Anne Brontë: On male entitlement and free speech

By Don Franks

Up until 1870, when the Married Women’s Property Act was passed, an English woman had no legal existence independent from her husband. A married woman could not own property, sue for divorce or control the custody of her children.

Twenty-two years before the act’s passing, a young writer’s novel was published, depicting a woman successfully leaving her abusive drunken husband to protect their son from his influence. The wife, Helen, supports herself and her boy financially by painting while they remain in hiding. Helen’s character defied the conventions and law of the day. Her husband had a right to reclaim her and charge her with kidnapping. By subsisting on her own income she was stealing her husband’s property since this income was legally his.

An immediate hit with the public, the novel sold out its first edition but was dismissed by critics as overly graphic, coarse and disturbing. In a preface to the second edition the author vigorously defended her approach: “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? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts – this whispering ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience”.

Today, Anne Bronte’s book is probably the least known of the Bronte sister’s main works. By way of a crude measure, elder sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre shows 14,600,000 internet hits, Emily’s Wuthering Heights 8,350,000 and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a distant third at 503,000. I loved all three novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall most of all. The storyline relates young Helen Graham’s disastrous marriage to the dashing drunkard Arthur Huntingdon, her flight from him to the seclusion of Wildfell Hall and her love affair with local farmer Gilbert Markham. The characters, central and secondary, are vividly drawn, memorable people. The dialogue has a modern ring, especially in the scenes of conflict. Arthur Huntington’s descent into alcohol addiction is a starkly realistic depiction. Obviously drawn from the author’s dissipated elder brother Bramwell, it’s a likely reason elder sister Charlotte disapproved of the book.

Throughout the book, along with the drunken brawling, violent abuse and intensely passionate love scenes, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is suffused with religious faith. Just as in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, faith is the heroine’s anchor in the darkest hours. ‘God help me now!’ I murmured, sinking on my knees among the damp weeds and brushwood that surrounded me, and looking up at the moonlit sky, through the scant foliage above. It seemed all dim and quivering now to my darkened sight. My burning, bursting heart strove to pour forth its agony to God, but could not frame its anguish into prayer; until a gust of wind swept over me, which, while it scattered the dead leaves, like blighted hopes, around, cooled my forehead, and seemed a little to revive my sinking frame. Then, while I lifted up my soul in speechless, earnest supplication, some heavenly influence seemed to strengthen me within: I breathed more freely; my vision cleared; I saw distinctly the pure moon shining on, and the light clouds skimming the clear, dark sky; and then I saw the eternal stars twinkling down upon me; I knew their God was mine, and He was strong to save and swift to hear. ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,’ seemed whispered from above their myriad orbs. No, no; I felt He would not leave me comfortless: in spite of earth and hell I should have strength for all my trials, and win a glorious rest at last! Refreshed, invigorated, if not composed, I rose and returned to the house.”

With this mindset, Helen Graham never ceases her struggle to save the soul of her erring husband, while at the same time never accepting his supposedly god-given authority over her. For some modern critics this spoils the work. Marianne Thormahlen noted that the book:” is in the odd position of never having been quite right for its time: too shocking in its uncensored treatment of domestic abuse and addiction for the 19th century, and too didactic and moralizing in its condemnation of both for the 20th century.”

Although not a Christian myself, I don’t find the religious passages off-putting, they work for me because unlike the affectation of Christianity by some of today’s politicians, the faith is genuine. As the Poetry Foundation puts it: “Her prose frequently achieves elegance through its simplicity; her direct and didactic manner is tempered with a disarming sincerity, so that it succeeds in persuading rather than alienating the reader.”

In the end, what really counts with any novel and keeps it being reprinted, is its entertainment value. We don’t take Dickens from the shelf because we want to feel sorry for young English waifs and strays, we’re seeking time out with the magical characters of his creation. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is above all a fiercely gripping story of human relationships. Along the way it kicks the arse of male entitlement and champions women’s liberation.

We are lucky to have this work, Anne Bronte’s life was cut down by tuberculosis soon after its publication when she was just 29. I think she would have wondered at today’s concerns with ‘hate speech’ and ‘literal violence’. In Anne Bronte’s view: “It is better to arm and strengthen your hero than to disarm and enfeeble your foe, who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose.”