In Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Bronte portrays female protagonists who principally do not accept the socially-constructed image of womanhood, yet they ultimately yield to this agenda. In this aspect, it is worth mentioning that not only is Bronte's representation of her female characters affected by her own gender, but those very characters are also derived from Bronte's life. In other words, Bronte's female protagonists are in a sense a representation of Bronte's own life. Bronte suffered a lot in her childhood. Apart from the financial insecurity her family suffered from, her mother passed away when she was around one year old (Shaw 128). This situation had implications on Bronte's writing career. In fact, it seems that writing for her was a means by which she could both divert herself from her psychological trauma and displace her own feelings through her characters. One can view Bronte's female protagonists as a means by which she announces her rejection of the limitations imposed on women in her time. That is why she represents them as empowered women somehow capable to of combating the miserable situation they live in.
Bronte's method of empowering her female protagonists is represented in endowing them with a profession or a skill that helps them authenticate their personalities and live within the stifling patriarchal atmosphere. To begin with, Agnes Grey represents a vivid example on Bronte's dexterity in portraying her female protagonists. Agnes is portrayed as a lady who has a strong belief in her individuality. She is bold and determined as she leaves home to seek employment as a governess. The family is faced with looming impoverishment and Agnes finds employment to help her father with his financial difficulties. Her employment and ability to supplement the families income in a demonstration that women contrary to popular patriarchal notions, were able to not only fend for themselves, but make significant contribution to the financial needs of their dependents. Drawing from her own experience, Bronte makes her protagonist a governess.
Through Agnes's experience with the Bloomfield's family at Wellwood house, Bronte gives a view of the misery of a woman suffering within the drastically materialistic and patriarchal society. Agnes suffers a lot under the dominance of Mr. Bloomfield and Mrs. Bloomfield and their children. Ultimately, Grey does not accept the humiliating situation. She does not lose her wits on finding that she has been dismissed and ultimately searches for another opportunity. What is worth mentioning is the fact that Agnes is aware of the way the society regards her as she says "(t)hough a woman in my own estimation, I was still a child in theirs." (Bronte, Agnes 19). However, she never succumbs to this role and proclaims "If ever I felt it degrading to submit so quietly, or intolerable to toil so constantly, I would turn towards my home, and say within myself-they may crush, but they shall not subdue me! (Bronte, Agnes 40).
Agnes's aspirations and ambitions undermine the nineteenth-century prescribed image of the woman and the limitations imposed on them in the public sphere. Agnes's significant role in supporting the family and her engagement in earning wages establish her as a woman who is far from being typical. In other words, Agnes Grey shows Bronte's representation of a woman character who defies the socially-constructed norms and creates her own image of the woman that does not necessarily conform to the socially-accepted parameters.
Not only Bronte's protagonists, but also her minor female characters share her motive for emancipation. Agnes's sister is also a talented artist who makes her living by selling her drawings. It should be noted that the image of the female artist is significant for Bronte. In addition to empowering the woman with a profitable skill, the image of the artist carries many political implications that help Bronte deliver her feminist message more vividly. This becomes clear in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
This image of the female artist is depicted more thoroughly in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Through the novel, Bronte employs art as a tool to facilitate her sharp attack against patriarchal principles. In more particular terms, Helen's artistry helps Bronte construct marriage as a hegemonic patriarchal principle that constitutes a strong obstacle against the process of attaining self-definition. Helen's artistry is more than as skill. It is a means by which she aims to achieve a sort of self-fulfillment through establishing herself as a full-fledged artist. However, marriage constitutes an impediment in her artistic journey.
Helen's marriage proves to be the obstacle that hinders her desire for artistic achievement. After her marriage, Helen's identity as a wife takes over her identity as an artist. In other words, part of her identity is concealed, and the only outlet for her emotions is almost blocked. Clearly enough, once she has assumed her position as a wife, Helen rarely refers to herself as an artist. She notes that "the reading and answering of my letters and the direction of household concerns afforded me ample employment for the morning; after lunch, I got my drawing, and from dinner till bedtime, I read" (Bronte, Tenant 175). As Siv Jansson puts it, "Bronte' s account of (Helen's) marriage to Arthur is one of the most savage indictments of both the legal and economic constraints which supported Victorian marriage, and the mythical ideology which deceives Helen into it" (36).
Through depicting Helen's plight as a woman artist, Bronte castigates the patriarchal principles represented in marriage that gives women limited opportunity to establish their freedom and true identity. As a married woman, Helen does not enjoy any of the rights regarding her artwork as she did prior to marriage. The nineteenth-century marital laws empower Arthur to destroy Helen's paintings. In this way, Helen's artistry helps Bronte construct marriage as a source of denial of artistic talent, loss of the right of ownership, and deprivation of the source of earning.
Helen rejects her miserable situation within marriage and states, "I am tired out with his injustice.... I am no angel, and my corruption rises against it" (Bronte, Tenant 213). Just like Agnes, Helen proclaims a very strong feminist statement as she says "he may drink himself dead, but it is NOT my fault!" (Bronte, Tenant 255). In this aspect, there is a link that can be drawn between Helen's language and her artistry. Both come as a rejection of the domestic sphere and its suffocating influence on Helen as a woman artist. That is why when she realizes that her language does not help her in attaining her emancipation; she decides to reclaim herself by posing as a widow artist. Accordingly, Helen flees the domination of her husband and manages to hide her status as a married woman in order to maintain her identity, her property and her talent. As Alisa Clapp argues, "Helen is learning the sexual power play inherent in women's art, of when to hide and when to publicize art" (119).
Clearly enough, Helen's artistry and paintings are employed to facilitate Bronte's poignant attack against the male-dominated world. In addition to considering Helen's paintings as a form of expression of her inner self, Helen's artistry shows how patriarchy inherently annihilates women's artistic talent. In this sense, it can be said that Bronte, with her narrative acumen, dexterously promulgates her feminist theme from within Helen's paintings. Helen's artwork and her struggle to establish her artistic identity help Bronte frame The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a work that uncovers the atrocities of the patriarchal ideology and castigate the limitations it imposes on women's artistic opportunities.
Not only does this way of reading Helen's artistic skills contribute to understanding Bronte's feminist argument in the novel, it also helps in appreciating the significance of art and artwork as employed by Bronte. For the author, women's artistry is not merely an outlet for their repressed emotions. Rather, women's artistic aspiration can function both thematically and technically. On the thematic level, it serves as a method of self-establishment and a way of attaining emancipation. Technically speaking, it is a tool that can be employed in the text to facilitate the critique of the hegemonic patriarchal system. All in all, it contributes to understanding the way Bronte constructs her female characters in general and the woman artist in particular.
Empowering the female protagonists with talents and skills illustrates an aspect of Bronte's feminist ideology. In fact, the image of the "female artist" carries strong and smart feminist implications. What Bronte seems to imply here is that a woman can achieve self-fulfillment within the patriarchal character from within her own femininity. In other words, a woman can establish herself by virtue of being "a woman." A woman does not have to desert her femininity and trespass on the male domain in order to gain self-fulfillment.
Nevertheless, the endings of both The Tenant of The Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey raise some questions regarding Bronte's characterization of the her female protagonists as well as her feminist stand. The marriage of the two protagonists at the end of the two novels seems to deconstruct all Bronte's argument against marriage and its influence on her female characters' emancipation. Agnes's marriage at the end may represent the demise after her attempt to initiate a unique independent life. Similarly, Helen's marriage to Gilbert may seem as an indication of the failure of all her emancipatory attempts as it marks the re-entry into the very domestic world which she has been striving to free herself from.
In fact, this idea of making women characters' final retreat to men is a characteristic of most women's writings in the nineteenth century. Hence, Bronte, like some of her contemporary women authors, seems to be implicated in the same doctrine that she aims to subvert. Although Bronte portrays highly independent and well-formed female characters, she ultimately hands them to the institution that the tradition has pronounced essential for their gender. Still, this does not compromise Bronte's dexterity in portraying realistic and empowered female characters searching for self-sufficiency within the patriarchal barriers.
One may attribute this to Bronte's realistic orientations in her writing. Bronte is aware of all the dimensions of the surrounding women in society and acknowledges the necessity of marriage for the woman to be accepted within its parameters. That is why the marriage case in each novel seems to be more of a social duty that each woman has to perform as prescribed by the patriarchal society. In this sense, rather than establishing her female protagonists as ideal and rather impossible models for women to follow, Bronte constructs them as a voice that calls for questioning the status quo of women. In other word, Bronte's message in the both novels is not to call for an impossible revolution to happen; rather, it is a call for thinking and rethinking of the miserable situation of women in the Victorian patriarchal society and promoting an action based on the reality of the situation. Bronte herself declared that her intent was to "tell the truth" rather than engage with "soft nonsense" (Bronte, Tenant 15).
Shaw, Marion. "Anne Bronte: A Quiet Feminist." Bronte Society Transactions. 21 (1994): 125-135.
Bronte, Anne. Agnes Grey. London: The Folio Society. MCMXCI, 1998.
---. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The Folio Society. MCMXCI, 1998.
Jansson, Siv. "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Rejecting the Angel's Influence." Women of Faith in Victorian Culture: Reassessing the Angel in the House. Ed. Anne Hogan. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.
Clapp, Alisa. "The Tenant of Patriarchal Culture: Anne Bronte's Problematic Female Artist." Michigan Academician 28.2 (March 1996): 113-22.