The Other One | Daily News

The Other One

James Purefoy as Mr. Lawrence
James Purefoy as Mr. Lawrence

“When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts – this whispering, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience…” wrote Anne Bronte in her Preface to the second edition of her last novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.”

Her elder sister, Charlotte Bronte thought otherwise. In her eyes, Anne’s novel was an entire mistake. It should never have been written, and it would be better for everyone if it never saw the light of day again. Sadly, many contemporary critics were in agreement with this view; like Charlotte they believed in covering up the unsavory aspects of society with “branches and flowers” instead of exposing them the way Anne did in her “rough, brutal, ungodly book.”

In a move almost as tragic as the plot twists she imagines for Jane Eyre, when her two younger sisters, Emily and Anne died within a few months of each other in 1848 and 1849, Charlotte prepared new editions of her sisters’ novels to be published by her own publisher (the original editions published by Thomas Cautley Newby being put together in a decidedly sub-par manner). She was happy to make minor changes for ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey,’ but she would not consent to touch “The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.” In a letter to the publishers she gives the following verdict:

”Wildfell Hall” hardly appears desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake.’

Charlotte reiterated her point a year later when she finally revealed her sisters’ true identities to the world in her ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.’ For the second time within two years, she acknowledged once again, how wrong Anne had been to write ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall:”The choice of subject was an entire mistake…” was her verdict yet again.

Anyone who reads ‘Wildfell Hall’ today is bound to wonder if, in fact, it is Charlotte who makes a mistake in preventing the republication of Anne’s book, effectively burying it along with its writer, for ten long years. This is truly tragic given the fact that, as Mrs. Humphrey Ward writes in her preface in 1920, when the book was first published in spite of misconstruction and abuse, “Wildfell Hall” had attained more immediate success than anything else written by the sisters before 1848, except “Jane Eyre.”

“It went into a second edition within a very short time of its publication, and Messrs. Newby informed the American publishers with whom they were negotiating that it was the work of the same hand which had produced “Jane Eyre,” and superior to either “Jane Eyre” or “Wuthering Heights”! It was, indeed, the sharp practice connected with this astonishing judgment which led to the sisters’ hurried journey to London in 1848—the famous journey when the two little ladies in black revealed themselves to Mr. Smith, and proved to him that they were not one Currer Bell, but two Miss Brontës.”

Anne Brontë’s biographer, Samantha Ellis speculates the biggest reason that Anne didn’t get her due in the 1840s was probably because she was too radical. There is no denying “Wildfell Hall’s” heroine, Helen, starts out like all the Brontë heroines - falling for a handsome, dangerous villain. But he turns out to be an abusive alcoholic, and she leaves him. “In 1848, this wasn’t just unusual; it was illegal,” writes Ellis.

Furthermore, argues Ellis, “Critics were even more shocked because they suspected that the novel, published under a pseudonym, might have been written by a woman. But despite the moralising reviews, the book might have gone on selling, if not for Charlotte Bronte.”

Scholars say Charlotte had always underestimated and patronised her littlest sister, and they were often in competition. It was only after reading ‘Agnes Grey,’ Anne’s exposé of what it was like to be a governess, that Charlotte sat down to write ‘Jane Eyre’- also about a governess; also about a heroine who was not beautiful.

Unfortunately, Charlotte’s novel came out first, so Anne looked like the imitator, when in fact she had been the pioneer. Ellis wonders, if, perhaps Charlotte felt a little miffed by the way Anne’s second novel critiqued both Jane Eyre and their sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. In ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,’ Anne argued that women should steer clear of tortured, self-destructive men like Rochester and Heathcliff; men her sisters had written as heroes.”

This, I believe, is the reason for “Wildfell Hall” to be still buried beneath ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights.’ Anne’s novel has no brooding, dark heroes in the caliber of Heathcliff, and Rochester or milder Austen men like Darcy and Knightley; men who in spite of or because of their shortcomings are capable of stealing the hearts of female readers for centuries to come. Gilbert Markham, even though he represents society’s narrow views of women sounds more like a woman himself. His lack of a convincing male personality places him in the company of other men like him; Lockwood and Edgar Linton. Men whose names are forgotten the moment we close the book.

If there are no iconic male characters in “Wildfell Hall,”however, Anne makes up for this lapse by portraying a female character we continue to meet in the 21st century. Helen’s naivete and folly in believing that in marrying Arthur Huntingdon, she can save him, is a narrative we encounter even today. (Not so long ago, Adriana Grande tweeted in protest when someone blamed her for her boyfriend’s downfall.)

Unlike Charlotte and Emily, Anne focuses on the inequality between the two genders as lucidly as Gloria Steinem, years later. Gilbert holds a position of great privilege: As the adored eldest son his needs always come first. As his sister Rose complains, “we can’t do too much for you. It’s always so—if there’s anything particularly nice at table, mamma winks and nods at me to abstain from it, and if I don’t attend to that, she whispers, ‘Don’t eat so much of that, Rose; Gilbert will like it for his supper.’—I’m nothing at all.” Even though Gilbert’s mother might be happy to put her own wants second to all men, through Rose, Anne highlights the unfair treatment women received within their own family, back in her day.

If this was not enough, several pages before Rose’s complaint, Gilbert tells Helen she should teach her son the ways of the world if he is to make his way in it. Helen argues, “but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?”

“Certainly not.”

“No; you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant—taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil. But will you be so good as to inform me why you make this distinction? Is it that you think she has no virtue?”

It is evident Anne did not intend this exchange to be a mere casual dialogue. Each individual speech is an expose of the injustice meted out to women in 19th century England.

Thus in Helen we meet an admirable feminist heroine. She has a sense of self and of morality that is inviolable. She commits the scandalous act of actually fleeing her husband, something for which readers of today will praise her. But two centuries ago, critics, who were mostly men, would have condemned Helen for her courage to leave her husband even if the said husband is addicted to drink and immoral ways. According to May Sinclair, who published a biography of the Brontë sisters in 1912, “the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated through Victorian England.”

If Anne had not died of tuberculosis at just 29; if she had survived, she could have protected her work. But she died and became “the other Brontë”, the neglected Brontë, the least read of her sisters. And so, the more we underrate or suppress “Wildfell Hall” the more we encourage women to become ‘hot-house-plants,’ as opposed to the men who grow like trees on a “mountain-side, exposed to all the action of the elements, and not even sheltered from the shock of the tempest.”

Or, perhaps, this is the decade for things to change. Maybe finally, we are ready for Anne’s bold, arresting “Tenant of Wildfell Hall.”

[email protected]