Overshadowed by her sisters’ literary fame, Anne Bronte is now regarded as a feminist writer by many
Anne Bronte wanted to write the truth, about people and society. It was a risky thing to do in the 1840s, especially for a woman, when Victorian-era respectability established a strict code of social conduct. Anything which challenged the morality and respectability of the times (or the appearance of it) was regarded with disapproval. And Anne – whose birth bicentenary was on January 17 – was determined to look beyond appearances. She paid dearly for it, often lost under the shadow of the literary genius of her better known sisters – Charlotte and Emily – whose works ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, are regarded as classics. But Anne, unlike her sisters, couldn’t, or wouldn’t, look at life and people through the prism of romance. Take for example, ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’, her second novel, published in 1848.
Centred on the themes of marital discord and gender roles, the book lays bare the suffering of the protagonist, Helen Huntingdon, whose husband, Arthur, is selfish, has no intellectual depth or integrity of character, often drinks too much and cheats on his wife. Unlike Rochester in ‘Jane Eyre’ and Heathcliff in ‘Wuthering Heights’, Anne doesn’t give Arthur Huntingdon the excuse of a mad wife or an all-consuming passion to explain his fall. Neither does she allow Helen to break down in tears or resign to her fate. Helen not only does nothing to hide her contempt of her husband, but, once she becomes aware of his cheating, tries to leave him. When she can’t, for her husband “wasn’t going to be made the talk of the country for your fastidious caprices”, Helen makes it clear that no real conjugal relationship will exist between them anymore. Finally though, fear of her husband’s bad influence on her young son makers her run away with the child.
But just as Helen’s husband accused her of “unwomanly conduct”, critics at the time either questioned Anne’s theme, or dismissed it as a sermon against alcoholism. The book wasn’t a commercial failure, however, and was selling. But after her death, her sister Charlotte not only prevented the re-publication of the book, but wrote in a letter: “’Wildfell Hall’ it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is
Twentieth century critics, however, in rediscovering ‘The Tenant…’ found in it early reflections of a feminist voice. In The Question of Credibility in Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, scholar Arlene M Jackson writes: “Anne Bronte also answers a question that other novels of her time do not ask: what happens to a marriage and to the innocent partner when one partner (specifically, the male) leads a solipsistic life, where personal pleasures are seen as deserved…”. Others have found suggestions of physical and sexual
abuse in the novel.
Helen at one point refers to her husband’s behaviour as that of a “brute”. Early in their marriage, she confesses: “I could do with less caressing and more rationality: I should like to be less of a pet and more of a friend, if I might choose”. But choice is something that Helen, like most women of her time do not have. Even before she is married, Helen’s aunt cautions her against rejecting a suitor: “don’t give him a flat denial; he has no idea of such a thing, and it would offend him greatly” (reminding readers of Elizabeth’s refusal of Collins in Jane Austen’s ‘Pride And Prejudice’). Once married her fortune – and even she herself – belongs to her husband, to do with as he pleases. Not only does she need her husband’s permission to leave with her money and her son, even after she catches him cheating on her, but in a moment of drunken frivolity, he tells his friends: “I value her so highly that any one among you, that can fancy her, may have her”.
Even after suffering such humiliation, Helen’s brother, though grieved by her condition, looks upon her intention of leaving her husband “as wild and impracticable” and suggests milder ways of helping her.
In the preface to the second edition of ‘The Tenant…’, Anne, addressing those who censured her “for depicting con amore, with “a morbid love of the coarse, if not of the brutal”, wrote, “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?”
It was this desire for honesty that made Anne dwell on class and gender issues in ‘Agnes Grey’, her first published novel. But it was Anne’s fate to be overshadowed by her sisters. Charlotte’s passionate love story of a plain-Jane governess and her rich employer was published two months before ‘Agnes Grey’, also an account of a governess’s life (though Anne started her book much before). And romance is so much more captivating than reality.