Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis

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Take Courage by Samantha Ellis positions itself as a ‘personal, poignant and surprising journey into the life and work of a woman sidelined by history.’  Ellis’ previous book How To Be A Heroine (2014) is an amusing and lively exploration of the influence of Ellis’ literary heroines as she attempted to reconcile her Iraqi Jewish heritage with growing up in 1980s London and Take Courage continues this combination of personal memoir and literary history. The personal aspects of bibliomemoir are often less interesting than the literary, but Ellis interpolates her own (genuinely interesting) story with a light touch.  Although Ellis’ personal history  is less prominent in Take Courage than it was in How To Be A Heroine, she discusses the limitations imposed by an underlying medical issue and her own feelings about her status as an unmarried woman, as well as delicately revealing a developing relationship, but she does so in a way that feels unforced and unobtrusive, using her personal experience and insights to sympathetically inform her understanding of Anne’s life and writing.  As Ellis notes, (quoting Juliet Barker, the author of the definitive biography The Brontës) the known facts about Anne’s life (and Emily’s), ‘could be written on a single sheet of paper; their letters, diary papers and drawings would not fill two dozen’ (p. 11). Ellis deals with this by exploring Anne’s life ‘through the women and men who shaped her, and the women she shaped, on the pages of her books’ (p. 13), looking for ways in which those relationships and influences were reflected in Anne’s novels and her other writing, in particular her poetry. The book is arranged into ten chapters, eight named after someone who was an important influence on Anne’s life and work and the remaining two after her female protagonists, Agnes and Helen. The lack of biographical material grants Ellis considerable latitude for speculation and her writing is liberally sprinkled with ‘maybe’, ‘I imagine’, ‘must have’, ‘perhaps’, ‘could have’ (p. 70-72).  Here Ellis’ instincts as a playwright come to the fore –  she draws on known facts about the people who influenced Anne’s life to suggest plausible (but ultimately speculative) events that may have inspired phrases, passages and events in all three Brontës’ novels. Many of Ellis’ speculations describe episodes that might be plausibly written into a film or play script.  At one point she wonders if a scene in Wuthering Heights in which Nelly sings a song to Hareton might be a song that Tabby sang to infant Anne; true or not, it certainly would make an interesting scene and Ellis makes several other similar suggestions.  The tone of the book is informal and chatty – at one point Ellis refers to anti-Irish sentiment (Anne’s father Patrick was Irish) as ‘haters’ (p. 67) – but the book is well-researched and Ellis’ interpretation of Anne’s writing is sensitive and perceptive. The Anne that emerges is a vital, talented and courageous woman whose undeserved posthumous reputation as the least talented, boring Brontë owes a great deal more to Charlotte’s interventions than to reality.  Take Courage is written with considerable brio and Ellis succeeds in bringing Anne to life, suggesting that she the most truly radical writer of the three sisters. Unlike Charlotte and Emily, Anne showed the reality of life with difficult and damaged men, arguing that women could and should be capable of earning their own income and living independently.  The book’s final chapter, recounting Anne’s death and burial, is genuinely moving.  Before reading Take Courage, I re-read Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; having finished it, I want to read them again with Ellis’ insights in mind. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Brontës.

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