This month sees the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Anne Brontë on 17th January 1820.
For a great many people Anne Brontë is ‘that other one’. As in ‘Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and that other one’ when speaking of the three sisters and their lives and works. This is unfortunate as it means many readers overlook Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a highly significant piece of fiction from the moment of its publication in 1848.
My introduction to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an early one as my mother was a huge fan of the television series in 1968 which starred Janet Munro as Helen Huntingdon. It was the first Brontë novel I read so it was never eclipsed for me by Charlotte and Emily’s work, marvellous though that is. Of course, at age ten or so when I read it, I was oblivious to the social reverberations of the story. But I reread it at university in the early 1980s and was profoundly impressed by its relevance for a modern reader.
It’s been described as the most shocking of the novels of the Brontë sisters because of its themes of domestic abuse and female self-determination. Many consider it to be one of the very first feminist novels. Helen Huntingdon flees her alcoholic and abusive husband Arthur, taking their young son with her. She sets up home as an independent woman at Wildfell Hall, along with her child and a servant, and she supports herself by selling her paintings.
In doing so Helen not only offends Victorian social convention but breaks nineteenth century English law; it wasn’t until the 1870s and the Married Women’s Property Act that a wife had any independent identity in English law. She had no right to own property – if she was an heiress, her lands passed immediately to her husband – or to sign any contracts on her own behalf. She was also unable to sue for divorce – although she could be divorced by her husband – or to have custody or control of her children.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is based far more in reality than the Gothic novels of her two sisters. Many elements in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are thoroughly fantastical and imbued with Gothic sensibility, and they are powerful because of it. But Helen Huntingdon’s story has a different power of its own that should rightly strike a chord for any modern reader. Anne’s own sister, Charlotte, disapproved of the realism with which alcoholism, abuse and degeneracy are presented in the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Indeed Charlotte prevented the novel’s republication for several years after Anne’s death, despite its initial success.
Helen’s creative life is depicted in the novel as something deeply important to her, something strangled by the demands of her role as a married woman and the social conventions of her era. For me, this is the most significant aspect of the novel, one that reverberates deeply with me. I can identify very much with her struggle to express herself creatively.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is significant for a few reasons. It’s significant as an historical source for an examination of the role of women in early nineteenth century England. It examines issues to do with marital roles, domestic abuse, and alcoholism that are still relevant today. And it examines the struggle that any individual – man or woman – may face when expressing their creativity, and the need for that creativity to be valued.