Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

This is for the April session of the Classics Challenge at November's Autumn. I was actually hoping to feature a Pre-Raphaelite painting, or even a Gothic or Romantic one, but oh no, none of my classics feature a pre-rapaelite painting, so I had to settle with a pretty pastoral picture. It's Lady in a Landscape, Ambleside, by Walter Hugh Paton, 1828-1895.

Does the picture suit the book? I'm not sure. Paton is a Victorian, and since the book is set in the Regency era, this may not be so appropriate. On the other hand, the book was written in the Victorian era (by Anne Brontë, none the less!) Anne Brontë, like her sister, Charlotte, has the curious distinction of mixing Victorian and Regency/Romantic. Looking at the cover, I was preparing myself for pastoral life (a mild form of Thomas Hardy, maybe?) but no, this is no Thomas Hardy. Hardy is melodramatic, but not Anne Brontë. I don't know what to think. Sure the scene is set in the countryside, where Helen Huntingdon escapes from her husband, and it is full of the usual gossips, but the mild blandness of the colours do not do justice to the malice and passion of the book.

On the other hand, you could argue that Anne was calmer, more rational, more realistic in her works compared to Charlotte and Emily. The plot is no Gothic melodrama, but an example of Victorian social realism, though it is set before then. Unlike her sisters, Anne was more topical for her era, and all her characters seem real. She was a respectable Victorian rather than a crazed Gothic enthusiast. And this is reflected in the mild landscape. The vicious husband, Arthur Huntingdon is true (based partly on Branwell Brontë), the hero is a gentle fellow, not a dashing spark, and the heroine is a battered wife, not a fainting maiden of nineteen. But all this violence doesn't tie in with the autumn yellows. The picture is no Romantic storm but a well-painted series of trees and soil and fence in the distance. Does it not make more sense?

I don't know whether the publishers were aware of this, but the lady in the picture sits all by herself, her hands on the lap. A pale Victorian ideal of rural repose, but is that all? She is smartly dressed, no ordinary peasant-girl is she. She might be a depiction of a middle-class lady contemplating the rural scene before her. This is no common peasant pastoral-scene you often see in classic book covers (see Thomas Hardy especially), but it may have been influenced by Turner or Constable. I know nothing of these things, perhaps Katherine of November's Autumn may be able to enlighten me. The fact the lady is sitting alone brings to mind the isolated individual of the Romantic era: after all, Helen's story is set in that era, and she is alone much of the time, choosing to keep apart from the villagers, and raising her young son by herself. She works as a painter of landscapes, and this suits the model who sees nothing but landscape, there being no other people. It brings to mind a pure, unadulterated place, untainted by industrial change. Does Anne favour this sort of place? I rather think so. She disliked being away from home, her rural Haworth in Yorkshire.

And though very much a realist Victorian, Anne was a child of the 18th century and the Romantics. The stories she would have read in her childhood, the 1820's and 30's, were melodramatic things from Blackwood's Magazine. The plot of the novel, too, is reminiscent of the late 18the century realism-romances, like those by Frances Burney, author of Cecilia and Evelina. It is essentially a Romance, though like Hardy, a caution against the romantically-minded. (A Romance in the 19th century meant adventure or a story set in earlier times.) A woman running away from her husband is still something to talk about and not a commonplace thing among the gentry, to which Helen belongs.  An emphasis on human relationships, especially the romantic ones, before Helen marries, and adultery, is also a characteristic of a romance though typically human relations are less profound in romances. Adultery, however, was considered the sort of thing  the ancestors of the Victorians wrote about, especially in silver-fork novels. The class of characters who seem to stand out in Helen's early life are upper class, also an old-fashioned feature.  The witty admonitions against gallant young men is also of an earlier era, rather than the more socially conscious Victorians who were more interested in the middle-class life than upper-class society and its racy gossip. The uncouth, swearing men though of wealth and good birth, are also found in 18th century romances, and this is what made the book disagreeable to the clean Victorians. So are the mention of mistresses, something you will find in Jane Austen  more than in a typical Victorian classic (illegitimate children rather than mistresses are mentioned in Victorian novels. It is the result rather than the process that was described). But where is this hinted in the picture? The isolated heroine of romantic ideals is there, so is a landscape that shuns an industrial evolution (very Wordsworthian). What about passion and heights? To look at it you must see the full painting, which is here below.

Does not the lady seem small compared to the trees and the distant lilac hills? Anne was very religious: there may be some hint here that I don't see. Perhaps the pious Helen's feelings are reflected in the great hills (the wonders of God, perhaps?) It's not however, as formidable as the paintings of the previous eras, it is naturalistic rather than supernatural. The walls of the meadow are not even, either, sublime rather than classically symmetrical, something John Ruskin the Victorian critic wrote about. It is this irregularity which is nature. On the other hand, if your imagination runs wild, you could think of the uneven brick walls as some kind of ruin. This is no castle but remember we are looking at a real landscape. The walls are the only manmade structure apparent here, and assuming we see it as a pseudo-ruin it makes us think of structures long gone and destroyed, of epics vanished to be replaced by faithful realism. A farmer's life preceding a nobleman's castle. I am probably over-interpreting a simple thing though.

Look carefully at the left-hand side of the book cover. Hidden among the trees is a gentleman's estate - a high building. It doesn't stand out at all: it is part of the more noticeable greenery. I believe earlier artists liked to emphasise the house, but here it is nature, not the house that is important. Helen prefers nature to artifice, the down-to-earth Gilbert Markham to the aristocratic, hypocritical and rakish Arthur Huntingdon, her husband. It is among Nature she makes her living and her independence, and in a great hall she feels lonely and trapped.

Ambleside where it was painted is in the Lake District, the residence of the early Romantic poets among them Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge. I think this is very apt.

Here is another edition:
I don't know the painter, but the colour and mood is similar to John Atkinson Grimshaw. The bleak green sky and dead trees against a great, dimly-lit hall reflects Helen's escape from her husband, a parting from a place she finds gloomy. It is Victorian rather than Romantic, but the mood is reminiscent of Romanticism (Grimshaw was good at this). A castle-like structure, haunted looking trees, isolation, these are significant.

For a comparison, see a painting by Turner, the book cover of Penguin Popular Classics' Shirley by Charlotte Brontë. It is set in Richmond, Yorkshire, and I felt the cover reflected the book well. However I am trying to look at Anne, who is greatly underrated due to her sisters' uniqueness, and if she was not a Brontë I suspect her reputation would be much better. Turner bridged the romantics and the Victorians, I believe, and it is Wildfell Hall which does this. Assuming Paton was an artistic descendant of Turner this would be even more apt. For the Brontës were the bridge between the Victorians and the Romantics in their style of writing, even though Victorianism was far advanced in fiction at the time they wrote. It looks back to a past, nostalgic to Charlotte's ideals, less perfect in Anne's discerning eyes.


  1. Anne is my favorite of the Bronte sisters, it is a shame she's not as well recognized. Tenant is such an incredibly overlooked novel (at least here in the US).

    Unfortunately the adaptation made some years back... well the screenplay, visuals, and music weren't strong. At least the actors were.

    I love what you've written here:

    "the mild blandness of the colours do not do justice to the malice and passion of the book."

    And it is very true! But perhaps another side to this cover may also be that for villagers, this was the only side they saw of Helen. A solitary widow who sat and painted out in the fields. They had no idea of the turmoil within her life.

    I love how you've compared the structure to a ruin. And it's also interesting how cut-off the lady is from the rest of the scene. The ruin is a barrier.

    Thank you for your wonderful post, Caroline!

  2. Well spotted! I didn't notice the ruined barrier. Thinking it over possibly it could symbolise Helen's isolation (the part where the lady sits is fairly bare) from the farming villagers (the other side of the barrier is full of trees and fertile soil).

  3. I think the covers of the old penguin popular classics are rather dull in general and don't always reflect the content of the book. The ones written by female authors always tended to have romantic scenes like these. They have reissued these books in the last few years and they are no longer illustrated with paintings. Instead they all just have a bright green cover.

    Great post

    1. I actually got this some years ago though they had the green Penguins at the time. I love the old Penguin Classics - not the shiny black ones (Though it is classy) but those covers as shown in the 2nd Tenant picture. They had good scholarly criticism, and I should have bought some years ago only I was too young (and broke) to appreciate them. The pastoral paintings in that Penguin Classics series were pretty good.

  4. I enjoyed your post. I will be adding this book to my list.