Before exploring the legal and jurisprudential influence 19th Century feminist novels, it is important to illustrate the extraordinarily extreme conditions that were placed upon the wife in Victorian England. Of course to assume violence was a frequent occurrence throughout England would be false, however such instances were anything but a rarity. From Frances Power Cobbe's famous essay 'Wife Torture in England' comes this emphatically graphic depiction demonstrating the sickening situation;
'John Harris, a shoemaker, at Sheffield, found his wife and children in bed; dragged her out, and after vainly attempting to force her into the oven, tore off her night-dress and turned her round before the fire "like a piece of beef", while the children stood on the stairs listening to their mother's agonized screams. '1 Victorian men beat their wives, and they did so, because the law let them, and this was the case until June 1853, 'an act was passed…
entitled "An Act for the Better Prevention and Punishment for Aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children; and for Preventing Delay and Expense in the Administration of the Criminal Law"2. But how far was such a push influenced by literature? This essay will focus upon Anne Bronte's second and final book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The Tenant was written in and around the similar time period that Anne's sisters' wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights; however these two, perhaps more famous novels were not as politically and legally charged, and certainly did not possess the shock element.
The Tenant was deemed so shocking that Charlotte herself, rescinded rights to publication after Anne's death. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, first published in 1848, was written under the pseudonym Acton Bell, and revolves around the story of Helen Huntingdon and her actions, which although exert moral sense, were lacking in legal backing. The novel is written in three volumes, the first depicting Helen as the elusive subdued secretive Mrs Graham written by a local man, Gilbert Markham.
Volume II, is the diary of Helen Huntingdon, nee Graham, and proceeds to illustrate the build up to, and resultant marriage to Arthur Huntingdon, with Volume III illustrating the aftermath of the revelation. The novel subtly reverberates around the three misgivings of law during the Victorian period. It references three particular and necessarily closely related issues, the capacity of the married women to acquire estate, the case for reforming divorce law, and the need to amend the child custody provision3.
The principle of coverture was the foundations that the wife beating torture as an act seemingly made such acceptable. The act of coverture, which was famously described in Blackstone's Commentaries coverture describes that 'In marriage the husband and wife are one person in law', further stating that 'the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended during the marriage'4. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was considered a particularly risqui?? novel, one that fit its promise of being a shocking piece.
It was very uncommon within the public discourse to have matters from within the home to be discussed, however the issues discussed, as confirmed by Cobbe, were not an uncommon dilemma during the mid-nineteenth century. It was a particularly controversial subject as the Victorian's were renowned for the great pride they took in their family life ethos, which The Tenant subsequently shattered in respect of 'the pretences of martial harmony beloved of many Victorians'5.
It can be seen to aptly demonstrate the perils of being a mid-nineteenth century wife, that Mona Caird, likens to a Mongolian Market place, 'with its iron cage, wherein women are held in bondage, suffering moral starvation, while the thoughtless gather round to taunt and to insult their lingering misery'6. At the time of writing, the case of Caroline Norton was heavily present, and perhaps was an influence on the character of Helen Huntingdon. Caroline Norton, left her husband who consequently, in accordance with the law, managed to retain her earnings.
As a woman she could therefore use the law to her own advantage and she began running up bills in her husband's name, which she informed creditors that since they were in her spouse's name, they could sue her husband7. Soon after separation, Caroline 'abducted' her three sons, taking them to live with her relatives in Scotland and refused to inform her husband of their whereabouts. Norton, then incited that Caroline was having an affair with Lord Melbourne who was the then Whig Prime Minister.
Norton, consequently blocked her from receiving a divorce and from seeing her three children. This may seem morally inadequate, however it was in accordance with British law, as in 1836 children were the property of the father. Caroline consequently had no maternal rights and therefore could do little to regain custody8, even if their father was a violent alcoholic. Although there is no definite connection between the plight of Helen and Caroline, there is a resonance, and the pair could be seen as a trigger in the feminist movement for the middle class Victorian woman.