Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The other Brontë sister: Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë, like her sisters Charlotte and Emily, was a poet and novelist; like them, too, she died of consumption at a tragically young age. But while Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are now among the most widely read novels in English, Anne's two novels, Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), remain relatively neglected.

Neither of Anne's novels appear, for example, on any of the four lists of 100 recommended novels I discuss in the post "100 novels"; both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights appear on three out of the four. As of this writing the free e-book versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights on the Project Gutenberg website have been downloaded as single titles 8474 and 6925 times, respectively; meanwhile, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been downloaded only 674 times, while Agnes Grey has been downloaded a mere 360 times.

Why this comparative neglect? It's true that Anne is not as polished a writer as either Charlotte or Emily. Anne's heroines are trapped in painful situations which they find difficult to escape; large sections of her novels are litanies of torment. Her heroines are also intensely pious in a way that may make readers in our more secular age uncomfortable. But her novels deserve to be read for the light they shed on the plight of women in Victorian society; and their autobiographical elements provide another perspective on the troubled situation of the Brontë family.

Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey is based on Anne's unhappy experiences as a governess in the homes of two families, the Inghams and the Robinsons. As the narrator states in the novel's first paragraph, "shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I…will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend." It's not necessary to take this assertion completely at face value to recognize that Agnes Grey must indeed draw significantly on autobiographical sources.

When her father is suddenly impoverished by a speculation gone wrong, Agnes decides to seek a position as a governess despite her youth (she's 19, the same age that Anne was when she took her first position with the Inghams). She is hired by Mrs. Bloomfield to supervise her unruly children Tom, age 7, and Mary, age 5. It soon becomes clear that one of Tom's chief pleasures—encouraged by his harsh father—is torturing small animals. Mary obstinately refuses to cooperate with Agnes, and the situation quickly becomes a physical power struggle:
Sometimes, exasperated to the utmost pitch, I would shake her violently by the shoulder, or pull her long hair, or put her in the corner; for which she punished me with loud, shrill, piercing screams, that went through my head like a knife. She knew I hated this, and when she had shrieked her utmost, would look into my face with an air of vindictive satisfaction, exclaiming,—

'Now, then! that's for you!'

And then shriek again and again, till I was forced to stop my ears. Often these dreadful cries would bring Mrs. Bloomfield up to inquire what was the matter?

'Mary Ann is a naughty girl, ma'am.'

'But what are these shocking screams?'

'She is screaming in a passion.'

'I never heard such a dreadful noise! You might be killing her. Why is she not out with her brother?'

'I cannot get her to finish her lessons.'

'But Mary Ann must be a good girl, and finish her lessons.' This was blandly spoken to the child. 'And I hope I shall never hear such terrible cries again!'

And fixing her cold, stony eyes upon me with a look that could not be mistaken, she would shut the door, and walk away. [Ch. III]
Of course it was an era in which corporal punishment of children was routine, but it's nonetheless dismaying when Agnes fervently expresses a desire for a "good birch rod" or to deliver "a few sound boxes in the ear." Still, it's clear that she is in an untenable position: she has responsibility for the children's behavior and educational progress, but is given no authority (she is continually being undermined by both parents). The parents also squabble openly in her presence, making her the unwilling witness of their bitter arguments. It's hard to know whether it's a greater relief to Agnes or to the reader when she is dismissed by the nightmarish Bloomfields and sent back to her family.

Agnes then finds a position with the Murrays. The Murray children are older but only slightly better behaved than the Bloomfields'. Charles Murray, 10, is "a pettish, cowardly, capricious, selfish little fellow, only active in doing mischief, and only clever in inventing falsehoods, not simply to hide his faults, but, in mere malicious wantonness, to bring odium upon others"; she calls him her "little tormentor." John, 11, is "rough as a young bear, boisterous, unruly, unprincipled, untaught, unteachable."  The two older sisters aren't much better: Mathilda, 14, is "a veritable hoyden" who has learned "to swear like a trooper," while Rosalie, 16, is "testy and capricious" and "shallow." [Ch. VII]

As in her previous situation as a governess, Agnes finds herself in a strange in-between position. She is not considered the social equal of her employers or their children; but as a clergyman's daughter, fraternizing with the servants is beneath her. She is socially and emotionally isolated, and unable to form true friendships with either Mrs. Murray or her daughters. And in any case, she feels no affinity with the Murrays, parents or children: Mrs. Murray is superficial, far more concerned with her daughters' social position than their happiness; and the Miss Murrays are selfish (Rosalie), coarse (Mathilde) and willful (both).

Over time Agnes does, though, develop an attachment to the evangelical curate of the local parish, Edward Weston. When the beautiful, coquettish Rosalie Murray comes to suspect Agnes' regard for Weston, she determines to win his admiration for herself. "Whether she intended to torment me, or merely to amuse herself, I could not tell." [Ch XV] Even as Rosalie turns the full power of her charm on Weston, though, she is already engaged to a rich local landowner, Sir Thomas Ashby. Rosalie's marriage to Ashby will make her miserably unhappy and leave her a virtual prisoner on his estate—so desperate that she reaches out to her former governess Agnes for friendship and support. Rosalie's essential nature is unchanged, though, and her gesture comes too late.

If the Bloomfields, the Murrays and the Ashbys are cautionary tales of marriage in which love has died or never existed, Anne Brontë's next novel offers an even more alarming portrait of marital incompatibility.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

A mysterious woman, Helen Graham, and her young son come to live on a long-abandoned estate in the wilds of Yorkshire. Gilbert Markham, a young man in the neighborhood, becomes intrigued by the woman and eventually declares his love. She tells him that love is impossible between them, but asks him to remain her friend. Markham becomes increasingly jealous of Helen's intimacy with another man, Frederick Lawrence, who he thinks is his romantic rival.

When Markham finally confronts her with his suspicions, Helen gives him her diary. It reveals that Helen is not a widow, but rather is still the wife of Arthur Huntingdon. She has fled her husband to protect her son from his influence: her husband frequently drinks to excess with his dissolute friends, and is amused by encouraging his son to drink and swear in their company. Huntingdon is also openly having an affair with Lady Annabella Lowborough, the wife of one of his drinking companions.

Huntingdon's drinking and extramarital affairs are modelled in part on Branwell Brontë, Anne's brother (Huntingdon also shares Branwell's red hair). Anne had recommended Branwell for a position as a tutor to the son of the Robinsons, the family where Anne was employed as a governess. Branwell soon embarked on an affair with Lydia Robinson, the wife of his employer. Anne probably learned of the affair, and resigned her position in June 1845. When the affair was discovered by the husband a month later, Branwell was summarily fired. According to Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, Lydia Robinson kept up a clandestine correspondence with Branwell, but on the death of her husband she distanced herself from him and eventually married another man. [1]

Over the next few years the rejected Branwell turned increasingly to drink and opium, dying of alcoholism and consumption (most probably) in September 1848. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Arthur Huntingdon, too, becomes seriously ill from drink and a resulting injury, and Helen returns to him in order to try to nurse him through his crisis.

This return to her emotionally abusive spouse out of a sense of wifely duty is one of the reasons this novel may present difficulties to the modern reader. Another is presented by the man Helen has come to love, the volatile and violent Gilbert Markham. At one point Markham assaults Frederick Lawrence without provocation, smashing him in the head with the heavy metal handle of his riding whip and leaving him stunned and bleeding by the side of the road.

Helen's choice to leave an abusive marriage, live alone and support herself is truly radical. This reader, at any rate, was not eager to see her either patch up her marriage with her deliberately cruel husband or unite herself with the mercurial Markham. But these unsatisfactory alternatives are stark illustrations of the difficulties of independence for 19th-century women.

After resigning her position with the Robinsons Anne never worked as a governess again. In conversation with Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë suggested why such a position had become abhorrent to Anne:
She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of 'respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. [2]
In May 1849, nearly a year after the first publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it became clear that Anne was dying. On May 24 she set out with her sister on a journey to the seaside town of Scarborough; she died there on May 28th at the age of 29.


1. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII
2. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII

No comments :

Post a Comment