Regular readers of Brontë Babe Blog will know by now how much I love not only the works of the Brontë siblings, but works inspired by them. In the past year I’ve discovered some truly wonderful Brontë inspired fiction including Lena Coakley’s Worlds of Ink and Shadow; Juliet Bell’s re-imagining of Wuthering Heights, The Heights, and, my personal favourite, Rita Maria Martinez’s fantastic and unique collection of poetry re-relling the story of Jane Eyre, The Jane and Bertha in Me. In addition to all of the Brontë inspired literature I’ve read, I also have a very long list of Brontë inspired literature to read. Hovering near the top of this list for a very long time was DM Denton’s novel, Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit. Published in 2017, Denton’s novel promises to tell the story of the youngest, and often overlooked Brontë, Anne. I finally got around to picking this one up a few weeks ago after reading countless glowing reviews of the text, but did it live up to my expectations?
* As this text is historical fiction, there are mild spoilers ahead, mainly for those unfamiliar with the story of the Brontës from 1842 – 1849. *
As stated, the text’s title promises a focus on Anne, the so-called quiet and “other” Brontë whose reputation is still overshadowed by her siblings, Charlotte, Branwell, and Emily. The text begins in 1842 when Anne is working as a governess for the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, near York and ends with her death in Scarborough in 1849. I’ll admit that for some reason, I had it in my head that the novel would explore the relationship between Anne and her father’s handsome, charming, and tragic curate, William Weightman (1814 – 1842), but Weightman is dead by start of the action in Denton’s novel. Instead of actually meeting William, we find Anne grieving over his premature death at the start of the narrative, and although there are frequent mentions of him, for readers unfamiliar with his story and connection to the Brontës, it might be a little hard to care about him or Anne’s quiet grief for the man many Brontëites consider to be the man she loved and lost from afar.
I’ll admit that I found the novel quite hard to get into, mainly because the focus is initially mainly on the rather boring Robinson girls and very little actually happens until Anne returns home to Haworth after leaving the employment of the Robinsons, probably due to Branwell’s affair with the family matriarch, Mrs. Lydia Robinson. This is touched upon and Denton does a good job of recreating the tension that must have been felt in both the Robinson and Brontë households as a result of this. It’s a shame there were no dramatic depictions of Branwell’s dismissal, however, it would feel slightly out of place in a novel about Anne, as she had already left Thorp Green by that point in reality.
Fortunately, my interest picked up once Anne had returned home and embarked upon her joint literary adventure with Charlotte and Emily. I loved the scenes where they thrashed out their ideas, fought over Charlotte’s snooping, and sat around the table attempting to work on first their poetry, and then their novels. The sense of frustration, effort, and achievement on their part is depicted nicely by Denton, as is the downfall of Branwell which simmers away in the background as the sisters work, and the physical decline of their ailing father, Patrick. I also enjoyed the depiction of everyday life in Haworth, the daily routine at the parsonage, the struggles of the villagers, and the appearances of the various family pets, with Anne’s Flossy and Emily’s Keeper having starring roles. Kudos to Denton too for depicting Flossy as a male although most people believe he was female. Other major players in the Brontë story such as Charlotte’s eventual husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, her school friend Ellen Nussey, and her publishers, Smith, Elder, and Co. hover in the background, giving a sense of the Brontës’ connection to the outside world.
Charlotte and Anne’s trip to London to reveal themselves as Currer and Acton Bell is also a joy to read. Brontëites will surely be cheering on the two dowdy looking women who arrive at Smith, Elder, and Co. announcing that they are literature’s hottest new prospect. It’s nice to see Anne and Charlotte being treated with kindness and respect despite their appearance, demonstrating a world of difference between the the majority of the Robinson family and the type of London society they would give their right arm to join, and which their lowly governess has successfully penetrated.
I liked the fact that Denton stays true to the individual characters of the Brontës that we can gleam from correspondence and recollections of them rather than fall into the trap of the Brontë stereotypes (Charlotte is bossy, Emily rude and awkward, Branwell a monster, and Anne quiet and nice), however, there is a tendency to reinforce the fact that Anne is the youngest a little too often by her sisters’ over-protectiveness. Denton clearly understands that there is more to the personalities of the Brontës than has been perpetuated by the Brontë myth over the centuries. The depiction of Branwell in particular is absolutely groundbreaking. Denton’s portrayal of an addict struggling to deal with everyday life in addition to the strain he placed upon his family, his sometimes genuine sorrow for this, and his absolute inability to change is nothing short of spectacular. As anyone who has ever lived with an addict can tell you, she absolutely hits the nail on the head with this. The different ways in which his family deals with the destruction he brings upon them all is heartbreaking, especially Anne’s conviction that his downfall is her fault after she got him a position tutoring the Robinson family’s only son.
As the novel continues, Brontëites will have one eye on the dates at the head of each chapter as Denton plunges the reader into the tragic few months experienced by the family between September 1848 and May 1849. This is where it gets hard to put the novel down as Denton explores the idea of losing loved ones, and more poignantly, of facing one’s own mortality. The depictions of the final illnesses of Branwell, Emily, and Anne is heartbreaking and Denton steers clear of romanticising their premature ends, highlighting the horrible symptoms they experienced as they were slowly drained of life.
The novel ends with Anne’s final trip to Scarborough, a donkey ride, a meeting with a young Heathcliff type on the beach, and a sense that one could continue reading Denton’s beautiful prose for much longer. Whilst there are some clunky and questionable sentence choices in there, and the odd unfortunate typo, the majority of the novel is beautifully written, particularly the final chapter where, as stated, Anne comes to terms with her impending death and her desire to do and see more in the world before she leaves it. I read the novel around the death of a family member recently, and so the idea of mortality and the human spirit and soul were very much on my mind as I made way through the narrative. Here’s one especially poignant passage that caught my eye:
Was dying like closing her eyes without the choice to open them again? Would vision be gone or just different? If it was like falling asleep, would she be as unaware of the precise moment it happened, not knowing it had until she came into another way of being? Or was the transfer between life and death like getting off one train and moving to a different platform to board another, not just for a change in direction or destination, just to continue? Would she slip away from everything or everything slip away from her? Would nothing matter but the state of her soul? What if there wasn’t a consciousness she could still recognize as her own, or any at all? She couldn’t fathom extinction: to be without feelings or thoughts, to be nothing.
It’s strange to say but this extract reminds me of a passage from another novel where the protagonist is also facing their own mortality, wondering what comes next, and considering the issues of souls and boarding a train that will take them on. I’m talking about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where *SPOILER ALERT*, Harry is facing up to his own death at the hands of Voldemort in the forest and then meets with Dumbledore where they discuss boarding a train that will take Harry on, and the importance of souls.
Anne’s final walk over the bridge in Scarborough and the oncoming darkness is oozing with delicious metaphor and it is fitting that the novel ends here and not with her actual death as it doesn’t close the book on her, so to speak, but leaves open the possibility for her spirit to soar. Despite its slow start, Without the Veil Between does a fantastic job of highlighting Anne’s inner strength and her sense of independence despite her connection to her family. I must also note that I loved the nods to various works of the Brontës and their possible inspirations including Agnes Grey’s Mr Weston and William Weightman, the aforementioned teenage Heathcliff in Scarborough, the mention of Branwell’s unfinished novel, and the weary are at rest, and of course the references to Gondal. The artwork is also incredibly beautiful, my favourites being the image of the parsonage at the start of the novel and the depiction of the sisters hard at work whilst Flossy and Keeper sleep nearby. Step forward Anne Brontë, out of the shadows, and step forward DM Denton for lifting the veil for us to see Anne clearly.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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The passage quoted is taken from Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit by DM Denton (All Things That Matter Press, 2017).