The Forgotten Bronte Sister’s Alleged Feminism


Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848

“Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t tell where it keeps its brain.” Mr. Weasley, Harry Potter

My Kindle updated itself and deleted all of my annotations on books I read for this blog. I’d be crushed, but it’s Thanksgiving time, so I’m going to be thankful instead. Also, if I need something to stress out over, police brutality tops the list right now.

Usually, I read over my notes before I write a blog post, but I can’t do that. So, this might not be my best work. Anyway, on to the novel.

Anne Bronte published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848. Anne is the least remembered of the Bronte sisters. Personally, I first heard of this novel when Mary Crawley acted out the title whilst playing charades in Season 2, Episode 7 of Downton Abbey. Tenant was considered absolutely shocking in its time and is now considered one of the first feminist novels.

The premise: Gilbert Markham, a young farmer, is sort of doing his farm work and sort of suffering from ennui in his little British farming town. . .until a beautiful and mysterious woman mysteriously rents the mysterious, decrepit old mansion on the hill top. The tale is told in a series of letters from Gilbert to a friend, which adds to the tension, because he is dying to know more about this lovely lady and she is quite reticent. Why would she move into that crumbling, dank old Wildfell Hall? Why doesn’t she go to dinner parties and participate in social events in town? Where’s her husband? If he’s dead, why isn’t she trying to get remarried? Shouldn’t she send her son to school?

Before the Tenant (Helen Graham) showed up, Gilbert was courting a pretty town girl. When his attentions drift to Helen, the townie gets jealous and spreads nasty rumors about Helen. Gilbert refuses to believe the gossip, but he becomes jealous in his own right, because a certain Mr. Lawrence visits Wildfell Hall too often for Gilbert’s liking. Gilbert is so jealous that he knocks Mr. Lawrence off of his horse and leaves him for dead. Charming. Helen gets fed up with his jealousy, and wants to share her secret with Gilbert, whom she actually loves, but she won’t admit it. So, she gives him her diaries to read.

The diaries tell of Helen’s marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. When she was young and naïve (as women were back then, because society kept them that way on purpose) she fell for superhot Arthur’s flirtatious ways. He was a bit dissipated: a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer. She thought that she could reform him with her piety and general moral rectitude. You’re probably shaking you’re head right now, thinking “No, girl, no. That never works.” Remember though, in the Victorian era women were told that their role in society was to reform men from their evil ways. If a wife was pure and sweet and she read enough Bible verses to her husband, he’d become all perfect and princely. Magic.

It didn’t work out that way for poor Mrs. Huntingdon. Her husband continues to drink and swear and do other unwholesome things. He takes a lover. He’s verbally abusive toward his wife. Helen is miserable. She keeps living her miserable life and trying to be a dutiful wife until her husband starts encouraging their son to be dissipated too. He gives the boy alcohol and teaches him to swear. She also worries that he’ll teach her son to hate her. So, Helen takes her son and leaves. She flees to Wildfell Hall and takes an assumed name. Also, it turns out that Mr. Lawrence is her brother.

tenant 2

Tenant’s status as a feminist novel rests on Helen’s decision to leave her husband. In this time, ideas of wifely duty were very clear: wives were required to stand by their husbands no matter how horrible they were. “Stand by” includes have sex with, for the record. There is a scene where Helen shuts her husband out of her bedroom, denying him his “rights as a husband.” Legally, he did have those rights. That action, and abandoning their home, created copious controversy when Tenant was published.

After Gilbert reads Helen’s diaries, she asks him to leave her alone, because she is not free to marry. He reluctantly does this. Helen hears that her husband is sick—result of his dissipated lifestyle—and goes back to their home to nurse him, because it is her wifely duty. He is still horrible to her and makes her miserable. Later, Gilbert hears that the husband has died and Helen has inherited a bunch of money and become rich. He worries that she is now too classy for a small town farmer, but he goes to see her anyway and they get married. That’s the end of the book, but in my imagination their marriage turns out almost as badly as her first, because Gilbert is a jealous, violent man.

It is incredibly difficult to assess the social progressiveness of a novel centuries later. At least, it’s difficult for me. I absolutely agree with Anne Bronte’s message that women should have the ability to leave an abusive marriage. It was a radical message at the time. Bronte provides a depiction of a moral woman who does something considered immoral by society. I respect her for showing how societal expectations of women were oppressive and inhumane, and for showing that someone can defy social conventions and the law and still be a good person.

However, as a feminist I did not enjoy reading Tenant. Let me explain. Never once does the protagonist consider her own happiness or wellbeing. She struggles for a long time with the decision to leave her husband, choosing over and over again that any amount of suffering is acceptable if, by making herself an example of piety and forbearance, she can reform her husband in even the slightest, tiniest way and thus bring him closer to God. When she does leave, her motivation is to protect her son, particularly to protect his immortal soul from his father’s corruption. She knows that she will be impoverished and rejected by society, but she leaves because she thinks her obligation to her son outweighs her obligation to her husband. She goes back to nurse her dying husband, subjecting herself to his abuse yet again, because she took a vow and blah blah blah wifely duty again. It’s just incredibly difficult for me to regard a novel as feminist that never once suggests that the female protagonist deserves happiness or even the simple absence of suffering, abuse and degradation. The premise in Tenant is not that women are people who deserve basic human rights. The premise is that sometimes society’s laws actually prevent women from doing their duty to men.

So, I didn’t love it. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t. The end.

Thanks Aunt Sigrid and Matt for being in the pictures!


“When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone – there are many, many other things to be considered.”

“I cannot love a man who cannot protect me.”   Feminist? I think not.

4 thoughts on “The Forgotten Bronte Sister’s Alleged Feminism

  1. “The premise in Tenant is not that women are people who deserve basic human rights. The premise is that sometimes society’s laws actually prevent women from doing their duty to men.”
    I think, before coming to this judgement, it is important to understand the pressure under which Anne Brontë was writing. If she wanted to get her radical message across and at least considered by both men and women of the time (remember that right around then Queen Victoria herself had put forth that a woman has a duty to stay in an abusive marriage), then she needed to slip it in with something they could stomach. Think of it more as rhetoric than as a perfect argument. Baby steps. We can get an idea of whether she actually thought that a woman should not consider her desires by reading between the lines: the way she interacts with and finally accepts Gilbert, her monologues in the beginning where she argues for equality, her insistence of boundaries…

    • Hi, thanks for reading and commenting. I did and always do consider the historical context when forming an opinion. I appreciate your point, but I don’t agree that your interpretation of the subtext you mentioned overrides the copious textual evidence that the foundation for Helen’s actions was conflicting duties to men and not self-care.

  2. Also, I forgot to add this: when I took a 19th century literature course, we were told not to call any of the novels feminist no matter their stance on women’s rights, because feminism is considered to be a specific stance that emerged much later than the Brontë’s time. So you are completely right in saying that the novel is not feminist in that feminism wasn’t really a thing yet. Now comparing Brontë’s values to feminist values is a more accurate way of looking at it, and that is why it is important not to simply take the book at face value, because many of the values are concealed or distinctly Victorian.

    • I’m aware that some scholars contend that the word feminism should be used to describe only a specific movement, but that is not the opinion of all thinkers. The words is quite commonly used in a more general manner, not just colloquially but by historians, sociologist, etc. In the post, I directly stated both my awareness of the difficulty of assessing the progressiveness of a historical novel and that I was comparing the book to my present day feminist ideals.

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