Happy Saturday! In today’s post, I’m taking a look at the works of Anne Bronte (1820 – 1849).
Anne Brontë was an English novelist and poet. She was also the youngest member of the Brontë family but she has always been less famous than her sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Despite being hidden in the shadows of her famous sisters, Anne’s writing has always intrigued me because she was arguably the most daring of the Brontë sisters.
Under the pseudonym Acton Bell, Anne Brontë published two novels. Her first novel, Agnes Grey*, was published in 1847 and her second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall*, was printed a year later in 1848. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is thought to be one of the first sustained feminist novels and Agnes Grey also deals with feminist themes.
Agnes Grey, A Novel follows a governess as she works within families of the English gentry. Comments made by Charlotte Brontë seem to suggest that this novel was based on Anne Brontë’s own experiences as a governess and, like Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, the novel addresses the precarious position of governess and how it affected young women. Brontë’s novel tells of the abuse and isolation that governesses faced and it focuses on themes of oppression and empathy. Despite its themes, the novel wasn’t considered controversial during its own time.
In contrast, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been described as the most shocking of the Brontës’ novels. The novel is framed as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend about the events connected with his meeting a young widow, who calls herself Helen Graham, who arrives at Wildfell Hall with her young son and a servant. She pursues a career as an artist and makes an income by selling her pictures but her seclusion and mysterious life leads to gossip and she becomes a social outcast. Gilbert befriends her and discovers her awful past.
In this novel, Anne Brontë explored alcoholism, domestic violence, gender roles, marriage, motherhood, and the idea of the woman artist. Through these themes, Brontë directly challenged societal ideas and British Law and I’m going to work through a few of these themes to demonstrate how Brontë subverted social norms.
The entire plot of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall revolves around a woman who has escaped her abusive husband. Arthur Huntingdon, Helen’s first husband, is an abusive alcoholic but Helen initially stays with him, despite his abusive behaviour, as she believed that reforming her husband was her moral and religious obligation. He is absolutely repugnant and he even teaches their five-year-old son to drink and swear. By leaving her husband and taking away their child, Helen violated the social conventions of nineteenth-century Britain and broke English law but she did so for the sake of herself and her young son.
In chapter thirty-one, there is a horrifying exchange between Millicent Hargrave and her husband that reveals the reality of her home life:
“Do let me alone, Ralph! Remember, we are not at home.”
“No matter: you shall answer my question!” exclaimed her tormentor; and he attempted to extort the confession by shaking her, and remorselessly crushing her slight arms in the gripe of his powerful fingers.
Marianne Thormählen refers to this moment as ‘one of the most harrowing sentences in the entire novel’ as Millicent reminds Ralph that they are not at home and his treatment of her will not be tolerated in public.1 Ralph is shown to reform his behaviour towards the end of the novel but he also blames Millicent for her own abuse by claiming that she ‘never tried’ him when he became violent, insinuating that he would have stopped if she had stood up for herself. He is, even after he has ‘reformed’ an utterly loathsome character and Brontë’s exploration of domestic violence is haunting.
In regards to gender roles, Brontë chose to dismantle a specific aspect of nineteenth-century domestic ideology as she subverted the notion of women’s influence on men. This idea suggests that a woman can tame and manage her husband and for some women this was their ambition. Brontë presents masculinity as resistant to the softening or ‘superior’ influence of women, despite Ralph’s insistence that Millicent could have avoided her abuse if she had ‘tried’ him. She also highlights the flaws in this ideology through Helen, who sees it as her moral duty to tame her first husband, as she cannot reform his abusive behaviour, no matter how headstrong she is. We can, perhaps, thank Hannah More for the popularity of this idea as she famously advocated for it and this doctrine was even found in some proto-feminist texts. I know that these women were looking for any crumb of power in a society which rendered them powerless but, in hindsight, this wasn’t the best way to go. Ultimately, Brontë suggests that this ideology is dangerous for women as it encourages them to marry abusive, horrible men.
Priti Joshi argues that Helen’s second husband, Gilbert, is ‘tottering toward a new form of masculinity’ as he learns to communicate and reveal emotions, even though this is considered to be feminine.2 Brontë suggests that this is the only he can redeem himself and become a decent husband and she was examining the toxic aspects of masculinity and patriarchal expectations of men before we had a term for it. The fact that it is still considered ‘feminine’ (and therefore undesirable by patriarchal standards) for a man to talk about his feelings is incredibly disheartening and when I read books like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was published in 1848, I feel like we haven’t changed as much as our predecessors may have hoped.
Women as Artist
Brontë’s most controversial theme in this novel may be ‘woman as artist’ as, through Helen, Brontë invaded the masculine world of art. At this time, women artists were expected to work in watercolours or pen and ink (you know, delicate, decorative art) but they did not engage in trade. They were not supposed to earn a living from art in the way that Helen does. Making an income through art gives Helen an enormous amount of financial independence within the space of the novel even though women had very little independence and very few rights in Victorian Britain.
Scholars have pointed out that at the beginning of her diary, when she was young and unmarried, Helen defined herself as an artist but, after her marriage to Arthur, Helen, accepted the roles of wife and housekeeper and rarely referred to herself as an artist. Helen’s perspective about herself and her art is forced to change after marriage. The art that she does produce during her marriage legally belongs to her husband, due to the laws of the day, and this allowed Arthur to destroy them as he pleased. Nicole A. Diederich argues that in her attempts to become a paid artist ‘Helen reclaims her artistic talent as her own, distinct from her husband’s possession of her art, and of her’.3
Samantha Ellis has suggested that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may have inspired Emily Mary Osborn’s painting Nameless and Friendless (1857), which depicts a widow attempting to make a living as an artist.4
Art was simultaneously a source of oppression and freedom for Victorian women as they were confined by the expectations of the society in which they lived and yet art presented these women with an opportunity to express themselves. Diederich suggests that the novel calls for ‘more support for married and remarried women’s legal rights and artistic opportunities in nineteenth-century Britain’.5 Brontë was championing women in this novel and she used The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to argue for their legal rights as women, wives, mothers, and artists.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an instant success after its publication, despite its controversial ideas, and Charles Kingsley, in his review for Fraser’s Magazine wrote: ‘A people’s novel of a very different school is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It is, taken altogether, a powerful and an interesting book. Not that it is a pleasant book to read, nor, as we fancy, has it been a pleasant book to write; still less has it been a pleasant training which could teach an author such awful facts, or give courage to write them. The fault of the book is coarseness—not merely that coarseness of subject which will be the stumbling-block of most readers, and which makes it utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls.’6 Despite saying this, he also believed that English ‘society owes thanks, not sneers, to those who dare to shew her the image of her own ugly, hypocritical visage’ which is a fascinatingly contradictory opinion to hold.7 Perhaps he thought it was intended to make men sit up and take stock of their own actions rather than advocating for the rights of women.
Other reviews praised the author for making ‘incongruities appear natural’ (i.e. the men who indulge in the feminine trait of having *emotions*) and writing ‘the most entertaining novel [they had] read in a month past’.8 Sharpe’s London Magazine said that ‘despite reports to the contrary […] [no] woman could have written such a work’ and I hope that particular reviewer lived long enough to find out that it was, in fact, written by a woman.9
I’d say that the highest praise came from Edwin Percy Whipple, writing for the North American Review, as he considered The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ‘less unpleasant’ than Wuthering Heights.10
Despite the popularity and praise that the book gained, Charlotte Brontë prevented its republication in England after Anne’s death until 1854. It was still printed in the USA because of differing copyright laws but Charlotte actively suppressed the radical feminist work of her own sister. Thinking about this leaves me with just one question: why?
Some critics believe that Charlotte’s suppression of the book was an attempt to protect her younger sister’s memory from further criticism. Anne’s work was heavily criticised, both before and after her death, and this may well be the reason that Charlotte suppressed the publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. However, all of the sisters received criticism after their novels were published so this seems odd to me. It could definitely be true though. Perhaps Charlotte was particularly protective of her youngest sister who died at a terribly young age.
Other scholars and critics believe that Charlotte was jealous of her younger sister but Charlotte was certainly the most successful writer of all three sisters. These critics often point towards a letter Charlotte wrote to W.S. Williams in which she criticised The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:
‘That it had faults of execution, faults of art, was obvious, but faults of intention of feeling could be suspected by none who knew the writer. For my part, I consider the subject unfortunately chosen – it was one the author was not qualified to handle at once vigorously and truthfully. The simple and natural – quiet description and simple pathos – are, I think Acton Bell’s forte. I liked Agnes Grey better than the present work.’11
I find this letter intriguing but it is also awful. Agnes Grey bears a strong resemblance to both Jane Eyre and perhaps that’s why she found it more agreeable but I hate that Charlotte dismissed Anne’s ability and ideas so easily. She clearly underestimated her sister.
Juliet Barker suggests that ‘Charlotte […] was prepared to consign her sister’s novel to oblivion because she considered its subject at odds with her own perception of what Anne’s character was and ought to have been’.12 If this is true, then it wasn’t jealousy that drove Charlotte to stop the republication of her sister’s novel but her own disbelief that her beloved sister, whom she obviously knew better than anyone, could write such a novel. Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, The Life of Charlotte Brontë*, supports this theory as she claimed that the subject of the novel ‘was painfully discordant to one who would fain have sheltered herself from all but peaceful and religious ideas’.13
No matter the reason, Charlotte suppressed the work of her sister and she almost consigned the novel to obscurity forever. Thankfully, in recent years the novel has gained critical acclaim and its reputation as a landmark feminist text has been solidified. Charlotte Brontë did not want her sister’s radical ideas to be shared because they did not align with her own image of her sister but today we celebrate these ideas and Anne Brontë as a writer.
Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has long been my favourite of all of the Bronte novels and I’m so glad I wrote this post for Women’s History Month.
If you enjoyed this post or found it interesting then please consider supporting me on ko-fi or, if you’re interested in any of the books I’ve talked about in this post, check out my bookshop.org UK* list which features all of the books I’ll be talking about during Women’s History Month!
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1. Marianne Thormählen, ‘The Villain of “Wildfell Hall”: Aspects and Prospects of Arthur Huntingdon’, The Modern Language Review, 88.5 (1993), 831–841 (page)
2. Priti Joshi, ‘Masculinity and Gossip in Anne Brontë’s “Tenant“‘, SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900, 49.4 (2009), 907–924 (916)
3. Nicole A. Diederich, ‘The Art of Comparison: Remarriage in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 57.2 (2003), 25–41 (32)
4. Samantha Ellis, “The Woman Who Ran by Sam Baker review – 21st‑century take on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, The Guardian (2016)
5. Nicole A. Diederich, p.38
6. Charles Kingsley, ‘Recent Novels’ in Fraser’s Magazine, 9.229 (Jan 1849), 417–432 (423-424)
7. Charles Kingsley, 424
8. Review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Literary World, 243 (1848); ‘The tenant of wildfell hall’, The Athenaeum, 1080 (1848), 670-671
9. ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, Sharpe’s London Magazine, 7 (1848), 181-184
10. Edwin Percy Whipple,’ Novels of the Season’, North American Review, 141 (1848), 354-69
11. ‘Charlotte to William Smith Williams; Haworth, 31 July 1848’ in The Brontës: A Life in Letters (London: Little Brown Book Group, 2016)
12. Juliet Barker, The Brontës (London: Phoenix House, 1995), p.654
13. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1857), p.52
1. A sketch of Anne by Charlotte Bronte (c.1834)
2. Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, etc.” – Proverbs, x, 15 (1857) – Tate
3. Title page of the first edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (London: T. C. Newby, 1848)