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Archive for October 3rd, 2021


Anne Bronte by herself, drawn as a girl seeking, looking out

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of week ago now I wrote out some notes I took on two separate occasions, a talk on zoom from the Gaskell house and Haworth cottage on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, and two talks from an Anne Bronte conference (which also included material on Patrick, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell) on September 4th Well tonight I want make a second installment of notes on talks on Anne Bronte herself, her poetry, and mostly about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I thought I’d begin backwards, with Anne Bronte herself as discussed by the award-winning journalist, Samir Ahmed, and here I’ll point out to how she won a suit against BBC for paying her derisory sums.

Samira began by telling everyone how early as a teenager, she was “blown away” by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (this made me remember how much Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has meant to me since my teens). Ahmed felt that Anne had an awareness when very young of injustice. As a graduate student, Ahmed’s dissertation was on “Property and Possession in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” She agued the book was written as a popular call that could be intertwined with a romantic novel story. In her preface she says she cannot understand why a woman cannot write what a men might want to and a man a woman. Her aim is to tell the truth.

In both Agnes Grey and Tenant there are experiences our heroines have, which are burned into their brains. Agnes Grey humiliated and berated for not controlling children allowed to become frantic and savage. She is giving testimony ever bit as surely as Christine Casey Ford. Anne was an intelligent woman with a need to speak. A mind seeking justice. At the time of the novel Frazer Magazine one could find awareness of the equivocal nature of the place of the governess. Agnes is paid barely enough to live on. Anne like the “fly” on the wall in a documentary for both her books. She claimed that you find in her books abhorrence towards hunting and going out to kill animals as a sport (I must carry on re-reading Tenant, which I’m doing just now; then turn back to Agnes). Both books too play upon the exploitative power children can give an adult — to oppress the adult, or to terrify her if she is the child’s mother.

She quoted Andrea Dworkin to align lines of hers with those of Anne Bronte. The last lines of Agnes Grey speak to an anti-materialist socialist idea:

Our modest income is amply sufficient for our requirements; and by practising the economy we learnt an harder times, and never attempting to imitate our richer neighbours, we manage not only to enjoy comfort and contentment ourselves, but to have every year something to lay by for our children, and something to give to those who need it. And now I think I have said sufficient.

I have omitted much that Samira Ahmed said about contemporary feminism, modern movie-making (the good Wuthering Heights films and the 1996 Tenant film), some actresses who have involved themselves in good causes, trafficking in women, alcoholism (with respect to Branwell). I wanted to concentrate on the central theme of her talk. What I loved best was she concentrated as much on Agnes Grey as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.


Anne Bronte as drawn by herself by a family dog
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This edition is by Stevie Davies:

Davies was known to me previously as a superb historian of women and original inventive fiction: her Unbridled Spirits is a part imagined history of 17th century British women – -during the civil war they gained freedom, agency and lived some of them remarkable lives; her Impassioned Clay brilliant historical fiction where the insight that what we are doing is ghostly, bringing back dead people becomes central (insofar as Gabaldon is aware of this, and so too the better writers of the TV serial there is invested in the series a ghost-like apprehension of the past).

Davies has gotten herself an academic position and edits Tenant of Wildfall Hall expertly. Alas, there is no manuscript. This happens with Austen’s novels. It’s not until way after mid-century (except for Scott) that writers save their manuscripts: they apparently gave them to the printers to devour. What we have here is the first edition of Tenant before Charlotte could abridge or tamper with it. Davies simply adds on the preface Anne wrote for the second edition.
Davies’ introduction is superb Among other things she brings out the subjective nature of the text, the ambivalence in the way Gilbert Markham is treated; she shows that many aspects of this book are a kind of inverse for Wuthering Heights. There are a lot of characters with H names in both. She finds a lot of the Gondal stories in both; she has Jane Eyre as another alternative in the same kind of vision about women artists, Rochester contrasted to Arthur Huntington.

There were five talks on Anne’s fiction, mostly on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for which I have some brief or merely representative or summary notes.

Marianne Thormählen,”Literary Art and Moral Instruction” in Anne Bronte’s novels. She wanted to show us is how modern critical dislike or moral judgements and dislike of didactism has marginalized her novels. Juliet McMaster is one of those alive to lapping multilay humor, wit, a kind of low laughter, amid real pain and bruises. Josephine McDonagh brings out the actuality of the body in Tenant; how the body and soul are both threatened. The structure of the book has put off others: Markham for the first time, then Helen as an inset diary. I like her bringing up Antigone. You must learn to distrust what flatters you, look at what makes us uncomfortable — for my part I see little.

Amy Bowen presented Tenant as a horror of “gothic realism: about real imprisonment, a woman trying to escape an abusive husband (where she has no rights or power). The focus is the interiority. Enclosed imagery reflects the hard world outside. Helen resists engendered discussions about education: that boys are taught to be inconstant, indifferent to the pain of others; women taught to be constant with no knowledge of an abrasive world.


19th century painting by an unknown woman of herself as a painter

Emily Vause’s themes were female authority, authorship and one’s identity. Charlotte was conventionally female, and she insisted her sister hated Tenant (because she, Charlotte, did). Anne draws adults with discerning eye to her apparently widowed adult female. Vause’s paper delineated the excruciating interactions Helen has with Arthur’s guests; she has to withdraw herself from what she hates: the male gaze fixed on her. She denies him access to her bedroom and he is dumbfounded (May Sinclair said the resounding of that door echoed across women’s minds). In effect he had been raping her. He means to corrupt the boy to spite her, and she flees with him. Her autonomy as a woman she never gives up, nor her authority as his mother. Her authority by her art allows her to escape to self-sufficiency. At one point he casts her painting supplies into the fire. Vause saw a parallel between Markham and Huntingdon, and was disappointed to find at the end of her story Helen becomes subject to a new husband.

Jordan Frederick discussed gender, custody and child-care, a genuine issue from what I’ve seen and heard from ordinary readers reading the novels today. I find today that many readers are put off by Helen’s wanting to keep her son close to her, her refusal to let him be educated into alcohol (she makes it associated with bad tasting medicine. To protect your child as a woman was legally impossible (he cited the series of reforms, 1839, division of wardship; 1873, giving a woman custody of her baby and young child; 1886 guardianship of children). Not until his deathbed does Arthur exhibit any remorse; she must turn to Gilbert in part. The temperance movement, methodist magazines (ideas of bearing witness) and Anne Bronte’s experience of her brother also lies behind this book. Anne is questioning toxic masculinity; Helen actively criticizing and fighting against this formation of the male psyche. He talked of how the gothicism here is realistic and the setting itself; society itself is the threat. Her feelings isolate her. Here he agreed with Any Bowen. He felt much irony in the book but thought at the end Gilbert will behave in a way that allows Helen not to be entrapped again.

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A recent cover for Agnes Grey

Maureen Kilditz’s “Walking and Health.” Perhaps the most interesting paper for the group (from the way the talking went – this was just after the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan) was about walking as an act of liberty. Kolditz began with a quotation that indicated women were not seen walking in the street unless accompanied by a chaperon. Agnes Grey must find someone to walk with; not permitted to examine the employers’ garden. How can a woman obtain a position for work if she is not allowed to walk about casually (she would be mistaken for a prostitute and then arrested for vagrancy). Walking is a function of our mobility in the natural world. How to get to your destination if you don’t have a horse? Strolling was discouraged: when Mr Western sees Agnes walking he suspects something — a kind of latent sexual nuance lingers over this act. So walking is perilous — it represented “unfettered female agency.” At the quiet contented ending of Agnes Grey, Mr Western comes with his cat to invite Agnes to come out with them. Here it is pleasurable; not a sign of poverty or struggle.

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Wildfell Hall in the engraving by Edmund Morison Wimperis (1873)

I conclude with three of the four talks, which were on Anne Bronte’s poetry: Quinnell: ‘Tis strange to think there was a time’: Romantic Echoes in Anne and Emily Brontë’s Poetry; Ciara Glasscott, “Is childhood then so all-divine: representations of childhood, innocence and romantic imagery in the poems of Anne Bronte: and Dr Edwin Moorhouse Marr: “Even the wicked shall at last Be fitted for the skies:” Anne Bronte’s Poetry and the Hope of Universal Salvation.” I don’t want to repeat what they said lest I transcribe it correctly because much was subtle and attached to specific lines in poems. I omitted Sara Pearson on their afterlife because I couldn’t take precise enough notes. I’ll call attention to those poems the talks pointed and make some general remarks from what they said:

“Tis strange to think there was a time\
When mirth was not an empty name,
When laughter really cheered the heart,
And frequent smiles unbidden came,
And tears of grief would only flow
In sympathy for others’ woe;

When speech expressed the inward thought,
And heart to kindred heart was bare,
And Summer days were far too short
For all the pleasures crowded there,
And silence, solitude, and rest,
Now welcome to the weary breast … (see the rest of the poem where you clicked)

This and others were said to emphasize a loss of early innocent childhood; then silence, solitude and rest is what was wanted; now night the holy time is no longer a place of peace. A grieving and regretting here that goes beyond Wordsworth. There is real fear in her “Last Lines” “A dreadful darkness closes in/On my bewildered mind”). In “Dreams” she imagines herself to a mother with a young baby, fears finding herself unloved afterward. There is a Blakean idea of unqualified innocence, an idealized nostalgia (it is highly unlikely Anne ever saw Blake’s poetry). There is great affliction in her poetry partly because she wants to believe in salvation for all. It was very upsetting for her to think of Cowper lost in hell. If he is not saved, what hope has she? She sought individual comfort; there is a deep seriousness about them all, and then quiet contemplation. I’m not unusual for finding Bluebell, one of her finest

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

It seems to me we have been misreading these poems by framing them in evangelical and sheerly religious contexts. We need to take seriously, the strong dark emotions as well as her turning to the beauty of the natural world and real and imagined memories of childhood.


Branwell Bronte

Ellen

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