Anne Brontë (or the ‘forgotten Brontë, if you will) wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall between 1846 and 1848 and, according to Winifred Gérin in the introduction to Penguin English Library edition of 1979, it “might be said to be the first manifesto for ‘Women’s Lib’.” The novel’s basic narrative – a young wife who runs away from her marriage to an abusive alcoholic named Arthur – and Charlotte Brontë’s attempts to supress the work after Anne’s death, suggesting perhaps that the tale was too radical, have certainly sustained this idea. This has in turn influenced Butterfly Psyche’s decision to stage the play in the surrounds of the Red Maids school theatre and, in the future, take the production to other schools in order to encourage dialogue about What Makes a Healthy Relationship, a motif that will be being discussed widely in schools next year.
It is easy to see Helen Huntingdon/Graham as a bold and proto-Ibsenesque character who makes what modern, liberal audiences would deem to be the correct decision. Additionally, both this production and the book itself are also definitely ripe for encouraging ‘dialogue’ in a broad sense about relationships, marriage and power. However, viewing Helen H/G as an uncomplicated feminist through the prism of secular post-third wave feminism is complicated.
For unlike Nora Helmer in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House – written only 31 years later – our heroine here does not act based on a sense of selfish (in the most literal meaning of the word) passion. Instead her actions come from a position of intense religiosity and morality. Although she contravenes the norms of Victorian society, she is strongly adhering to those of nineteenth-century Christianity; laws which to her are of a much stronger importance. This severely complicates the possibility of her being accepted as a liberal heroine in today’s terms. Indeed it may be that members of the audience who possess devout religious views from, in particular, any of the Abrahamic religions find the character quite accessible, but those from a secular background will as likely not.
Helen’s Victorian morality and Anne Brontë’s construction of her becomes particularly problematic in terms of the audience’s sympathy at two points. Firstly the character is allowed almost no display of carnality or lust. Despite falling for, essentially, the Bad Boy the reasons for this attraction are not explored. The ‘little darling’ of a child simply appears, as if from a stork and when, after he has forsaken her and she’s holed up at Wildfell Hall, her feelings towards Gilbert the sexy farmer’s son who she allows to keep coming to visit her are not allowed to hint at the sexual.
Secondly, Helen, despite having walked out, does not do anything like as radical as say, take Gilbert as her lover or common law husband. Instead she patiently and piteously waits like a wannabe-widow until Arthur is on his delirium tremens deathbed and then goes, like the patient saint she is, to bring their son to him and hear his confession and accept his forgiveness, as apparently God will also do. She then waits a very ‘decent’ amount of time before returning to Wildfell and Gilbert, proving once again her Christian virtue, lack of sexual desire and Penelope-style patience.
If Anne Brontë is demonstrating that there is a something more important than Victorian marriage conventions, then her intention is to show that this something is the Christian God. For those of us much more in tune with the Noras of this world who ‘want to find themselves’ and instead of devoting themselves to their angel of a son, do really awful things like walking out on the children as well as the husband, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a novel with a slightly skewed message. Ibsen’s women do not walk out on their husbands so that they can remain stainless godly angels, they walk out so that they can finally get their hands dirty. And this is a version of feminism with stronger reverberations in today’s schools and streets than the moralism of Anne Brontë.
Despite the essential peculiarities of Anne Brontë’s work, this was a beautiful and subtle production. Madelaine Ryan performed the complicated heroine with dignity and wit. Her performance actually injected some of the post-1970s feminist energy into the character missing in the original text and I can see how her version of Helen – more a free-thinking artist capable of anger and seeker of solitude – could be an inspiring character to schoolgirls.
Similarly, Tom Turner morphed from the affable Gilbert into the mean and tormented Arthur alchemically. And here we also come to the essence of both the play and Anne Brontë’s original work. With all the focus on the character of Helen and whether her actions are sufficiently feminist or not, we miss the real hero of the piece. For if there is a true feminist – and by that I mean a true humanist-with-a-small-h – then it is Gilbert. Gilbert is the actual radical whose actions and thoughts remain relevant in 2014 and hopefully in future generations too. It is Gilbert who not only also flouts Victorian conventions and refuses to see Helen as a fallen woman, but also he who more generally decides to take a stand against the idle and destructive gossip of the village folk. In doing so he delivers a message most relevant to both schoolchildren potentially caught in the nastiness of bullying and to most adults as well.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not necessarily a book about gender and to believe it is may be to miss the more important point. This is actually a work about taking the initiative to not believe what you have been taught, to think for yourself and to, specifically, think outside of the pernicious gossip of others around you. If we need a heroine we’ll take Nora and if we need a humanist we’ll have Gilbert.