Literary Daybook, May 28

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
May 28, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On May 28, 1142, Catherine and Mondete exchange confidences.
-- "Strong as Death" (1966)
by Sharan Newman

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1849, Anne Brontë died of tuberculosis, at age 29. Six Brontë children were born in a six-year period, 1814-1820; the two eldest died of tuberculosis at age 9 and 10, and within six weeks of each other; then, in an eight-month span in 1848-49, Branwell, Emily and, last, Anne died of the same disease (along with alcohol and opium, in Branwell's case), all three in their late 20s or early 30s. Charlotte, eldest of the four and the only surviving member of this most famous literary family, would die six years later, age 39.

The standard view of Anne is that she had less talent than her siblings, and was cut from a plainer cloth. Charlotte was dominant and ambitious, Emily was odd and reclusive, Branwell was mercurial; Anne was fond of church and being normal. Compared to the opposite dramas of Branwell's and Emily's deaths -- Branwell indulgent, Emily a picture of "ruthless stoicism" -- Anne's death, as described by Charlotte, was a nonevent:

"She died without severe struggle -- resigned -- trusting in God -- thankful for release from a suffering life -- deeply assured that a better existence lay before her ... Anne, from her childhood seemed preparing for an early death ..."

A recent biography by Juliet Barker ("The Brontës," 1995) makes a different case for Anne, seeing not so much resignation as a desire to avoid making an egotistical fuss, or to provoke Charlotte's tendencies toward hysteria. There is nothing passive about the heroine of Anne's "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," nor about Anne's spirited defense of her book in the face of critics who found the book to contain "disgusting scenes of debauchery," and hoped that it would not be "obtruded by every circulating library-keeper upon the notice of our sisters, wives and daughters." There are few documents that can give us a sense of the real Anne, though her scribble of "sick of mankind and its disgusting ways" on the back of her prayer book seems indicative of a fiery and conflicted spirit.

-- Steve King

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To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.


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