I’ve never embraced the Brontës in the way I have Jane Austen (and, yes, I agree they shouldn’t always be played off against each other – although surely Charlotte B started it?).
I had three stuttering starts with Jane Eyre before I could move on past St Helen of TB’s death, although once I broke free of Lowood School along with Jane I grew to love it. And Withering, sorry, Wuthering Heights? Two self-indulgent people squabble for years until one of them dies and then it’s all “it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home” and the whole time I’m thinking “but that man is a bully and a dog killer. I’d stop banging on that window if I were you, love”.
But despite my less than enthusiastic embracing of the Brontë canon, I’m still seduced by the romanticism of the family’s legend. In particular, I’ve long been intrigued by the “forgotten” Brontë sister Anne, the youngest, who is perhaps more critically acclaimed for her poetry than her two novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been on my to-read pile for ages; I couldn’t resist the idea of a book about a lady living alone in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere whose presence causes much tongue-wagging amongst her bored neighbours.
Often held up as the first feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Huntington, a young bride forced to flee her drunk, adulterous, bullying husband for the sake of her son and her sanity. She attempts to do the unthinkable at the time, to leave him and live a new life where she would support herself (in this case, selling her paintings).
At the time it wasn’t just Helen Huntington’s fictional neighbours that were scandalised. Anne Brontë’s tale of one woman’s fight to break free from martial brutality caused such a stir on its publication in 1848 – under the pseudonym Acton Bell – that Anne was compelled to write a prelude to the second edition defending the author’s right to write about subjects of interest to both men and *gasp* women. She also made no secret of the novel being a lesson to young women, writing: “…if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.”
No one had ever confronted the very real issues of abusive marriages in print before. Back in the 19th century women just didn’t leave their husbands and certainly didn’t take any children with them – they remained the property of the men even if they were wine-sloshed tyrants. Women’s lives were simply not their own to do as they wished with, they were playthings for men, their feelings as inconsequential as that of an animal (less so in some cases – Victorian men seem inordinately fond of their horses and dogs).
Women stayed at home embroidering and gossiping until they were married off, where they continued to embroider and gossip although they now had to keep house and have children. If they were lucky, marriage would bring them security, if not happiness, but too often the unequal partnership between men and women would lead to a life of strife and misery as Helen Huntington finds to her cost after falling for the charms of the Bryonic, and at times, Bertie Wooster-ish, Arthur Huntington.
The novel, while not in the same league as her sister Charlotte’s (and okay, then, Emily’s) genius, is a gripping and fascinating tale badly let down by the clumsy narrative device Anne – against the wishes of her publisher – chose to tell the tale. We come to know of Helen’s plight firstly through the laboriously detailed letters that the novel’s ‘hero’ Gilbert Markham writes to his brother-in-law (who I couldn’t help imaging rolling his eyes as another great wad drops through the letterbox). Gilbert’s first person letters bookend the novel, but the chunk of the tale is told through Helen’s journal that she, in a desperate but odd act, throws out of the window to the love-sick Gilbert who then transcribes (yes, really) the whole thing to his long-suffering BIL in another series of letters.
The novel also suffers from Helen being a hard-to-love heroine. She’s feisty and determined – think Jane Eyre crossed with North and South’s Margaret Hale, complete with all the piousness that that pairing invokes – but, unlike these two, she’s chippy and charmless. And Gilbert? What a pompous oaf. I found Mr Hargrave a far more endearing proposition. Anne’s writing, if anything, is more reminiscent of Jane Austen than the starker, bleaker writings of her sisters, although she has none of the Pride and Prejudice writer’s wit or her satirical eye. Anne is more straightforward, she doesn’t hide behind the reality of life for some married women in a Mr-Collins-and-Charlotte kind of way and has no time for literary frills.
Despite the bad plot structure and the unlovable leads, I found the Tenant of Wildfell Hall a fascinating and moving novel. I always find it tempting to look back at the past and believe that women just accepted their lot, that they assumed society was nicely arranged as God wanted it to be. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opened by eyes to the fact that there were women who wanted – needed – change – and Anne and her Helen – in their own way – went some way to help put that change in motion.
by Suzanne Elliott