'Sick of mankind and their disgusting ways'9, was scribbled by Anne Bronte in the back of her prayer book. Anne's state of mind can be seen further in her 1845 paper, from which she described herself of having undergone 'unpleasant and undreamt-of-experience of human nature' at Thorp Green, where she had been working as a governess for five years. Anne subsequently, having lived at close quarters with her brother, witnessed his degeneration and disgrace.
She had become bereaved, learning she would probably never marry, nor bear the child she so desperately craved, and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall can undoubtedly be seen to demonstrate her sombre vision10. The first volume charters Gilbert's intrigue into the mysterious Mrs Graham who had recently moved into Wildfell Hall, who earns her way as a painter. The intrigue to which is heightened when Helen's painting of her abode, is in fact entitled 'Fernley Manor, Cumberland', with the being reasoning that she has 'friends- acquaintances at least – in the world, from whom I desire my present abode to be concealed…
to give a false name to the place also, in order to put them on a wrong scent'11. This highlights the illegality of the situation, as it becomes clear to the reader, if not Gilbert, that she is in fact hiding from a previous husband, and has particular resonance with the plight of Caroline Norton. Furthermore it indicates the practicality to many women facing a similar situation, upon identification of their situation with Helen's, that there is the possibility of escape. It further emphasises to the reader that there is a way to escape the male dominated positivist laws of coverture.
Demonstrative of the times, the novel does contain both explicit and implicit marital violence. Implicit violence is bestowed upon Helen. This becomes apparent during the chapter 'The First Quarrel', where Arthur Huntingdon, having 'took an unusual quantity of wine' and consequently upon being greeted by their cocker Dash, Arthur's temper is demonstrated by his '[striking] of a smart blow; and the poor dog squeaked, and ran cowering back to me'. Consequently, after arising from a drunken sleep, he calls over the dog once more, when the dog refuses, Arthur, '[snatched] a heavy book and hurled it at his head'.
Helen suggests the violence has already started when she retorts 'by your throwing the book at him? But perhaps it was intended for me? ' Mr Huntingdon then responds, 'No- but I see you've got a taste of it. Said he, looking at my hand that had also been struck, and was rather severely grazed'12. From this scene it can be seen that Dash and Helen are joint recipients of Arthur's abuse. Violence can be seen to transfer from dog and onto Helen herself, despite Huntingdon's denial of his intention to harm Helen.
However, is the abuse of Dash a metonym for Helen herself, which again chronicles the Victorian period, as the private sphere was a completely separate entity to the public vizard that was showcased outside the family home. The fact that the cocker spaniel is the family pet, is significant, and enforces the connection between Helen and Dash. Spaniels are from tradition associated with the feminine qualities of gentleness, submission, subservience – and with a willingness to be beaten, as exemplified by the adage, "a spaniel a woman, and a walnut tree-/ The more they're beaten, the better they still be"13.
This adequately portrays the position that many of the middle class Victorian gentry would associate with, and consequently demonstrates their arrogance. Later in the text, Ralph Hattersley, an acquaintance of Arthur's, can be seen to compare his wife to a spaniel, 'at my feet and never so much as squeaks to tell me that's enough'14. Explicit violence can be seen in the fact that during Mr Huntingdon's party, Ralph the husband of Milicent, grabs her 'remorselessly crushing her slight arms in the gripe of his powerful things' and consequently shaking her until she eventually falls. To which Milicent responds 'Do let me alone Ralph!
Remember we are not at home! '15. This coincides and acts as a platform on which Anne subsequently can be seen to transcend into a discussion between Helen and Milicent into how such acts can be avoided, with Helen acting not only as an intervener for Milicent, but as an advocate for the females across the country. 'Alas! Poor Milicent, what encouragement can I give you? – or what advice – except that it is better to make a bold stand now, though at the expense of disappointing and angering both mother and brother, and lover, than to devote your whole life, hereafter, to misery and vain regret?
'16. The fact that Helen is heavily suggesting that despite the law saying quite the contrary, that Milicent should act in haste in order to lose the shackles of marriage that confine her to a life of misery, resounds heavily with Lisa Surridge's coinage as a 'literature of resistance'. Helen is suggesting that Milicent be dismissive of the laws and consequently she must act in accordance with what she would deem morally sound, rather than abide by unjust positivist laws.
In regards to Milicent's husband Ralph, Helen can be seen to discuss the consequences of his actions; awakening his ignorance to the fact the way he was treating his wife constitutes abuse. This could be seen in the feminist sense to be alerting the female readers, that the abuse suffered is not acceptable and is not a part of accepted marriage. Ralph having grabbed Milicent and shaking her so vigorously she was forced to bite her lip to suppress pain, Helen retorts 'I'll tell you, Mr Hattersley, said I, 'She was crying from pure shame and humiliation for you; because she could not bear to see you conduct yourself so disgracefully'17.
This could be seen as a particularly strong level of revolt, according to Victorian laws, Ralph was merely imposing his power over his property, but Helen defies such social norms to communicate the gravity of the situation faced by wives. Feminist encouragement to the shortcomings of the act of coverture can be seen further from Helen's diary, from which she states that upon marriage, '[her] bliss is sobered, but not destroyed; [her] hopes diminished, but not departed; and [her] fears increased but not yet thoroughly confirmed'18.
This emphasises the position of Helen, that although she may be trapped with no legal identity she has not been completely lost and smothered by coverture, and upon this premise, acting as a springboard, provides a reasoning to disobey the law. Anne's knowledge of the law is represented by a discussion between Helen and Mr Huntingdon, where she requests to 'take [their] child and what remains of [her] fortune', 'will you let me have the child then, without the money? '19 to which Mr Huntingdon rejects, even further by restricting even her attempt to leave.
The inequality presented by the act, is then communicated by Helen, 'then I must stay here, to be hated and despised – But henceforth we are husband and wife only by name'. This passage is particularly powerful as it demonstrates to the female generation that the law is inept to cover their plight and this once again could be seen to have legal implications, especially with further encouragement from John Stuart Mill, who indicated that 'the wife is the actual bond servant of her husband: no less so, as far as legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so-called'.