Monday 28 February 2011

Anne Brontë comes to Brussels at last

Maureen Peeck O'Toole addressing the Brussels group
Even though Anne Brontë didn't venture to Belgium with her more famous sisters, the Brussels Brontë Group let the youngest Brontë peek out from under her siblings' shadow at least for an afternoon. The group on Feb. 12, 2011, enjoyed an entertaining talk by Maureen Peeck O'Toole on Anne's second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, followed by a spirited discussion.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Acton Bell was published in June 1848, just six months after Anne's first novel -- Agnes Grey. Unlike Agnes, which was packaged with Wuthering Heights, Tenant was published as a three-volume novel by itself. Anne was to die less than a year later, in May 1849 at the age of 29.

Maureen explained how Anne was an early champion of women's rights and Tenant has been praised (though not at the time of publication) for its 'innovative and radical expression of feminist values.' Helen's struggle to free herself from her marriage to the profligate Huntingdon goes against the 19th-century womanly ideal of the 'angel in the house,' which projected women's role as selfless and submissive wife and mother. Maureen also noted Helen's belief in 'universal salvation' (or 'universalism') -- an unorthodox view at the time that everyone will eventually find salvation. While Maureen contrasted the romanticism of Charlotte's and Emily's books with the social realism of Anne's works, she called Anne 'just as radical as her sisters.'

When it was first published, Tenant was described as 'coarse' along with the works of Charlotte and Emily. Maureen suggested that Tenant may have more connection with Emily's novel than many people realize and may be the first 'intertextual response' to Wuthering Heights. She listed numerous parallels between the two novels, starting with the initials W.H. in the principal residences and titles. In addition, both books use framing -- a tale within a tale -- and a retrospective time frame. They both include violence and drunkenness as well as a tenant arriving at an old house.

One bit of unexpected violence in Tenant is Gilbert Markham's attack on Frederick Lawrence. 'As a kind of Heathcliff, he seems to think his feelings justify his behavior,' Maureen said. She called this assault 'a flaw in the novel' and said it contributes to her conclusion that Markham 'is very unconvincing as a spouse for Helen.' This view of the Gilbert-Helen match was vigorously disputed from the back row.

Another issue that inspired animated discussion was the framing of Helen's diary in Markham's letters. Early criticism found this structure off-putting, but today's critics find it a very effective literary device, Maureen said. The diary is a kind of testimony -- an abused woman telling her own story. The diary gains in intensity by being embedded in the more-mundane letters, she said. The diary also figures in the plot since Helen's first escape attempt is foiled because her husband reads it; later it has a positive impact when Markham is allowed to see it. Another audience member suggested that Anne framed the diary in Markham's letters because those strong views needed to be filtered through a male narrator -- that society at that time wouldn't accept such strong feminist views straight from a woman.

Tenant may be an effort to rewrite Wuthering Heights from a Christian point of view, Maureen said. Helen is driven by feelings of religious duty to try to redeem Huntingdon, but her spiritual pride and dogmatic approach lead to a power struggle between husband and wife. Helen knew Huntingdon's low 'organ of veneration' indicated a lack of natural religion, but while she might have held the spiritual high ground, Huntingdon (and society) took it for granted that he was her superior in every other way. This proved disastrous for both and one of Anne's points in the novel is that the practice of separating girls and boys into separate spheres from childhood was damaging to both, Maureen said.

Charlotte's criticism of Tenant also inspired lively debate. Charlotte called Anne's subject matter 'a mistake' and said the book 'hardly seems to me desirable to preserve.' Maureen said Charlotte's comments probably stem from a desire to preserve Anne's memory and reputation after her death, after the book had been criticized in early reviews.

Luckily for us today, Tenant was preserved and has taken its place beside her sisters' novels, though not quite out of their shadow. Maureen's summation: 'Anne was indeed a novelist in her own right -- a wonderful stylist.'