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classics clubDuring November the Classic Club asks:

“Which argument made by an author do you most support or agree with (or disagree with).”

With her 1848 novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Anne Bronte was clearly saying that women so long having had their lives, happiness and very safety placed into the hands of the men in their lives, should; like her heroine Helen Graham, where possible, take that responsibility upon themselves. Her feminist stance is certainly something I agree with, and has made Helen Graham, one of my favourite heroines in classic English literature.

“When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone: there are many, many other things to be considered. Keep both heart and hand in your own possession, till you see good reason to part with them; and if such an occasion should never present itself, comfort your mind with this reflection, that though in single life your joys may not be very many, your sorrows, at least, will not be more than you can bear. Marriage may change your circumstances for the better, but, in my private opinion, it is far more likely to produce a contrary result.”

Anne Bronte allowed the character of Helen to be outspoken, independent and strong, and as such it was claimed by critics of the day that she was unfeminine. What Helen did, was to take charge of her own life, and in doing so find a way to be happy, and safe. She removed her son from his father, and for some time lived independently of her husband.

“You may think it all very fine, Mr. Huntingdon, to amuse yourself with rousing my jealousy; but take care you don’t rouse my hate instead. And when you have once extinguished my love, you will find it no easy matter to kindle it again.”

thetenantofwildfellhall1That a woman should take charge of her own life, walk away from an abusive partner, remove her son from the malign influence of a violent and drunken father, is perhaps a less shocking idea to us today, than it was in 1848. At the time of its publication, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was met by a wave of controversy, although it was at the same time an enormous success. Critics called it “coarse” and thought the subject matter unsuitable for women to read. In one particularly famous scene Helen slams her bedroom door against her husband, following his continued abuse of her, this, going against the sexual politics of the times. Helen’s escape of her husband, supporting herself under an assumed name was also contravening English law. A married woman at this time had no independent legal rights, she was unable to sue for divorce, own her own property or have sole custody of her children. In 1913 the writer May Sinclair said:

“the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.”

There are many people who claim the Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be one of the first truly feminist novels. It is also incidentally, an absolutely brilliant one, every bit as powerful and compelling as those Victorian readers found it to be.

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I chose to read this Bronte novel for my month of re-reading – mainly because I hadn’t much memory of it. I remembered being impressed with the controversial nature of the story – controversial of course for the times in which it was written.

“My heart is too thoroughly dried to be broken in a hurry, and I mean to live as long as I can.”

The story is that of Helen Graham/Huntingdon married to a man who proves to be a drunken bully and adulterer. Fearful of the effect of such a man upon her son she flees her marriage taking her young son with her, setting up home under an assumed name. The story is told in three parts. The first part of the story is told by Gilbert Markham, a young man who comes to meet the new tenant of Wildfell Hall, an apparently beautiful young widow, living in inexplicable solitude with her young son and a trusty old servant. Helen lives quietly but is obliged to make herself known a little to the local community who are soon intrigued by their mysterious neighbour. The vicious local gossips soon do their worst much to Gilbert’s fury, as he has fallen in love with Helen. The second part story is that of Helen’s marriage told through her diary that she intrusts to Gilbert Markham. This is the longest section of the novel, the story of Helen’s courtship, marriage and the gradual breakdown of her marriage to a selfish, drunken bully, is surprisingly readable still. During this section Anne Bronte has much to say about marriage, highlighting how for women marriage was life changing in a way it wasn’t for men, how when they married they effectively handed over their entire future happiness to their husbands as they no longer retained any control over it.

“You need not fear me, for I not only should think it wrong to marry a man that was deficient in sense or in principle, but I should never be tempted to do it; for I could not like him, if he were ever so handsome, and ever so charming, in other respects; I should hate him—despise him—pity him—anything but love him. My affections not only ought to be founded on approbation, but they will and must be so: for, without approving, I cannot love. It is needless to say, I ought to be able to respect and honour the man I marry, as well as love him, for I cannot love him without.”

The final part of the story is again told by Gilbert Markham, who now being fully cognisant of Helen’s story has to content himself with second hand news of Helen as she leaves Wildfell Hall .
What is particularly fascinating about this novel however is how Anne Bronte came to write it. Anne, the youngest of the famous Bronte sisters was always of delicate health and in fact died just one year after writing this novel. She twice found positions as a governess, the first of those positions influenced her writing of Agnes Grey, and her second miserable position was her influence for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This position was to the daughters of the Reverend Robinson at Thorp Green Hall – a place where for four years Anne was apparently deeply unhappy. She stayed however for the sake of her brother Branwell, for who she was able to help secure the position as tutor to the Robinsons son. However Branwell embarked upon an affair with his employer’s wife, and when the affair was discovered he was cast out and disgraced, and in his misery turned to drink and opium which eventually killed him. Branwell had believed himself in love with Mrs Robinson and that she returned his feelings, however when her husband died she clearly had no thought of marrying her former lover but instead re-married a wealthy and titled man.
branwellbronteIn the novel Arthur Huntingdon is selfish unpleasant character, totally without conscience – he is certainly not Branwell for Branwell although deeply flawed was not without heart – so we are told by Winifred Gerin at least in the afterword to this edition. Certainly I felt that it is the women in Anne Bronte’s novel who come in for just as much criticism as the selfish dissolute men who make up Arthur Huntingdon’s social circle. The gossiping nasty malicious women who destroy Helen Graham’s reputation are horribly realistic, while the artful Annabella Lowborough who conducts an affair with Arthur Huntingdon under Helen’s own roof with no conscience whatsoever is really quite monstrous. Interestingly none of these women find real happiness.

 

This is certainly a novel of its time, in the 1840’s when Anne Bronte was writing; a married woman and her child belonged absolutely to her husband. She had no rights as we understand them today. The idea of a wife leaving her husband, taking their child and living in seclusion under as assumed name, was one quite shocking to many people in the 1840’s. One of the things that most concerned Anne’s character of Helen Huntingdon, just as it would have concerned Anne Bronte as she saw her brother’s descent into degradation, was the question of his soul. The belief that only a last minute redemption could save a sinner from eternal damnation was something which tortured both Anne and Helen.

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