The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Voice and Consent in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The modern idea of consent usually refers to sexual consent, something that the average adult is ideally intellectually capable of providing or withholding. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), Anne Brontë weaves a feminist manifesto through a humble woman’s rejection of an abusive marriage. Much like some of Anne Brontë’s predecessors such as Frances Burney’s Evelina and even Emily’s Wuthering Heights, the narrative is told through multiple perspectives and stories. Initially Helen Graham seems to be an object as she is the center of attention, gossip, and mystery. However, Anne Brontë moves Helen beyond the reader’s expectation and gives her the ability to consent—whether in saying no to her former husband’s tyrannical behavior or consenting to marry Markham in the end—that is realized despite the majority of her presentation being from Markham’s perspective. This essay will discuss how Anne gives Helen a voice and the ability to consent (similar to the modern idea of consent) in an otherwise patriarchal society, allowing the novel to become a radical text despite its reliance on an older narrative style.
Brontë subtly asserts her feminist narrative voice through her depiction of marriage and its flaws. In Elizabeth Langland’s article “The Voicing of Feminine Desire in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” she describes Helen Graham’s diary entries as “nested” within Gilbert Markham’s male authorship and masculine narrative voice (Langland). Because of this, it may seem difficult to see the novel as a radical text, but she declares that the narrative within a narrative as interacting functions that allow for the voicing of Helen’s desire. A large part of this is seen in how Anne depicts Helen’s marriage with Arthur Huntingdon for what it is: abusive, violent, and manipulative. Even before they marry, Helen’s physical mannerisms depict that he is unwelcome and has potential for danger: “But I had not wandered far before my solitude was interrupted by the only person that could have disturbed my musing, at that moment, without being looked upon as an unwelcome intruder; Mr. Huntingdon came suddenly upon me.…immediately I felt his strong arm round my waist and his warm kiss on my cheek, while his keen and gleeful salutation, ‘My own Helen!’ was ringing in my ear. ‘Not yours yet,’ said I, hastily swerving aside from this too presumptuous greeting” (Brontë 146) Helen has an introspective moment to herself to pray and is interrupted with the reality of an unwelcome marriage—specifically through Arthur’s claim of Helen as his own. Even before their marriage, she rejects this advance of ownership and pushes away from his grasp, emphasizing that she is withholding consent to be treated like an owned object. She later does eventually express desire and love for the rakish Arthur against all odds, but the reality of his alcoholism, gambling, potential adultery, and manipulative behavior force her to consider an alternative to her situation. Despite being the most religious and pious of the Brontë sisters, Anne paints a picture of the brutal reality of marriage’s potential to fail, implicating that the finality of marriage should perhaps be reevaluated. She shows how trapped Helen is in a marriage that is ultimately harmful to her and her son’s mental and physical well-being. By exposing the conflict between married ideals and actual married lives, she allows Helen to practice consent and withhold it, ultimately by choosing to escape Arthur with her son. Despite any religious piety, she recognizes that moral objectivism of staying in a terrible marriage is misguided and should be challenged.
Furthermore, Helen’s consent and voice build through her occupation as a professional painter. At first, Helen has no choice but to marry Arthur because she has no familial connections or other fiduciary options. However, she cleverly evaluates her resources to be able to choose to escape her toxic marriage. As a painter, she professionally and analytically approaches her work and deviates from the male gaze’s preconceived notion of the passive female artist. Arthur believes her work to be purely autobiographical or symbolic of her own identity, as seen in his surprise when Helen gives the female subject of her painting light hair rather than dark hair like her own. While Helen’s paintings do have the ability to become a projection of her desire, they more so give her autonomy rather than solely serve as plane for her hopes and fears to manifest. Because she has the talent and enjoyment for painting, she grounds herself in her abilities and takes pride in her work, allowing her to become more comfortable with expressing her emotions in result.
Helen’s consent and vocalization of desire is expressed most positively in her eventual acceptance of Graham Markham. In one of the in final scenes of the novel, it is clear there has been a power shift from Graham to Helen. Helen offers herself (for love and marriage) to Graham through a symbolic alignment with a rose that she finds in the garden: “Look, Gilbert, [the rose] is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals.—Will you have it?” (Brontë 411). Though the reader is only given this moment through Graham’s perspective, Helen’s bold yet wholesome offering moves him to intense emotion and exemplifies not only his feelings for her but the progressive results of a woman expressing desire. After entering a marriage on the premise that she will have to “bring up” the husband from a bad place, Helen reevaluates her desire and expresses them carefully but clearly to attain the relationship she wants. When she cannot read Markham’s reaction to the rose (though the reader knows he is emotionally affected by her offer), she clarifies her intention: “The rose I gave you was an emblem of my heart…would you take it away and leave me here alone?” (Brontë 412). Thinking he misunderstood her, she simplifies what she desires from him, directly voicing vulnerability and a wish that was most likely unusual for a woman at the time to express. Though a humble, pious mother, Helen does not hesitate to express her innermost feelings to show Graham that she desires him, showing her autonomy as a proto-feminist character, despite her expression being shown through Graham’s male narrative voice.
Of the three Brontë sisters, Anne paints in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall perhaps the most honest and controversial picture of domestic abuse and the failure of the law during the time period to protect women from unstable husbands. Helen is able to escape her bad situation, but for many women made powerless through marriage, it was probably not so optimistic. However, Anne regardless gives Helen autonomy as an artist, the ability to provide or choose to withhold consent, and a voice for her desire in the novel, canonizing the text as a proto-feminist effort. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall could even be seen as a response to Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings in the late eighteenth century about female suffering in unloving, manipulative marriages. Though a fictional take on an upper-class female’s position, Anne Brontë’s novel radically gives say—and even more radically, longing—to a woman who is taken advantage of in marriage, challenging female readers to learn from Helen’s experiences, analyze their own relationships, and ultimately find an escape from abuse.
Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Langland, Elizabeth. “The Voicing of Feminine Desire in Anne’s Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Gender and Sexuality in Victorian Literature and Art (1992): 111-123. Document.
Windows as Liminal Spaces in The Tenant of Wildfowl Hall
The Brontë sisters utilized particular spaces in their novels as places of transgression and feminine power, often allowing characters to transcend the confines of civil society, and to commune more closely with the natural world. In Jane Eyre, different spaces such as Gateshead, Lowood School, Thornfield Hall, and Ferndean Manor allowed Jane varying levels of agency in her life and her relationships. Emily Brontë created a tense triad between Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange, and the moors in Wuthering Heights; the energies tied to the estates and the spiritual wildness of the natural world influenced the behavior of the characters throughout the novel. Anne Brontë’s use of space and of windows in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall subtly communicates ways in which the characters transgress social and emotional norms.
Tenant is a novel of tempestuous emotion and trauma, coolly swathed in the textual layers of Gilbert’s letters, Helen’s diary, and Anne’s writing as a whole. The dynamic use of space as a filter allows for the characters’ emotions to be fully felt and confessed. Brontë artfully uses transparency of windows as spaces for transgressive interactions; windows almost attain the status of pseudo Christian confessional. Three specific scenes in Tenant harness the liminal power of the window to emphasize the boundary being approach, crossed, or broken. During Huntingdon’s pursuit of Helen, he literally enters the library by jumping through a window. When Helen shares Millicent’s powerful letters with Hattersley, he must move to the window to fully process his emotions. Finally, at the end of the novel, Helen and Gilbert almost humorously pass in and out of a window to retrieve a white Christmas rose before eventually agreeing to marry. These three instances use the window almost as a processing structure through which to reveal truths and experience vulnerability.
Huntingdon’s unusual entrance through the library window metaphorically continues the ‘hunting sport’ he is returning from; he “threw up the sash, and sprang in” (135) through the window from outside, inappropriately interrupting Helen’s creative work in pursuit of her as his ‘prey’. Huntingdon literally transgresses the spatial boundaries dividing the interior and exterior world, and also violates the norms of proper movement between spaces. The unusual entrance foreshadows Huntingdon’s interruptive character in Helen’s life, and unnatural nature of their later marriage, in which he violates the ordinary boundaries and laws of marriage through adultery (as well as psychological abuse).
Later in the narrative, Helen reveals letters from Hattersley’s wife for him to read; this revelation, which utilizes the written word of a woman as a direct and potent influence on a man’s morality, must be processed by Hattersley near a window in the library. Hattersley’s vulnerability upon hearing his wife’s true opinions are manifested in his bodily reactions of blushing and crying, as well as an element of introspection and emotional processing that takes place while “staring out of the window”. Reading Millicent’s letters provides transparency and enlightenment, both of which are physically manifested with the structural presence of the window. The transparency of windows allows for honest communications between men and women; truth is allowed to ‘pass through’ the gender norms that ordinarily separate candid interactions.
The most significant and literal window-based transgression in Tenant is also a romantic flirtation and a culmination of the novel’s marriage plot. Additionally, it is told from Gilbert’s male perspective rather than Helen’s female one, though all scenes in the novel were created by a female (Anne Brontë), emphasizing the feminine voice over the male. Helen communicates her feelings for Gilbert by “[throwing] open the window and [looking] out” (411) and picking a flower, which she then presents to him as “an emblem of [her] heart” (412). When he misunderstands, she throws the rose back out the window and shuts the window “with an emphasis”; he then leaps out of the window to retrieve it, and the moment is saved. Interestingly, his jump out of the civilized world and into the natural world neatly parallels Huntingdon’s earlier movement from the natural into the civilized; Gilbert, in contrast, brings a physical part of nature back into the boundaried interior, which is further reflected in his genuine and truthful love for Helen. The scene is particularly transgressive because Helen almost proposes to Gilbert, asserting her claim over the narrative and reversing traditional gender roles of a Victorian marriage plot. The window is an essential element of the spatial and emotional organization of the scene; Helen accesses the symbolic rose, which allows her to transgressively and openly express her love for Gilbert. The scene allows the characters to finally reach an element of emotional transparency after several miscommunications and misunderstandings throughout the novel.
Anne Brontë’s harnesses the visceral power of space and transparency to directly express deep emotion. She also describes the structural boundaries of the physical world as a way for the characters in the novel to breach social and gendered boundaries. The liminality of the window-spaces in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall often transparently express the deeper themes of the text itself, as well as the reality of the female experience in modern Victorian society.