uncomplicatedly believed what she said: she was writing in a highly defensive mood, and her remarks were designed to soothe the public into sympathy.9

Nevertheless, because ‘it was to Emily that Charlotte devoted the most space in her commentary on her sisters’, it meant that ‘Anne was left on the sidelines’, and ‘the effect was to push her from the public eye’. She ‘would never gain the iconic status of either of her sisters’;10 indeed, she was ‘almost erased’.11 ← viii | ix →

It has taken a long time for Anne Brontë to emerge from her sister’s judgments on the one hand and to be seen as a notable literary figure in her own right on the other. Feminist criticism of her work has played a large part in this process. In their most specific terms, many of Brontë’s writings concern particularly female matters. Agnes Grey concerns governessing, a female-only profession. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall presents the trials of a woman in an unhappy marriage at a time when wives were in a very different legal predicament from their husbands. A poem such as ‘Dreams’ is concerned with the speaker’s longing to be a mother. Feminist criticism has brought out much about what the heroines of these works have to cope with, from corrupted models of manliness12 to laws surrounding marriage which made it almost impossible for a woman to obtain a divorce, made all her property her husband’s, and deprived her of rights over her own child.13

Alan Bennett remarks that ‘[t]he most a writer can hope from a reader is that he or she should think, “Here is somebody who knows what it is like to be me.”’14 Feminist approaches to Brontë’s works may well serve to help achieve such an end for women readers. If one of the ‘four ways to write a woman’s life’ is that ‘she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction’,15 then theoretical writings about female autobiography, for instance, may be relevant to studying Agnes Grey, taken by many to be a fictionalised account of Brontë’s own experiences as a governess. It may well be that Victorian governesses, and perhaps women more generally, felt upon reading it as, much in the vein of what Bennett refers to, the critic Barbara Christian felt ← ix | x → when she read Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstone: ‘[it] was not just a text; it was an accurate and dynamic embodiment both of the possibilities and improbabilities of my own life. In it I as subject encountered myself as object … It was crucial to a deeper understanding of my own life’16 If women reading the autobiographical writings of other women ‘have experienced them as “mirrors” of their own unvoiced aspirations’,17 specifically how this occurs has led to much discussion of, for instance, theories of gendered experience, theories of difference and models of the different natures of male autobiography and female autobiography, so that in Susan Stanford Friedman’s view, for example, in female autobiography

[t]his autobiographical self often does not oppose herself to all others, does not feel herself to exist outside of others, and still less against others, but very much with others in an interdependent existence that asserts its rhythms everywhere in the community.18

My own approach in this study is a little different. I share the concern of other critics to bring out the merits of Anne Brontë’s works, though my focus is on what she has to say not simply about the female predicament, but more broadly, the human predicament; my aim is to bring out how Brontë captures ‘what it is like to be me’ potentially for a wide range of readers. I pursue this aim in my focus on Brontë’s depiction of her characters’ responses to their trials – on what we might call the psychology of suffering. To move just slightly back from the most specific perspective on Brontë’s works is to begin to see a universal element in them, and one that brings out an abiding relevance to them. Agnes Grey, for instance, might be said to speak to anyone who has made a spiritual and emotional investment in their work, only to have to do that work in unsympathetic ← x | xi → circumstances, and this would include professionals, among whom Agnes classes herself. Agnes’s difficulties arise out of governessing not being recognised as a profession; but established professions may be by no means secure if conditions become adverse, as Daniel Duman’s discussion of sociological investigations reflects. Though the nineteenth-century professional was typically an ‘independent practitioner’,19 and the ideal of service, to which professionals were committed, was seen as ‘a powerful antidote’ to ‘the advance of business mentality and morality’,20 social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, aware that now ‘most professionals work for large scale organizations, both private and public’,21 found it pertinent to ‘wonder about the impact of bureaucratization on the professions’22 and to investigate whether ‘the professional, working within this changing environment’ could ‘retain his special identity and autonomy’ or would ‘inevitably undergo a process of proletarianization’ and whether or not professionals ‘would be able to sustain the claim to moral superiority which was developed in an earlier age’.23 The modern professional might thus have to work in circumstances as unsympathetic as those Agnes endures, and to display, isolated, the same doggedness that she does. As Michael Argyle observes, professionals in the modern age ‘are highly committed to their skills, standards and professional group rather than to the organisation that employs them’24 and ‘usually internalise certain standards of conduct, which are sustained […] often in the face of considerable social pressure’.25 As in Agnes’s case, matters of identity are involved, for ‘[c]onforming to such norms helps the individual to sustain his professional identity’.26 ← xi | xii →

Equally, as regards The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the circumstances of marriage and the laws surrounding it have changed vastly since the early Victorian period; it would now be easier in some circumstances for a spouse unhappy in a marriage to do something about it. Nevertheless, there are a range of situations in the modern world which duplicate in other contexts the predicament of Helen Huntingdon, of people being trapped long-term in a deeply antipathetic environment in which they cannot be happy and simply have to endure, using the sort of tactics she employs, until some (perhaps drastic) solution to their predicament can be found. I suggest in my Introduction that Brontë, herself unmarried, may well have drawn on her experience of being trapped in an uncongenial job in depicting how her heroine faces her predicament; and the world of work provides one of a number of parallel situations in which people may find themselves in an alien environment, and trapped there by, in this case, such factors as economic necessity, the scarcity of jobs, and the keen competition at interviews. In the modern world, relatively few people have the opportunity to shape their own working environments. Those unlucky enough to find themselves working in an environment whose values are alien to their own and where they can never fit in and be happy may, nevertheless, be forced to endure that job for a matter of years. Such people confront the same problem Helen does of having to work out how to cope with that environment in the meantime, and Brontë has much to say about how people do this. Similar observations might be made in connection with Brontë’s poetry. If a poem like ‘Dreams’, for instance, concerns being denied the fulfilment of being a mother, Brontë touches on universal and timeless feelings of frustration, disappointment and unfulfilment. Looked at from such angles, Brontë’s works have an abiding more general relevance; and it is from such perspectives that, in exploring her presentation of the trials of life, I examine Brontë’s works in this study and bring out how she ‘knows what it is like to be me’.

1 Sally Shuttleworth, Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Agnes Grey, ed. Robert Inglesfield and Hilda Marsden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, new edn), xxvii.

2 Shuttleworth, Introduction, xxvii.

3 Shuttleworth, Introduction, xxviii.

4 Marianne Thormahlen, ‘Standing Alone: Anne Brontë out of the Shadow’, Brontë Studies 39 (2014), 338.

5 Quotations from the text of ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’ are from the text as printed in the Penguin edition of Agnes Grey, ed. Angeline Goreau (Harmondsworth: 1988).

6 Charlotte Brontë, ‘Biographical Notice’, 52.

7 Charlotte Brontë, ‘Biographical Notice’, 53.


XII, 166
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (September)
Anne Brontë trials of life psychology of suffering
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XII, 166 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert Butterworth (Author)

Robert Butterworth was educated at the University of Leeds and is a lecturer and Victorian scholar who has published work on Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, George Gissing and Thomas Hood. His previous book, Dickens, Religion and Society, was published in 2015.


Title: Anne Brontë and the Trials of Life
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180 pages