The first feminist novel?

Reader, I wish I’d never married him.

Heathcliff’s soul and mine are the same.  But I pray he’ll go away, the sullen misfit!

Can you imagine the women in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights responding to their deep, dark, mysterious men in those terms?

What would Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s most celebrated works be without the romantic love of a misunderstood anti-hero?  If they’d shown men as they really were, would their novels have become such classics?

Step forward the third Bronte, Anne.  (There were 5 sisters in all; 2 died as children.)  She wrote just 2 novels, one more than Emily and two less than Charlotte.  I’ve just finished her second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

Like previous STAGE LEFT posts on Mary Shelly and Daphne du Maurier, –  and  – this is a recommendation for another great read from a writer ahead of her time.

I picked up on it from a Melvyn Bragg In Our Time broadcast last September, which suggested Wildfell Hall is the first feminist novel. 

The main story is framed by a conventional romance between a young farmer, Gilbert, and the mysterious tenant, Helen.  No Rochester, nor Heathcliff – here, it’s the woman whose enigmatic past is key to the narrative. 

The core of the novel is much darker, showing – in unflinching detail – Helen’s struggles with an abusive, alcoholic and unfaithful husband, Arthur.  Against her highly moral, better judgement, Helen falls for him, hoping she can correct his boorish ways.

But he just gets worse, hunting, partying and bolting to London to screw around.  He becomes increasingly violent with his dogs, servants and Helen herself.  Tired of her attempts to refine him, he literally throws the book at her.   

The arrival of her son, young Arthur, only makes things worse; as he grows up, his father forces him to drink and swear, just like daddy.  Helen’s determination to save her son toughens her to defy convention: I’d rather he died than be brought up a man of the world.

Arthur humiliates Helen, brazenly parading his infidelity in front of her.  Bronte shows mercilessly just how trapped she is – though selling her paintings helps Helen survive the unrepentant Arthur. 

Anne Bronte’s depiction of domestic violence goes deep – the couples who visit Arthur and Helen are unhappily wed, with a nasty hint of just you wait till we get home from some of the brutish husbands.

Not all the men are bastards – 2 of Arthur’s badly behaving pals reform.  As for Gilbert, he’s mostly meek; it’s Helen who coaxes him to maturity.

The Brontes had to adopt men’s names (Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell) to get published.  It was still as Acton that Anne wrote her defensive preface to the second edition: Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life… or cover them with branches and flowers?

This was her defence against the torrent of criticism against the novel’s coarseness.  It was judged unfit, revolting and disgusting by contemporary critics (all male, of course).  Even Charlotte called the subject of her sister’s best-seller an entire mistake whichthe author was not qualified to handle.

Anne had, at least, the consolation of popularity.  That second edition was due to Wildfell Hall selling even faster than Jane Eyre had.  Jalouse, moi? – as the francophile Charlotte might have said.

The first feminist novel?  You could claim that Wildfell Hall’s theme intelligent woman denied opportunity by patriarchy echoes Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).  But Anne was writing from her own imagination and observation, if not experience.  Like Emily and her brother Branwell, Anne never married, though she saw, at first hand, Branwell’s drinking and affairs.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a brilliant read because it’s so vivid – the story intricate, the characters authentic and the situation compelling.  Until recently, Anne’s books haven’t attracted the kudos of her sisters’. 

When you hear of the Met policeman writing to a female officer: I’d happily rape you and countless examples of disgusting misogyny in 2022, you realise that Anne Bronte’s evocation of male domination, and women’s struggle to break it, seems more urgent than ever.

Paul Bassett


February 2022

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