By Anna Meyer (MA ’19), Department of English, Kansas State University
WHO’S THAT GIRL?
When Anne Brontë’s elusive female protagonist Helen Graham moves to Wildfell Hall, she’s the talk of town. How is it that a single woman and her child have come to rent this enormous mansion? What is her ethnic background? Why did she leave her husband? How many men has she seduced? Is she sleeping with Wildfell Hall’s landlord Mr. Lawrence? Is Mr. Lawrence the biological father of her child Arthur?
Speculation about Helen is blatantly negative due to her current status as a middle-class mother who rents and independently lives in an Elizabethan mansion. Her only company is her son Arthur and an older woman Rachel. Her husband is nowhere to be found, and it’s seemingly apparent that her family has neither visited nor knows where she is. These factors oppose social expectations created by nineteenth-century English society, and these rumors increasingly isolate Helen both literally and figuratively.
SEPARATE SPHERES IDEOLOGY
Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) takes place during a time when nineteenth-century England’s separate spheres ideology was evolving. Before the Victorian period, it was common to have a “working household,” where families would run business together from the comfort of their own homes. However, the rise of industrialization and urban development during the mid-Victorian period consolidated separate domestic and work spheres (Tosh 14-16). This cultural phenomenon reinforced a gender-specific binary. Males tended to the outside business/commerce-oriented identity and women tended to the domestic/family-oriented identity.
Middle-class women’s social status and livelihood became almost entirely entwined with their family and their husband. Once a man found his footing in the public sphere, his wife was confined to a home-maker role (Tosh 18). Since her mysterious arrival, Helen has no obvious ties to an English family or her husband. She cannot prove a good social standing, so her reputation suffers.
HELEN AS A DANGEROUS “OTHER”
Because Helen rebels against nineteenth-century society’s standards, she is virtually labeled as “Other.” Regardless of her English family background, she lurks on the outskirts of society. Here are a few serious offences Helen commits during her time at Wildfell Hall:
- Her disregard for social etiquette: Women’s involvement in social activities like home entertainment, dinner parties, and correspondence was pivotal. Helen dislikes this “cultural currency,” and rarely participates, which causes outrage in her social circles (Langland 7).
- Her independent care of her son Arthur: Since Helen’s husband isn’t with her at Wildfell Hall, she maintains sole control over her child, which is a scandal to her neighbors, who believe a male role model (like a father) is necessary for her son’s moral development.
- Her painting career: Society acknowledged professional female painters in the nineteenth century, but it was much harder for women to establish professional careers, regardless of the quality of her work. Some critics of the time said professional female painters “would damage not only the fragile domestic ideology but the realm of art itself” (Losano 11). To avoid this type of gendered backlash, Helen uses an assumed name as well as a male mediator to sell her paintings.
- Her marital status: Although Helen appears widowed (a respectable position), people begin to worry that she’s not a widow, but instead an unmarried mother. The fact that Helen has a child but no trace of a husband causes anxiety, as her gossipy neighbors soon connect her disregard for social conventions (see 1, 2, and 3) with a disregard for sexual propriety.
It is clear why Helen’s neighbors want to exclude her from their inner circles. Her mere existence and livelihood indicate just how problematic separate spheres ideology and gender-specific roles are, ultimately threatening the very fibers of their society.
BLESSINGS AND CURSES OF FEMALE ANONYMITY
While it’s unclear yet who and what Helen’s running from (probably her estranged husband and the strict cultural expectations of nineteenth-century England), Helen uses anonymity to her advantage. By protecting her identity (even her last name is fake!), she remains untraceable. Her use of an assumed name also permits her to engage with the public sphere. She can sell her paintings in London and elsewhere.
We see this type of female anonymity tied to literary as well as artistic success in the Victorian period with authors like the Brontë sisters, who published under the pen names Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell. Even currently, female writers have taken to using their initials to avoid gender-bias (ex: famous Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling).
Anonymity is crucial for Helen’s survival at this point in the novel, but she is forced to sacrifice her social standing and to live on the outskirts of nineteenth-century English society. However, because of her careful precautions, she’s able to maintain an independent identity, and she’s able to raise her boy alone. Everyone take note: Helen Graham is truly the original Gone Girl.
Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Penguin Books, 1996.
Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody’s Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Cornell UP, 1995, pp. 1-23.
Losano, Antonia. “The Professionalization of the Woman Artist in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Nineteenth-Century Literature. Vol. 58, no. 1. June 2003. pp. 1-41.
Tosh, John. “The Middle-Class Household.” A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England. Yale UP, 1999, pp. 11-26.