NINETEENTH-CENTURY GENDER STUDIES
ISSUE 4.3 (WINTER 2008)
A Mother Outlaw Vindicated: Social Critique in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
By Monika Hope Lee, Brescia University College
<4> Brontë’s critique of wifely obedience goes against the grain of social expectations of idealized motherhood, which was meant to operate strictly within the bounds and constraints of a paternalistic and hierarchical marriage: “paternalist ideology held that English society operated most efficiently and justly when those who held power in its hierarchical structure responsibly ruled. . . for its operative social metaphor of governance was the benevolent yet controlling relationship of a father to his wife and children” (Harsh 41). Thus, when Helen first makes the decision that she can no longer live with her drunken and adulterous husband, she is without economic recourse. She must rely entirely on his generosity and goodwill. So she presents him with her choice of solution, a separate life (294); she asks for the remainder of her fortune (most of which he has squandered through dissolute living) and for custody of young Arthur. He adamantly refuses (294). At this point in the narrative, Helen embarks on her career as outlaw. First, she denies Arthur her body (“I will exact no more heartless caresses from you – nor offer – nor endure them either” ), something which under the laws of coverture, she has no right to do. This moment is self-defining for Helen: “I am your child’s mother, and your housekeeper – nothing more” (295). The words chosen are hardly emancipating, since she makes no claims for self-determination here, only that she absolves herself of the “duties” of the marriage bed. The heroic tone, however, is unmistakable, and the choice to give herself a physical and emotional divorce from her husband echoes a similar passionate moment in Wollstonecraft’s Mary, or the Wrongs of Woman when Mary takes off her wedding ring, and, despite legal marriage persisting, proclaims herself unmarried (Wollstonecraft 162).
<5> Motherhood is both the main feature of Helen’s heroism and its cause. Hence the next phase in Helen’s marital apostasy is her battle over the love of and the right to nurture and raise young Arthur. Her husband spoils their son and encourages him, although he is only five years old, to drink alcohol, to curse, to degrade women, and to hunt for sport:
While Helen is willing to suffer an acrimonious marriage marked by insults, drunkenness and adultery, she is not willing to see her child morally corrupted and so she plans to escape. On the surface, this self-abnegation is another mark of Victorian repressive ideologies of motherhood which assume that a child, especially a male child, should take precedence over the mother.(5) We might well challenge Helen’s acceptance of her own degradation while she refuses to accept her son’s: “I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer” (336). Nonetheless, Helen’s ensuing act of rebellion is, in a nineteenth-century context, both heroic and radical; her attitude imitates the Romantic and Promethean rhetoric of many nineteenth-century heroines. She is defiant and proud: “I have no cause to fear; and if they scorn me as the victim of their guilt, I can pity their folly and despise their scorn” (296). Historical connections between Promethean rhetoric, the Chartist and Owenite women of the 1830s, the French Revolution and women’s rights, both in the 1790s and the 1830s, are the backdrop on which this isolated domestic drama unfolds,(6) informing the domestic scene with the hint of danger and a whiff of the political that was indeed detected by Victorian readers.
<6> Helen’s defiance of social prejudice extends to her attitudes about the combination of mothering and waged labour. During the nineteenth century paid work and mothering were increasingly seen to be at odds. As a social ideology, the notion of “separate spheres” was by 1848 dominant (Levine-Clark 118), not least because it served as a way of securing full-time unpaid domestic help in the home (Abrams 12-15).(7) Helen makes the point to her husband that he cannot afford to manage without her free services as a housekeeper (308). Nevertheless, the reality of women’s lives was quite distinct from the ideology, since “in 1851, 75 per cent of married women performed paid work” (Abrams 12). Anne Brontë explodes the false dichotomy between mothering and paid employment by demonstrating the reality that working for pay was in fact part of mothering, even for the upper-class Helen. Helen says of her decision to work, “oh, how I longed to take my child and leave them now, without an hour’s delay! But it could not be: there was work before me – hard work, that must be done” (346). A lady of the gentry, however, had more of a taboo against her work than did a woman of the working class, because she, unlike most working-class women, had the option of allowing her husband to support her financially. But Helen Huntingdon resists the dominant ideology of “separate spheres” and embraces the attractive prospects of both employment and ownership:
Notably, Helen considers her wages legitimately hers, while under British law, they are not. She considers that her aunt, uncle and brother must not know of her plan to escape, for even if she told “all her grievances . . . [her brother] would be sure to disapprove of the step” (337).
<7> To understand why her relatives would disapprove, it is necessary to consider the strength and tenacity of the Victorian taboos against breaking the marriage bond, against an upper-class woman working for money, and against single mothers. Moreover, we must realize as well that many of Helen’s actions, though morally justifiable, are in fact illegal. Although an Infants and Child Custody Act had been passed in 1839, which allowed non-adulterous women to ask for the custody of children under 7, courts still favoured paternal over maternal custody. The law, in any case, would not have applied to Helen Huntingdon, since she abandons her husband in October 1827 (Lamonica 144), and it would not even have benefited her in 1848 when the novel was published, because she separates from Huntingdon illegally. Therefore, knowing that under the law of coverture, she has no legal right to the custody of her child, Helen realizes she must break the law covertly to deliver young Arthur from his father’s influence. She begins to save her money in order to make a secret escape and “steal” her son from him. This movement marks the second phase of Helen’s maternal and marital rebellion: the attempt to move out of domestic incarceration and into an alternate role as a professional single mother.
It is simply assumed by most people that a secretive single mother must be licentious. Lynn Abrams writes that “in nineteenth-century religious, moral and legal discourse, the single mother was represented as deviant, irresponsible and dangerous. Envisaged as either a fallen woman or a prostitute, the unmarried mother was held up as the archetype of the sexual woman; a woman who was not subject to a man within marriage” (118). In defiance of this stereotype, Helen Huntingdon, however, is portrayed as strong-willed, morally superior to her husband, utterly chaste, entitled to her freedom, and defiant in the face of social opposition. She is the antithesis of the social reputation foisted on her by a judgmental society, since the situation for widows in Victorian England was also harsh and unfair: “many women – widowed as well as deserted – lived for years as single mothers, a position that was extremely difficult economically. This was especially true from 1834 to 1845, when the new Poor Law in its first and harshest incarnation made it almost impossible for unmarried mothers to get support from their children’s fathers” (113). Helen Graham, virtually a freed slave, acts as a corrective to negative stereotypes of widows and single mothers, both of whom were popularly regarded as sexually voracious and morally corrupt social outcasts. Helen is morally strong and able to exist without marriage; in fact, she blossoms as a mother and as a worker simultaneously without the support of a husband, friends or even the neighbours and acquaintances she meets in the neighbourhood of Wildfell Hall.
<12> Furthermore, in Helen’s new-found independence she continues to exhibit strength of character and purpose both as an individual and as a mother. Her strong opinions about staying with and caring for her son represent mothering as a valid and important vocation for women of the gentry in contrast to the widespread practice of having servants care for upper-class children under the legal domain of fathers. Anne Brontë was specifically responding to the parental neglect she witnessed among the upper classes when she was an unhappy governess for Edmund and Lydia Robinson beginning in May 1840. She blamed the unruly behaviour of her charges on negligent and lax parenting. She witnessed Lydia Robinson, who is the basis for the portrait of Annabella Lowborough in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, frivolously occupied with her attempt to remain beautiful and with an adulterous liaison with Branwell Brontë, Anne Brontë’s brother and the children’s tutor. Anne Brontë felt an obligation to represent gentried life realistically as she had witnessed it: “she must not varnish, soften or conceal” (Charlotte Brontë 439) the unpleasant reality of parental neglect, blood sports, and sensual preoccupations. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as in Agnes Grey, “Anne Brontë follows the aims of domestic advice literature in criticizing mothers for relinquishing the responsibility to educate their children’s minds as well as mould their characters” (Lamonica 127).
<13> In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, there is also an explicit defence of a virtuous mother’s methods of child-rearing. Helen faces constant criticism from neighbours about her manner of raising her son and about the fact that she is raising him alone. Mrs. Markham says Arthur is too much with his mother and that she will “ruin” him by spending so much time with him: “even at his age, he ought not to be always tied to his mother’s apron string; he should learn to be ashamed of it,” Mrs. Markham lectures Helen (26). This accusation is repeated by Reverend Millward, the Vicar, who believes that consuming alcoholic beverages is manly and should be encouraged rather than restrained (38). Both Mrs. Markham and the Vicar are proven wrong in Arthur’s future, since the boy grows into the ideal adult man – a loving husband, and unlike his own father, neither alcoholic, adulterous nor misogynistic. Markham narrates “that pretty child is now a fine young man: he has realized his mother’s brightest expectations, and is at present residing in Grassdale Manor with his young wife, the merry little Helen Hattersley, of yore” (496). In this way, Anne Brontë anticipates Adrienne Rich’s argument against maternal complicity in patriarchal motherhood in her classic feminist text Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976). Rich has been cited as one of the first feminists to recognize and subvert the ways in which women raise boys to patriarchal entitlement (O’Reilly 160), but Anne Brontë reached the same conclusion more than a hundred years before Rich. Despite the constant interference of her misguided neighbours, Helen manages successfully to nurture in Arthur Jr. positive moral values and a proper respect for women. She does so despite her lack of interest in and her “lamentable ignorance” (13) of housework, which provokes Mrs. Markham’s judgement and pity.
Unfortunately, this newfound maternal love is a further source of marital disharmony. Helen’s husband denounces the baby because of his jealousy (“Helen, I shall positively hate that little wretch, if you worship it so madly! You are absolutely infatuated about it” ). In fact, the father’s neglect is a factor in the escalation of the mother’s love, since Helen “gave [her] little one a shower of gentle kisses to make up for its other parent’s refusal” (230). However genuine Helen’s love and attachment to her son, she cannot help but be aware of the dangers of over-attachment and over-indulgence, “for I never knew till now how strong are a parent’s temptations to spoil an only child” (232). Therefore her maternal love is tempered and strengthened by rational principles, and this combination of discipline and devotion serves to vindicate her maternal vocation. Even in the middle of her misery Helen cannot fail to be delighted by the time spent with her son, “forgetting, for the moment, all [her] cares, laughing at his gleeful laughter, and delighting [her]self with his delight” (239).
<16> These idealizing vignettes of childhood are widespread in nineteenth-century literature. The pervasive belief of the Renaissance and the eighteenth century was that evil was inherent in children and required strict and even harsh handling in order to be eradicated (Hardyment 8). Beginning with Rousseau and moving through English Romanticism, the opposite view gradually gained prominence: the idea that children were purer and closer to God than their fallen adult counterparts. Thus Helen’s closeness to her offspring may be read as symbolic of her greater purity, her religiosity, her moral virtue and her essential goodness. These contrast sharply with Annabella Lowborough’s heartless indifference to children, which may be seen as symptomatic of her general moral depravity. While Annabella lies “on the drawing-room sofa, deep in the last new novel,” Helen “had been romping with the little creatures, almost as merry and wild as themselves” (270). While we are to pity Helen’s lack of custody rights to her child, Brontë suggests that Annabella deserves the hard fate of being separated from her daughter. Helen writes, “that mother never loved children, and has so little natural affection for her own that I question whether she will not regard it as a relief to be thus entirely separated from them, and delivered from the trouble and responsibility of their charge” (333). Such a demonization of the fallen woman, altogether typical of Victorian sexist ideology, weakens the otherwise compelling vindication of maternal rights, for one sexist prejudice that Brontë refuses to break is the taboo against female sexual desire. Annabella Lowborough, the sensual woman, is construed as morally irredeemable. Yet, it is only supposed, not known, by Helen that Annabella may be happy to be rid of her children, and this supposition is self-congratulatory and self-serving on Helen’s part. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tends to polarize mothers into a false dichotomy of “bad” (Anna Lowborough) and “good” (Helen Graham/Huntingdon), but it does so subversively by attributing the “good” to a single mother, a rebellious mother, an independent-minded woman, a wage-earning mother, and a literal outlaw. Nonetheless, Annabella serves as a contrast to Helen’s chastity, a scapegoat for Helen’s conscience, and an ironic commentary on Helen’s own emerging reputation as a fallen woman.
In other words, the growing power and autonomy of women in the private sphere, their increasing moral authority in that sphere, and the public attention being given, in the 1840s, to husbands who exploited and abused their power over women and children in their legal care all gave impetus to reform movements on public and political levels. With all the discretion of a pious Victorian lady and without using, by Victorian standards, “unfeminine” words such as “legislation,” “law,” “politics,” “parliament,” “chartist,” “suffrage” or “rights,” Anne Brontë serves the ball of domestic oppression directly and unswervingly into the reformist court. English novelists of the second half of the century, such as Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Sarah Ellis, and Charlotte Elizabeth, were to intensify the political in their championing of domesticity and maternal moral authority. Susie Steinbach asserts that “the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social theory saw domesticity, family and female influence as the key to solving a wide range of social problems” (67). The Tenant of Wildfell Hall constitutes a passionate defence of a woman’s legal rights, as yet unwon, for improved divorce laws, child custody rights, and authority over child-rearing; it clearly anticipates “the late-nineteenth-century Married Women’s Property Acts (1870, 1882) and Custody of Infants Act (1886)” (Lamonica 31). In the second half of the nineteenth century, the laws and social expectations governing mothers were to change in exactly the directions Anne Brontë proposed, and it is clear that the sympathetic and subversive efforts of writers were instrumental in promoting the legal and social transformations which afforded women some measure of protection.(12)
<21> In conclusion, Anne Brontë issues a complex and sophisticated challenge to her society’s laws, institutions, and expectations, through her heroine, Helen Graham, who asserts her maternal autonomy heroically in the face of legal, social and economic restraint. Although Helen does not suffer physical abuse (which, if severe, sometimes constituted legal grounds for separation or divorce), she leaves her husband and takes her son with her. Through this emancipating act, Anne Brontë critiques a host of Victorian norms and customs in her sympathetic portrayal of marital and maternal apostasy. Anne Brontë, like Mary Wollstonecraft before her, suggests that in the nineteenth century, in some cases the only moral way to raise a child was to break the law, to become a mother outlaw.
(1)Robert Shoemaker has summarized the historical research by asserting that “increasing ideological emphasis was given to maternity during this period” (127).(^)
(2)The legal theorist William Blackstone (1732-80) wrote “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage”.(^)
(4)“Women from the affluent middle and upper classes could often use a special form of law called equity law to put their property in trusts, out of the hands of their husbands’ control. Even then the trusts were controlled by other men, usually relatives” (Abrams, 251).(^)
(5)“Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë wrote in a historical moment when family almost universally defined and positioned female identiy” (Lamonica, 5).(^)
(6)Linda M. Shires provides an excellent discussion of the connections between these radical and elements as a social and political context for Brontë’s novel” (149-53).(^)
(7)Constance D. Harsh writes by the 1830s and 40s, “women were expected to tend to the home rather than pursue directly remunerative activities” (18).(^)
(9)“‘Give me the child!’ she said in a voice scarce louder than a whisper, but with a tone of startling vehemence, and, seizing the boy, she snatched him from me, as if some dire contamination was in my touch, and then stood one hand firmly clasping his, the other on his shoulder, fixing upon me her large luminous eyes – pale, breathless, quivering with agitation” (21).(^)
(10)“In an earlier period, of course, they [widows] had often been suspected of witchcraft. Yet, there was also social and religious criticism of widows remarrying, which is reflected in negative stereotypes. Because widows were expected to remain loyal to their deceased husbands, remarriages were thought to result from base motives. . . . this popular belief provides further evidence of the prevailing hostile attitude towards remarrying widows” (Shoemaker, 137).(^)
(11)Berry writes that providing a stepfather for Arthur Jr. suggests, along with other elements in the novel, a mistrust of mothers (52). I would argue that the novel conveys much more mistrust of marriage (even Helen’s second marriage) than of mothers, although this dark side of domesticity is consistent in all aspects of family life portrayed in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Despite the pervasive tone of critique, however, the most affirmative rhetoric in the book is reserved for Helen’s interactions with her son which are, I would argue, ultimately affirmed.(^)
(12)The 1857 Divorce Act made it possible for legally separated women to have the rights of single women. It gave women the right to sue their husbands for divorce on grounds of his adultery if there was another aggravating factor. Women were not able to sue for divorce on the same grounds as men until 1923. In 1870 the Married Women’s Property Act gave women the right to control of any wages they earned while they were married. This change in the law normally benefited only the working class, but it would have benefited the fictional Helen Huntingdon. In 1878 the Matrimonial Causes Act gave divorced women custody rights over children under the age of 10. In 1882 another version of the Married Women’s Property Act gave women the right to keep property they brought into a marriage.(^)
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