Wildfell Hall and the Artist as a Young Woman

By Shaw, Karen L. | West Virginia University Philological Papers, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Wildfell Hall and the Artist as a Young Woman


Shaw, Karen L., West Virginia University Philological Papers


In 1848, Anne Bronte produced one of the Victorian period's few Kunstlerromane written by a woman, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The novel unfolds as a framed narrative: the outer panels related by Gilbert Markham, the inner panel related by Helen Huntingdon. Markham tells the story of the arrival of a mysterious young widow, Helen Graham, and the subsequent growth of his affection for her, ending with their marriage in the final panel. In the form of her journal, Helen Huntingdon tells the story of her previous existence, the story of a young woman whose artistic abilities provide her an escape from an abusive first marriage. In the interaction of these two narratives, Bronte examines the nature of the woman artist. Her examination begins with what Germaine Greer identifies as the essential problem facing any artist, the problem of "finding one's authenticity, of speaking in a language or imagery that is essentially one's own." (1) In addressing this issue, Bronte also recognizes the interference created by V ictorian societal mores.

This interference is, in part, an outgrowth of the ambivalence that has long been an element of the artist's image. In Legend. Myth, and Magic iii the Image of the Artist, Ernst Kris and Otto Kurtz examine the anecdotes about the great masters, their youth, their early display of unique talent, the superiority of their judgment and ability, and their creative imagination. From these they construct the image of the artist as it has developed over time. They further note that historically that image has been dichotomous, including both admirable and dangerous qualities: the "evil magician and the mighty creator." (2) For the Victorians, the gender variable seems only to exacerbate this sense of ambivalence. Women were often regarded as lacking the mighty attribute and possessing the evil one. In Worlds of Art: Painters in Victorian Society, Paula Gillett describes the mid-century debate concerning women artist, which depicted women as less capable artists than men. She cites the wide acceptance of this view alo ng with domestic responsibilities and the critical expectation of dilettantism as major obstacles to professional artists. (3)

Denied the role of the mighty creators, women were often assigned the negative role. Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder suggest in volume 3, chapter 1 of The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883 that negative reactions to the woman artist may be attributed to Victorian theories of the female imagination. First, the female imagination was thought to be volatile and erotic and therefore had to be repressed. While addressing the subject of fiction in 1842, Mary Ann Stodart comments:

In women, the imagination is commonly too active, the judgment not sufficiently so: and there is no occasion to add fuel to flame, and thus increase the difficulty of bringing into subjection that faculty, which like fire itself. may be said to be a good servant but a bad master.... If the evils to a woman from novel-reading are not small, those which arise from novel writing are alarmingly great. (4)

Second, women's imagination was supposed to indicate frustration, both emotional and sexual. Even George Henry Lewes, who satirized male writers' fears about women writers, attributes women's literature to an attempt:

to solace by some intellectual activity the sorrow that in silence wastes their lives, and by a withdrawal of the intellect from the contemplation of their pain, or by a transmutation of their secret anxieties into types, they escape from the pressure of that burden. (5)

Thus, because a woman's art supposedly found its source either in an overwrought imagination or in frustration, it could be described as tainted from its conception. This is not to say that dissenting voices did not exist. Despite finding women's art somewhat imitative and as yet immature, John Stuart Mill maintained that with time originality would match execution. …

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