Take Courage – Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis. A stunning read.

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This is a remarkable book, which anyone who is interested in the Bronte family, especially Anne, would do well to read. Not a biography, not a set of notes on her two novels or poetry, but in the style of Ellis’ other book “How to be a Heroine”, a personal reaction to Anne’s work and life. This is a book of how a lot of Bronte fans and those who only have a knowledge of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have ignored Anne and her writing; Ellis successfully argues that  ‘the other Bronte’ is more than worthy of attention, and indeed may have been the most radical of the sisters.

In some respects the theme of this book is regret. Regret that Anne was not more regarded during her lifetime, regret that her attempts to write in support of governess and women generally did not meet with more understanding, and the most obvious regret that this immensely talented writer died so young. Ten chapters that are engagingly written about eight people that Anne was close to, one about her first creation and the final, tenth chapter, movingly entitled “Anne, or how to take courage”. This book does not work its way through Anne’s life chronologically but looks at her influences and two great novels, “Agnes Grey” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. Each member of her family provides the basis of a reflection on Anne, even the opening chapter, Maria, the mother that she never really knew.  Here is the difficult Emily, whose single novel overturned so many preconceptions about women writers and Branwell, the ambitious but ultimately self – destroying brother.  The always tricky relationship with Charlotte is examined, as she seeks to gain publication of their novels. The many biographies of the Bronte sisters tend to downplay Anne’s writing compared with the other two women, and Ellis does her best, by examining every scrap of writing and surviving article of Anne’s, to argue that she was just as able a writer, and of great significance in literary terms. Ellis points out that as “Agnes Grey” was actually published slightly after “Jane Eyre”, critics thought that Anne’s novel was a pale copy of Charlotte’s, when it was in fact written before. Furthermore, it was Anne who had worked for years as a governess and had the experience to write a book detailing the life of a governess who finds love after many trials.

This book succeeds because Ellis spares no effort to show how radical Anne’s writing was in a time when women in marriage were open to abuse of every kind. Their money was legally taken from them, they had no legal rights to leave their husband or care for their own children. Helen Huntingdon is a stunning creation whose drunken, abusive and unfaithful husband drives her away so that she must become a stranger to all and hide herself and her son in Wildfell Hall. She is in fear of her husband who pursues her, but places her trust in another, Gilbert. This book is a vivid protest against the lot of women and the redemption of the individual. It is so ahead of its time that there are elements which still shock today, as Ellis recounts the BBC’s version and its impact.

If you are fascinated by the Brontes this is a superb read, as so much is challenged and set in context. It is deeply personal, as Ellis recounts her reaction to every scrap of information she uncovers, and every place that she can discover that was important to Anne. This is not a fan piece, and fervent admirers of Charlotte may be exasperated by some of Ellis’ assertions. It is a fascinating book, and it is recommended as immensely readable.

As you see, I have not gone down the route of picking out my favourite books of the year at this stage, but I have had a spate of finishing some great books in the last few weeks. Maybe it’s the fact I finished all my M.A. assessments in good time! As you have may have noticed, I have been getting a little help with my blog set up, especially my new logo featuring Selwyn the cat. Thanks Harry and Sarah!


How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Many years ago I removed a set of books from a classroom in a village school. It concerned a pretty little girl whose entire life was contained in her pretty little cottage with her only friends being those who delivered things to her house, just because she used a wheelchair. Even in the last century I thought it gave an incredibly negative view of the life of a disabled person, and little hope for any child who was told that they were different. My daughter (who does use a wheelchair) spends much of her time overturning expectations as she is a newly qualified doctor, and I am proud that she has risen above such negative messages. It’s a good job that she did not become keen on one of my favourite books as a child, What Katy Did  by Susan Coolidge. Its message about a girl who falls from a swing is criticized roundly in one of my more recent favourite books, How to be a Heroine   by Samantha Ellis.Image result for How be a heroine ellis

In a way, this book of literary autobiography is the sort of book that many of us could have written. It goes through books, novels, which have been significant in the life of the playwright, Samantha Ellis. Its subtitle, “Or what I’ve learned from reading too much” rings a bell with many of us, as we have endured comments about our heavy reading habit since childhood. This is, however, a book of autobiography which is honest and moving in recalling a childhood in a family of Iraqi-Jewish refugees in London. This is in no way a miserable book as each novel is devoured by a girl seeking a way of living amidst a family keen to encourage a normal life of marriage and family. Instead it is a funny book with a realistic and sometimes frank view of love, life and literary role models.

The first book, or story, the Little Mermaid, causes the realisation that the heroine is willing to give up so much for the chance to win the love of the prince that its sadness is not in the original ending of the tale, but in the suffering that she endures. Anne of Green Gables has enormous dreams and a desire to write that transforms her life as well as those around her, but eventually gives up writing for domestic reality. Ellis asks about the role models that these heroines present, even though they are undoubtedly inspiring and entertaining. Lizzy Bennet gives more hope, while Scarlett O’Hara becomes a role model in for what she does not do, and say, as Ellis realises that she loves and acts on many levels.

I think that why enjoyed this book so much is that it follows my own favourite book list and discoveries that Flora Post, of Cold Comfort Farm is a funny book about those who want to solve people’s lives, and there are female characters who work together to change what is happening. Some readers may be shocked by the behaviour of some of the characters and novels which she chooses, many of which would not appear on any great literature list.

I particularly enjoyed Ellis’ discoveries about Sylvia Plath’s time at Cambridge, and her honest account of her time at the University. The real battle is between Cathy Earnshaw and Jane Eyre, in terms of wild romance versus the acknowledgement that real romance may be quieter, even if still complicated.  Every book mentioned is referenced at the end in notes so it is easy to plug any gaps in your own reading. The general sense is that for a book obsessive, novels are not just entertainment but can be valuable insights into life and what it really means to be human.