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Dear Anne

My contributor copy of Raleigh Review arrived yesterday, & with it a poem I’ve been waiting ages to share with you—a sort of love letter to one of my favorite Victorian women: the long misunderstood Anne Brontë.

Charlotte & Emily’s legacies have been known to eclipse their little sister’s star, & Anne is often regarded as the pious, timid, unoriginal Brontë sister—the boring one. But when I visited the Brontë Parsonage while living in Yorkshire in 2020, I was to startled to discover that Anne was in fact something completely different: wildly brave, a glowing thing, a visionary.

Anne’s second & most controversial book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is often celebrated as one of the first feminist novels, & while this may come as a surprise to those who already know Anne as by far the most religious of the Brontë sisters, it is in fact very in character for her. For Anne, as for so many of the enduring Victorian authors, religion was a Big Thing—not a paltry & confining set of dogmas—& she allowed her mind to rove over questions churches didn’t, as a rule, encourage people to ask. Having now read most of the words Anne left behind for us, what chiefly stands out to me about her is her courage & the steady way she faced the world with Realism gripped in one fist and High Ideals held tightly in the other.

Unlike her more famous sisters, Anne did not romanticize the spectre of male violence that haunted the fiction of all three Brontë sisters. Likewise, she was not afraid to directly name & challenge the gender-based oppression that deprived Victorian women of essential legal rights. And her bold commentary on social issues was matched by an equally-bold approach to theology. Anne was a brave believer in the often-scorned & loudly-repudiated doctrine of Universal Salvation, writing “I drew it secretly from my own heart & from the word of God before I knew that any other held it” & "I thankfully cherish this belief; I honour those who hold it; & I would that all men had the same view of man’s hopes & God’s unbounded goodness [...]”

Anne died young, succumbing to tuberculosis at only 29, and breathing her last in the seaside town of Scarborough where she is buried—the only one of the Brontë family who was not brought home to Haworth to rest in the family vault.

After her death, Charlotte tried to suppress Anne’s riskiest novel, The Tenant of Wildfell, & succeeded in preventing its re-printing for several years. Charlotte believed the subject matter—the tale of a woman who flees an abusive husband to protect her young son & violates British matrimonial law in the process—an unsuitable topic for her innocent baby sister to have written about, and possibly wanted to safeguard her legacy. But Anne had specifically resisted this notion that women should be kept ignorant about the realities of alcoholism, spousal abuse, and adultery, suggesting that this ignorance made them vulnerable to unscrupulous men and tyrannical marriages.

Anne, of course, was right, baby sister or no. And I think I shall never forget standing in the exhibition room at Haworth reading her sweet, gentle, unexpectedly subversive letters and fighting back the tears. I was in a confusing period of my own life. I had questions that felt forbidden and beliefs I’d been told were out of the question. I was grappling with what shape my life should take in a world where I often felt there was no room for me to be who I was and to know what I knew. And Anne, from nearly 200 years in the past, seemed to be spooning courage down my throat like an elixir, conjuring a vision I could step into. In that moment, even before having read any of her books, I wanted to take a seat next to her on that roaring sea-bound train that was taking her to her death and say “Oh Anne, nothing was a waste, nothing.”

When Alex and I got home that night, we booked our tickets to Scarborough. "Dear Anne" is my poem about our day there.

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