Today is the birthday of Anne Bronte, the least well-known of the writing Bronte sisters (there were 2 sisters who didn't write). She wrote Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Throughout their lives, the Bronte sisters supported each other in their creative writing. Today's post on The Writer's Almanac reminds us of their early project, before they went on to write novels: "The three sisters hatched a plan to publish a book of poetry under three male pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell." Though the book didn't sell well, it engendered much speculation about who the authors could be.
Could they be--gasp!--women??!!
I say this mockingly, but it's all too easy to forget how difficult a path women writers faced in the early part of the nineteenth century. Most galling would be the attitudes towards women in general, and women who dared to be creative in particular. Many nineteenth century people were quite convinced that women couldn't write, literally, that they were physically incapable. As women began to show that they could, the attack on the content of the work came hard and consistently.
Anne Bronte said this about the matter: "I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."
Frankly, we still see some of these arguments today. I grow weary of them, but I also know that it's a luxury that I can declare myself weary and carry on.
I started grad school in 1987, and the canon we studied in most classes was still mostly male, mostly dead, and mostly white. I remember earlier versions of the Norton anthologies that included only 1 or 2 women writers.
I will always be grateful to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who helped expand the canon with The Madwoman in the Attic and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. I've already written several posts which mention the importance of Gilber and Gubar to my life as a writer and a scholar; the most extensive post is here.
And now, they will be honored with the National Book Critics Lifetime Achievement Award. Hurrah!
The Washington Post has this great story, for those who have missed this chapter of feminist histor--or for those who want to be inspired. I love this narrative of female support and friendship. I love that they continued to do important work and to support each other, even when they moved away from each other. The Post article concludes this way: "Both Gilbert and Gubar hope to attend the NBCC awards ceremony in late February, though Gilbert will be in Italy and Gubar is being treated for cancer. They haven’t worked together for several years, but Gubar says, 'We’ve remained fast and true friends.'”
Fast and true friends, indeed. And from that friendship, the world has changed. Now, for the most part, at least one Bronte sister is in the canon; we can argue about whether or not that should be the case. We can argue about which sister it should be or what makes them worthy or not. But they are not dismissed simply because of their gender, the way they often were before the work of Gilbert and Gubar.
The Bronte sisters were fast and true friends. And from that friendship, too, the world changed.
Today is a great day to think about our fast and true friends. Today is a great day to strengthen our resolve to keep our friendships fast and true, to support each other when the world may not, to hope that we change the world for the better for the generations who will follow us.