As a long-time fan of the Brontë sisters (Anne, Emily and Charlotte, in order of preference) I was eager to see To Walk Invisible, the recent BBC drama depicting their early lives.
I was particularly keen to see if the drama would follow the well-trodden path of some literary critics, by lauding Charlotte as a feminist and and ignoring Anne. Although it went some way to quashing the idea of “Anne the lesser sister”, it followed the usual pattern of portraying Charlotte as a feminist before her time. This was reflected in the reviews: Den of Geek points out that “early in the piece, Charlotte bemoans a woman’s lot in a similar speech to the one she would later give her most famous character, Jane Eyre”.
Although I enjoyed it, the BBC adaptation reignited a sense of injustice I feel whenever the Brontës’ work is discussed: the dismissal of Anne as both a writer to equal her sisters and as a feminist revolutionary. So, this post is about why Anne Brontë is a true feminist hero. And also why we should maybe think twice about plugging the idea of Charlotte the Feminist Trailbazer.
Anne: telling uncomfortable truths
A viewpoint I’ve come across in literary criticism of the Brontës is the need to make a ‘feminist reading’ of Jane Eyre. That seems to mean that if you read it with your feminist hat on, and go mining for feminist goodies, you’ll unearth some. You need make no such effort with Anne’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The feminist message sears the page.
Before I get into the text itself, I want to stop to consider another writer I love – Charles Dickens. Dickens used characters like Jo in Bleak House to show the rest of society how poverty and neglect laid waste to the lives of the poor. He pulls no punches – Jo is always “moved on” by those in authority, despite being a homeless orphan, destitute and having nowhere to “move on” to. Jo dies in the street, hapless and penniless, a child with no-one to mourn him. Dickens was revolutionary in that he used his writing to effect social change. He holds up a mirror to society, asking “what kind of culture permits a child to die on the street? How do we remedy this?”
That’s the first step to remedying a societal ill: shining a light on it. It’s not welcome, it often makes people uncomfortable – but we need to see the unvarnished truth.
In the preface to the second edition, Anne wrote ‘My object in writing […] was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral’.
Anne Brontë’s truth was an unwelcome one, that her contemporary readers were not ready to hear: why we need feminism.
Helen’s choices (or lack thereof)
Helen Graham, the heroine of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is young, well-off and beautiful. Beguiled by good looks and charm, she marries Arthur Huntingdon. Arthur turns out to be dissolute, vicious, and a self-destructive alcoholic. They have an infant son together, who Arthur corrupts – by teaching him to swear at his mother and plying him (a toddler) with alcohol. Profligate and unfaithful, Arthur’s initial tenderness for Helen turns to contempt, as he boasts to his friends that “I value her so highly, that any one among you, that can fancy her, can have her and welcome”. Because Wildfell Hall is an epistolary novel, we follow Helen’s disillusionment via her diary entries, watch her brimming hope for her marriage turn to disappointment, regret, then revulsion.
Unsurprisingly, Helen wants to leave Arthur. But though an heiress when she married, all of her money and possessions now belong to Arthur. She exists legally as a chattel of her husband. Strong-willed and intelligent, Helen is also a talented artist, and plans to escape to a quiet retreat and make a small living selling paintings. Arthur hears of her plans, restricts her access to money, and burns her painting materials. Helen is resourceful though, and escapes with the help of a relative and her servants. She hopes to live quietly at Wildfell Hall, and preserve her son from Arthur’s contaminating influence.
She succeeds. But as a single woman, she is subjected to malicious remarks from the local women and minister, who speculate that she is an unmarried mother and the mistress of her landlord. Those are her choices: stay and watch the ruination of her son, or leave her husband (which is illegal) and become an object of scorn.
Patriarchy, hiding in plain sight
Because of patriarchy, there can be no peace for Helen. She is constantly afraid that her husband will find her place of refuge, remove (and corrupt) their son. Which would be perfectly legal. Arthur already has her money – because she has no right of property, and no money of her own any more. And although he could divorce her if he chose, she is refused a divorce without his consent.
Anne’s tactic here is similar to Dickens’. Via Helen, she lifts a mirror up to Victorian readers, and shows them just vulnerable women are to the whims of men. And how fucked they are when marriages break down. Eventually, (spoiler alert) Helen finds love with a second husband, Gilbert Markham. But that is not the point of the book. In the preface to the second edition, Anne wrote that “when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own”. With icy clarity, Anne shows how women suffer, and how children’s lives are blighted by sexual inequality.
Asking the right questions
Another aspect of Wildfell Hall that makes it so strikingly feminist are the questions Anne poses, via Helen. Early in the novel, Helen learns that another suitor, Mr Boarham, has approached her aunt and uncle (her guardians) to ask for her hand in marriage. Helen answers “I hope my uncle and you told him it was not in your power to give it. What right had he to ask anyone before me?”
What right, indeed. To this day, some men still ask a woman’s father for her hand in marriage. Anne was questioning this back in 1848.
Later, having been introduced to Gilbert Markham and his mother, the three talk about the best way to rear a young boy. Gilbert believes boys shouldn’t be overly sheltered, that “if you were to rear an oak sapling in a hothouse, tending it carefully day and night…you could not expect it to become a hardy tree, like that which has grown up on the mountain-side, exposed to all the action of the elements”. Helen counter this by saying “Granted; – but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?”
What follows is a debate about the education of girls and boys, in which Anne discusses the sexism at the heart of this paradigm. Why must girls be sheltered, while men are free to experience the world? Are girls innately more prone to moral corruption, that they shouldn’t be exposed to it? It’s a debate that’s still relevant today. Again, Anne was ahead of her time.
What did the public make of Wildfell Hall?
Anne published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848, the year after Wuthering Heights (Emily’s), Jane Eyre (Charlotte’s) and Agnes Grey (Anne’s first novel) hit the shelves. It was to be her final novel – she died from consumption the following year.
Deemed a “phenomenal success”, the novel sold more copies than Wuthering Heights had the year before. That said, some contemporary critics shied away from the character of Arthur Huntingdon (styled on Anne’s brother, Branwell). They found the subject matter – a wife’s anguish at her husband’s self-destructive alcoholism – too coarse. That said, one critic made what I consider to be a penetrating observation: “[English] society owes thanks, not sneers, to those who dare to shew her the image of her own ugly, hypocritical visage”.
But Victorian society wasn’t ready to contemplate its “hypocritical visage”. The obvious remedy to the powerlessness of women Anne portrayed would be for men to give up some their power: by allowing women equal rights of property within marriage, or by giving them the vote. Or for that matter, simply acknowledging that Anne had a point. Instead, Anne was deemed coarse-minded for giving voice to the truths she has observed. Her revolutionary message was ignored and snuffed out. Disappointingly, her own sister Charlotte was the biggest detractor of Anne’s work, most notably in her ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’, published after the deaths of Anne and Emily.
Finding the subject matter distasteful, Charlotte seemingly missed the point that Arthur Huntingdon’s depravity was necessary: to show what women were exposed to. She wrote that “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake”.
Writing to her publisher, Charlotte also said that she didn’t think Anne’s book was worth preserving, or reprinting. In fact, she suppressed the reprint when it became due in 1850. And in the now-famous biographical notice, Charlotte laments the poor reception of Emily’s book, opining that “[Anne] wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister”. Our contemporary view of Anne is, I believe, tainted by Charlotte’s subjective opinion of her sisters and their writing talents.
If Charlotte had refrained from placing Anne and her work at the bottom of the pecking order, would we have a different opinion of the Brontë novels today? I believe so. Michael Armitage of Sheffield University writes that “Charlotte lived on for another five years [after Anne’s death] during which time her later novels, along with Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights continued to be published, firmly launching these two sisters into literary stardom; while Anne’s masterpiece was completely suppressed”.
As a writer and a sister, it was Charlotte’s prerogative to comment on her sister’s book. I don’t take issue with her right to have an opinion, although I absolutely disagree with her views. What bothers me is the fact that today we celebrate Charlotte as a ‘feminist trailblazer’ – when she suppressed and belittled Anne’s feminist text. Which isn’t very sisterly, in either the familial or the feminist sense. (Her denigrations of Anne as a novelist I’ll leave for a future blog). Anne’s novel – described by Dr Stevie Davis in the preface to the Penguin edition as “a feminist manifesto of revolutionary power and intelligence” wouldn’t be in our hands today if Charlotte had had her way. That’s another reason why I’m uncomfortable when I see Charlotte singled out from among her sisters and lauded as a feminist.
Anne’s legacy to me
I end on a personal note. In my bedroom hangs a print by Joaquin Sorolla that I bought in 2008 from the Prado in Madrid. It’s called María pintando en el Pardo and shows a woman painting in profile. I bought it because it reminded me of Anne’s Helen, painting to earn a living, and bearing up with dignity against a phalanx of patriarchal heartbreak. It’s a totem of calm in a mad world, and it soothes me. But it also pains me sometimes, when I think that Anne created this powerful and subversive book, yet was made to feel ashamed of it. Without denigrating either Charlotte or Emily, it’s time we recognise Anne, my unsung feminist hero.