The cold clear eye of the youngest Brontë: Marriage can seriously damage your health
I’m slightly shame-faced to say that until this year I had never read either of the two books written by the youngest Brontë sister, Anne, despite being an Eng Lit graduate, with a fairly sound lifetime reading of classics habit.
I had accepted, without exploring for myself, the generally expressed opinion that she was a lesser writer than her two more celebrated sisters.
And then I read Samantha Ellis’s wonderful biography Take Courage : Anne Brontë and the Art of Life. I very much admire Ellis’ writing, so the fact she was so warmly championing Anne meant I was going to rectify my ignorance of her writing. I had also been aware that she has very much been taken up by feminist readers and writers, as having a far less ‘romantic’ viewpoint, and engaging with far more realism, and, indeed, one could say political (left leaning) concerns.
At the time, her writing, particularly The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was, on its first printing both popular and horrifyingly shocking, unmasking as it did, alcoholism, sexual abuse within marriage, adultery – and having a strong female character who takes the choice to break free of the despotism of her husband. This was Victorian upper middle class society, and marriage as commercial transaction, laid bare. Much of the filthy linen in society given a very thorough public washing.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in 1848. It wasn’t until 1870 that the Married Womens’ Property Act gave women the right to own any property of their own – whether through the wages from their own work, or from inheritance. Before that time (and therefore at the time of this novel) marriage conferred ownership of the woman herself, and all her material assets, to her husband. Make a bad marriage, and there was little chance of escape, or to live independently. If a woman chose to leave an abusive marriage, without the right to take back control of any property which she had inherited, or to her own wages, if she could work, there was no way to support her children. Single women and widows had rights which married women had forfeited
The central character in the book, Helen Graham, makes an imprudent marriage, and has to find a way to disappear for her own safety and the moral safety of her son. More than this, Helen is strong, intelligent, and is able to make her own way as an artist, and support herself and her son through her art. In many ways, she is a kind of forerunner and beacon, in fiction, for the women Virginia Woolf was writing about and making clarion calls for in A Room of One’s Own
I found Wildfell Hall, in terms of its subject matter, marvellous, and yes, in many ways Anne’s creation seemed to speak in a far more profoundly and tellingly modern way than Emily or Charlotte’s. But – though the subject matter itself makes me completely understand why she has been rediscovered by feminists, I did find myself in agreement, still, with that judgement of her being a lesser writer than her sisters. She is far more polemical, and Helen at times is remarkably priggish, spouting page after page of extremely fine philosophical diatribe. The structure of the novel is also, perhaps, a less happy one. A large part of the book is a recounting, several years after the events of the novel, by one of the central characters in the book, Gilbert Markham. This is done in the form of letters written by Markham to a close friend. The letters never, to me, seemed the kind of thing a man would write to another man, as there was far too much detail about upholstery, clothing, and the like. It would have been a far better decision to have told the story in the third person. Markham also assiduously copies out vast tracts of Helen’s journals in his letters to his friend. Which not only seems rather unethical, but, again, is not quite credible. Without wanting to reveal spoilers, there is also a rather incredible decision taken by the author, to keep information hidden from Gilbert Markham which leads to incidents of high dramatic misunderstanding. A simple revelation would have been what reality should have demanded.
So……….for the importance of Anne’s book, what she is writing about, and when, I absolutely admired it. She is, I think a writer of social realism, and also, despite the shock felt by some contemporaries that what she was writing about was degraded and horrible – an intensely moral one. The degradation and horror were that what she wrote about was real. She was assuredly not a romantic novelist.
Here is Anne, with Helen as her mouthpiece, talking about a disparity she regards as flawed, between the moral education of daughters and the moral education of sons:
You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others. Now I would have both so to benefit by the experience of others, and the precepts of a higher authority, that they should know beforehand to refuse the evil and choose the good, and require no experimental proofs to teach them the evil of transgression. I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself
Although on publication the book was popular with readers, the establishment view was not so favourable, with some contemporary literary critics bemoaning the ‘coarseness’ of the writing and subject matter. For example, Charles Kingsley author of The Water Babies, criticised the book thus:
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…
As contrast, here is what Anne herself wrote, in the preface to the second edition, as a rebuttal to criticisms
When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers?
A powerful read, even though, in my opinion, it is not quite so satisfying purely in its literary merits.
The BBC TV production starred Tara Fitzgerald as Helen, Rupert Graves as the handsome Byronic reprobate Arthur Huntingdon and Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham, the assiduous letter writer!