Author Interview: In Search of Anne Brontë by Nick Holland
Anne Brontë, the youngest and most enigmatic of the Brontë sisters, remains a bestselling author nearly two centuries after her death. The brilliance of her two novels and her poetry belies the quiet, truthful girl who often lived in the shadow of her more outgoing sisters. Yet her writing was the most revolutionary of all the Brontës, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable. This revealing new biography opens Anne’s most private life to a new audience, and includes unpublished letters from Anne to the family to which she was governess as well as first publication of a controversial image that could be the only photograph of the three Brontë sisters.
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: The History Press (June 1, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0750965258
- ISBN-13: 978-0750965255
'Holland has enormous affection for Anne Brontë, and his excellent book is filled with passion and pathos. Its triumph is that Anne is given voice and is no longer swamped by her siblings.' - Roger Lewis, The Mail On Sunday Anne Brontë, the youngest and most enigmatic of the Brontë sisters, remains a bestselling author nearly two centuries after her death. The brilliance of her two novels – Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – and her poetry belies the quiet, yet courageous girl who often lived in the shadows of her more celebrated sisters. Yet her writing was the most revolutionary of all the Brontës, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable. This revealing new biography opens Anne’s most private life to a new audience and shows the true nature of her relationship with her sister Charlotte.
Nick Holland is a best-selling author, professional copywriter and active member of The Brontë Society.
I am thrilled to be able to welcome Author, Nick Holland to Victorian Musings, my little corner of all things Victorian related. After I finished reading, 'In Search of Anne Brontë', I emailed Nick, very excitedly, rambling on about how much I enjoyed his biography on Anne Bronte and her siblings. He graciously agreed to answer my long-winded questions.
What inspired you to write a biography featuring Anne Brontë? Why include her sisters?
I went to University in 1989, and the first book on the reading list was Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. As an 18 year old Yorkshire man, I hadn't expected to like it; after all, surely it was just a romance? How wrong I was. The first page had me hooked, and I read it within one day. That weekend I made my first visit to the Bronte Parsonage, and bought a biography of Emily and a picture of her. That was the start of my lifelong love affair with all things Bronte, but I soon discovered that Anne was being unfairly neglected. Her writing is just as vital as that of Emily and Charlotte, and whilst I loved Winifred Gerin's 1959 biography of Anne I longer for a fresh, new perspective. Eventually, the solution came to me: rather than wait for a new biography, I'd write it myself.
The Brontës were very much a family unit, if not always a perfectly harmonious unit, and so to convey Anne's story fully I had to look at her siblings as well. Also, most of the source material we have about Anne comes from Charlotte, so she is always in the shadows of any Anne biography.
What is your writing process? Do you outline first or just write without one?
When I have previously written fiction I've used a very loose framework: in effect I know how it starts and how it will end, and one or two major incidents in between, but the middle changes and develops as I write. This was my first foray into non-fiction, however, and the process was very different. I carefully outlined each of the 19 chapters so that each one would mark a distinct era of, or event in, Anne's life. It was a much more methodical way of writing than I'm used to, but just as enjoyable. I will return to fiction one day, but I'm having too much fun with non-fiction now!
I would love to know about your research process when writing a novel? Do you research each sister individually, or concentrate on location, the era itself, etc.?
The research process was the most enjoyable aspect of writing 'In Search Of Anne Bronte'; it wasn't a chore, but an opportunity to get closer to the writer I had so much respect for. I took a holistic approach to it, beginning with reading as much about Anne and her sisters as I could, as well as reading her novels and poetry again of course. I then wanted to walk in Anne's footsteps, and visit all of the locations that she did. With Anne this wasn't an onerous task, as in her brief life she only once ventured outside of our mutual home county of Yorkshire. One highlight was visiting Roe Head School, the place where she was a pupil and Charlotte a teacher, now called the Holly Bank Trust and a school for people with severe disabilities. Walking into her old classroom, my guide said: 'this to you must be like me walking into Graceland'. Even more magical, of course, were my visits to the Bronte Parsonage library, and holding Anne's actual handwritten letters and poems.
In many ways, we live in a perfect age to write biographies. When Winifred Gerin, for example, wrote about Anne in the 1950s finding source material could be a long and laborious task, and a hit and miss one. Now, so much information is cataloged and available on the internet. Sat at home with a laptop I was able to read newspapers from the time of the Brontës and gain lots of background information, even details of what the weather was like on pivotal days for the family can be fascinating and is now readily available.
I was interested to read the chapters including church and religious issues as it pertained to the sisters, their father, Rev. Patrick Brontë as well as other friends. Why include this aspect in your novel?
Religion played a big part in the life of the Brontës, and in Anne's life in particular. Although their father was a Church of England priest, his children reacted to religion in different ways. Branwell eschewed religion altogether, Emily developed her own mystical beliefs, and Anne drew great strength from her faith. This was a time of revolution in the charge with battle waging between the establishment Church of England, and new sects such as Methodists and Baptists. There were also a surfeit of Calvinists, people who believed that any sin would see a person doomed to help for ever, with no hope of forgiveness. This teaching deeply affected Anne, resulting in a mental and physical breakdown when she was a teenager. She was saved by her belief in 'universal salvation', a controversial doctrine at the time, and one that says a forgiving God will pardon everyone eventually. This faith would sustain Anne through all her darkest days, and features heavily in her novels and in her poetry.
She was the most religious of all the Brontës, and as I'm religious myself this aspect of her life particularly interested me. I'm a Catholic, however, so I wouldn't have found approval from Charlotte who was very vehemently anti-Catholic, as were many in early 19th Century England. 'The Professor' for example, is full of anti-Catholic diatribes such as: 'I long to live once more among Protestants'; they are more honest than Catholics; a Romish school is a building full of porous walls, a hollow floor, a false ceiling.' I don't think Anne would have been so intolerant.
Has your opinion of the sisters changed since 'In Search of Anne Brontë' has been published? Have you learned anything about them that surprised you?
My opinion of Anne, and her sisters, hasn't changed but it has strengthened. Researching and then writing the book brought home to me how brave they all were. Losing their mother and two eldest sisters so early must have been a big blow to them, and yet they refused to give in and they also refused to conform with what society expected of them.
I was worried that people would think I was anti-Charlotte, because my book does deal frankly with the way that she belittled Anne while she was alive and damaged her reputation after her death. That's why I was careful to show how the early tragedies in her life resulted in the depression that always dogged her, and yet also fired her undoubted genius. I found her the most complex of the sisters, and didn't always approve of her treatment of Anne, but the research made me appreciate why she acted like she did.
If you could spend the day with Anne Brontë where would you go and what would you do?
What a fantastic question! I do wish I could grab a time machine and travel back to the 1840s. Spending a day with Anne Bronte would be a dream come true for me of course; I'm sure she would like to walk the moors, pointing out the bluebells and other plants she loved so much, watching nature in all its forms, but I don't think I'd be able to keep up with her. 21st century life is, after all, much more sedentary - Anne and Emily would think nothing of walking 20 miles across the moors in a day.
Anne and I share a love of opera, so I would take her to a concert at the nearby town of Keighley. As an accomplished pianist, I'm sure she would enjoy it even more than I would. Alternatively, I'd be happy just to listen to her read her poetry as she walked around the rectangular Bronte dining table, as was her wont.
What are you working on next?
I'm in talks with my publisher about writing a life of Emily Brontë, but one that will focus on 20 poems that represent moments in her life rather than a conventional biography. It will be a hard task, as Emily is a very enigmatic character, and little source material survives. I'm really looking forward to it however. That should be out in 2018, and before that I'm also thinking of writing a book about Hedy Lamarr - the 30s and 40s Hollywood star who also had a secret life as an inventor, and patented technology that led to wifi and Bluetooth today. It seems I'll always be writing about fascinating and mysterious women, but I'm more than happy with that!