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Take Courage by Samantha Ellis

Take Courage by Samantha Ellis
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Poor Anne Brontë, said Daisy Goodwin in The Times. “Like George Harrison”, she is doomed to be “overshadowed by her proximity to genius”. While interest in Charlotte and Emily remains strong, how many have read Anne’s two novels, Agnes Gray and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? In this “magnificent” book, Samantha Ellis probes the life of the “other Brontë”, showing that Anne was not the “shrinking violet” of Victorian stereotype, but a “tough, ambitious young woman” whose fiction had “proto-feminist” tendencies. Ellis argues, convincingly, that it was Charlotte who, after Anne’s death from tuberculosis aged 29, set about consigning her younger, “prettier” sister to “posthumous insipidness”. Not only did she disparage Anne’s talents and refuse to sanction further editions of her work, she also “hoovered up” her sister’s experience as a governess to create her own best-known novel, Jane Eyre.

With this and her previous book, How To Be a Heroine, Ellis has helped create a new genre, said Lucy Hughes-Hallett in The Observer: “chick-lit-crit”. In Take Courage, she mixes her story in with Anne’s, contrasting her own rocky path to contented matrimony with her subject’s tragic fate. Though her approach might irritate academics, she “does the hard work of textual analysis and archival research”. The result is “sprightly” and enjoyable. I wasn’t wholly convinced by Ellis’s thesis, said Claudia FitzHerbert in The Daily Telegraph. Anne’s novels may well have been “more interesting than her sisters allowed”, but that doesn’t mean they’re as “interesting as Ellis would make them”. The heroine of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is lifeless; Agnes Gray is “priggish”. If she is the least-read Brontë, there may be “good enough reason” for that.