‘The rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear’ : Female Emancipation through Nature in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)

Hannah Bury is a first-year PhD candidate at the University of Salford. Her interdisciplinary doctoral project analyses intersectional representations of femininity and disability in nineteenth-century children’s literature. She has an article forthcoming with the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. You can find Hannah on Twitter @hannah_bury_ and can contact her at h.j.bury@edu.salford.ac.uk.

 

This post will explore a couple of the ways in which The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) foregrounds Helen Graham’s rejection of Victorian society through her connection to the natural world. Duthie claims that ‘Anne Brontë was keenly conscious of the contrast between the beauty of nature and the havoc which men make of their lives’, while more recently Sabelko argues that ‘Helen is compared to nature, it is the wild and tenuous cliffs by the bay that act as a metaphor for Helen’s inner life’.[1] In the novel, the countryside is juxtaposed with ‘the corruptions and temptations of London’ (p. 208) that constitute Arthur’s downfall, a downfall which Helen resists, as she ‘did not wish […] to be Londonised, and to lose [her] country freshness’ (p. 169). Helen’s resistance to this corruption ensures her sanity; she escapes the city’s corruptive influences through nature. The notion that nature possesses a therapeutic power is common across the Brontë canon. Yet, while other Brontëan heroines succumb to repression despite their natural connections – Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights and Lucy Snowe in Villette are two notable examples – Helen can enjoy liberation in nature despite her occupation in a male-dominated household at Grassdale.

Ecofeminism is primarily concerned with the connections that exist between women, patriarchy and the natural world. In her theoretical examination of the subject, Val Plumwood dissects women’s ‘closeness to nature’ as she posits that there is a ‘critical dimension of gender to the story of human [in] relation to nature’.[2] In The Tenant, Helen oscillates between nature and culture, or freedom and restraint. She detests her society’s claustrophobic view of femininity, an ideology upheld by the people of Linden-Car. Mrs Markham, for example, insists that women should retain their ‘proper place’ (p. 46) within domesticity. This view disgusts Helen, as she – on behalf of Brontë, perhaps – regrets that Victorian women are ‘tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant – taught to cling to others for direction and support’ (p. 46). Helen’s metaphor exposes the prescriptive view of gender that encouraged many nineteenth-century women to become submissive and readily controlled by men. Symbolically, a house plant is tended to in order to regulate its growth. When translating this into gendered terms, views of femininity in The Tenant suggest that women have little to no agency in constructing or nurturing their own development. Plumwood also asserts that ‘[f]eminine “closeness” to nature has hardly been a compliment’ but this is challenged in light of Helen’s emancipation.[3] Instead, Helen favours a more liberated view of gender: rather than resuming her passive place as a ‘house-plant’, she prefers instead to pass her time uninhabited and ‘sheltered from the hot sun by […] overhanging trees’ (p. 52) far away from social observation and objectification. Helen remains within nature at Mrs Markham’s gathering as opposed to integrating herself within her new society. Her presence is described as ‘penetrating’ and ‘semi-transparent’, as she cowers within the ‘thickness’ (p. 67) of nature’s foliage. Helen’s overall position, ragged and firmly rooted within the natural world, is illustrated through the image shown below.

Kate O’Keefe: ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ Image.

Helen’s residence at both Grassdale and Wildfell Hall is also significant when considering her connection to nature. Neither habitation is favourable: the former provides material comforts yet no freedom, while the latter provides more freedom, but this privilege affords Helen even less comfort. Despite this, the names of the two houses symbolise the natural qualities of ‘grass’ and the ‘wild’, the places where Helen is most comfortable. As a result, we can identify Helen’s irrefutable connection to nature despite her inhabitation within Grassdale and Wildfell Hall. Grassdale, the place of Helen’s occupation as a married woman, is described as a ‘prison’ as ‘the atmosphere of Grassdale seemed to stifle’ (p. 300) her. It is a haunted house that accommodates an equally haunted woman, as only she is ‘cold and gloomy enough to inhabit’ (p. 18) it. ‘[T]he broken windows and dilapidated roof had evidently been repaired’, yet ‘[a] faint, red light was gleaming from the lower windows’ (p. 18). Meanwhile, the fragility associated with Wildfell mirrors the isolated and broken essence of Helen as a whole. She attempts to ‘repair’ her identity after escaping her husband’s clutches, but danger continues to overshadow her; the ‘red light’, or the warning, of Arthur’s presence is evident until his death later on. In either case, Helen remains ‘a slave’ and ‘a prisoner’ (p. 287) to the patriarchal order until the threat and the memory of her husband passes away.

A further exploration of Helen’s rejection to patriarchal influence through nature can be read most explicitly through the rose motif. Helen’s rose offers a symbolic indication of her connection to the natural world and her overall character trajectory. Duthie identifies how ‘[t]here is no trace of her in that instinctive emotional response to a wild and stern environment’.[4] Yet, Helen’s initial description as ‘a sweet, wild rosebud gemmed with dew’ (p. 132) challenges this. Brontë’s description can, however, be juxtaposed with Helen’s self-reflection at the end of The Tenant, as she states that ‘[t]he rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear’ (p. 67). This comparison between the ‘flower’ and the ‘rose’ illustrates Helen’s resilience. When she initially meets Arthur, for example, she is youthful and aesthetically beautiful, an unfortunate combination of characteristics that blinds her to his corruptive ways. Nevertheless, as a fully developed ‘rose’ later on, Helen is infinitely older and wiser. This means that she will not make the same mistakes when progressing with Gilbert; she is stronger through her experience. Gardening literature of the 1840s exclaimed that ‘[t]he culture of flowers is exactly in the happy medium between what is too hard and what is too easy’.[5] When considering the rose symbol in light of this, we can see how Helen has too suffered a fate which was ‘too hard’ through a frigid and abusive marriage; yet, a more optimistic and ‘easy’ future potentially awaits her. The rose therefore represents this ‘happy medium’. Helen is no longer shackled: although her repression does change her, she succeeds in her venture to freedom because she possesses the internal strength to evolve and overcome her plight.

In The Tenant, Brontë rewards Helen for creating a stable future that excludes the patriarchal influence that once undermined it. In line with her heroine’s aspirations, Brontë ‘paints’ an alternative fate for women in the face of adversity. Women can demarcate the boundary between the illusion and the reality of freedom, despite the constraints that oppressed some women in the mid- nineteenth century. Ultimately, Brontë attempts to rebalance once immovable patriarchal barriers in order to achieve feminine agency, and so Helen comes full circle. Through her heroine, Brontë dared to write and advocate what her famous sisters failed to carry out completely. As a result, she can therefore be recognised ‘not as a minor Brontë, but as a major literary figure in her own right’.[6]

 

[1] Enid L. Duthie, The Brontës and Nature (Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Limited, 1986), p. 111; Katelyn Sabelko, ‘Recasting the Garden: Anne Brontë’s Subversion of the Victorian Garden Trope in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, The Oswald Review, 20.1 (2018), p. 11.

[2] Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 8; p. 10.

[3] Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, p. 19.

[4] Duthie, The Brontës and Nature, p. 105.

[5] Jane Loudon, Instructions in Gardening for Ladies (London: John Murray, 1840), pp. 244-5.

[6] Edward Chitham, A Life of Anne Brontë (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 186.

 

 

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