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Michael Gilmour

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Anne Brontë's Religious Imagination

Posted: 02/ 6/2012 4:03 pm

Anne is that other Brontë, easily and often overlooked next to her better-known sisters Charlotte and Emily, the authors of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights respectively. For readers interested in the intersections of theology, the Bible, and creative writing, however, Anne Brontë's two novels, poetry, and correspondence offer a wealth of fascinating material, as these few notes on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (published in 1848, under the name Acton Bell) attempt to illustrate.

Soon after her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon, the protagonist Helen writes in her diary about a quarrel with her new husband: "Arthur had told me the whole story of his intrigue with Lady F- ... It was some consolation to find that, in this instance, the lady had been more to blame than he; for he was very young at the time, and she had decidedly made the first advances, if what he said was true." This lack of precision about the woman's full name is intriguing. Withholding the name suggests broad applicability, as if the character is a type, not limited to any particular situation. Indeed, this is something important to Brontë who explains that her purpose in writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is to warn readers against certain behaviours. It follows that this nameless woman serves as a model of infamy, a paradigm of villainy whose particular location in time and space is of secondary importance. She is a classic femme fatale.

We do not know her name but I believe further identification is possible. Notice what Helen says about her husband's affair: he was a young man at the time it happened; the woman was the first to make sexual advances; and she was married at the time of her relationship with Arthur Huntingdon. This is also what we learn about the "young man void of understanding" described in Proverbs 7:6-27 (v. 7). A married woman draws a simple youth away from the path of wisdom, ultimately leading him to the "chambers of death," as the King James Version puts it (v. 27). The nameless "Lady F -" in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Lady Folly or the Strange Woman.

Anne's second novel relates the story of the deeply religious Helen who filters various moral dilemmas through a storehouse of biblical wisdom. This includes navigating her duties as wife to a debauched and abusive husband; raising her child as the only positive moral influence in the boy's life; and upholding expectations of hospitality amidst a belligerent circle of family acquaintances. At a later point, she tries to reconcile her religious worldview with a decision to leave her husband, and then defy convention by finding her place in the world as a self-sufficient, independent female. On top of all this, the pious Helen Huntingdon must conceal her life story, live under an assumed name, create a fictitious back-story for prying, gossiping neighbours, and temporarily deny her affections for the man she truly loves. Helen copes with all these challenges by trusting to divine providence, and conforming as best she can to biblical instruction.

What makes Helen intriguing for readers interested in the Bible is how unlike many Bible-quoting contemporaries she really is. We might reasonably expect a Christian moralist like Helen to sprinkle random proof texts throughout her conversations and diary entries with little serious reflection. Casual and highly formulaic appeals to Scripture are familiar to us in literature of the period -- think for instance of Charlotte Brontë's Reverend Mr. Brocklehurst and the missionary St. John Rivers (both in Jane Eyre), or the heartless Rector Mr. Hatfield in Anne's first novel, Agnes Grey, or the minister Mr. Millward in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall itself. Instead, Helen is rather complex. She is not beholden to the parish and its values, is critical of clergy, and quite prepared to defend interpretations of the Bible that differ from the received wisdom. This is most evident when Helen argues her case for universal salvation, a position she reaches only after thoughtful reflection of the biblical evidence.

Much of the story comes to us as Helen's first-person narrative. She is a moral authority desperate to save her husband from his dissipations and their child from those destructive influences. She is wise, has God on her side, warns the wayward, and guides those around her, at least those willing to listen to her sage advice. Helen warns all those she meets to choose life rather than death. Said differently, she embodies Lady Wisdom of the Book of Proverbs who also speaks to readers in the first person. Brontë extends this employment of the biblical pattern provided by Proverbs by casting Arthur Huntingdon as "the young man void of understanding, Passing through the street near [the] corner" where Lady Folly dwells (Proverbs 7:7-8). Arthur Huntingdon is an allegory of sorts, embodying the consequences of one choosing to ignore Lady Wisdom. One who "committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding," Proverbs tells us, and "he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul" (6:32). Spoiler alert -- this is Arthur's fate.

I use the term allegory reluctantly because allegorical figures, like those found in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress or Spenser's Faerie Queene tend to be one-dimensional, lacking interiority and nuance. This is not the case with Arthur Huntingdon who is more complex and rounded than, say, the Red Crosse Knight. Perhaps better suited is the term exemplum, a kind of allegorical story where a particular instance serves to illustrate a general religious theme in a sermon. Proverbs itself uses exempla, as in 6:6-11, which opens with the phrase, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard consider her ways, and be wise." Anne Brontë casts Wildfell Hall's Helen and Arthur Huntingdon as figures in the Book of Proverbs. Arthur resembles the young male fool of Proverbs 1-9 and Helen the one who heeds Wisdom's warning, if she is not in fact the embodiment of Lady Wisdom herself, calling out to Arthur and any who will listen to avoid Lady Folly and the path of destruction.

This brings us back to the mysterious "Lady F-." With Helen embodying Wisdom and Arthur playing the role of the foolish young man, the initial is plausibly a subtle and playful allusion to the seductress of Proverbs, Lady Folly or the Strange Woman. The incident where Helen introduces the shorthand "Lady F-" is brief, and only occasionally does she refers back to it. However, a much longer story appearing in her diary concerns another of Arthur Huntingdon's affairs, one occurring after his marriage to Helen. His friend Lord Lowborough marries and soon the new Lady Lowborough flirts with Arthur, and eventually seduces him. It is interesting to note that Lady Lowborough is the only other significant, titled female character in the novel apart from "Lady F-," something suggesting a link between the two. Lady Lowborough is Lady F-, Lady Folly, the Strange Woman.

In her preface to the second edition of the novel, Anne Brontë presents her reasons for writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was "not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public." Instead, her aim was "to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it." Specifically, she has in mind young readers who might make the same mistakes as characters in the novel, which is both an apology for the explicit depiction of moral corruption that offended so many reviewers of the day, and an approach to moral teaching resembling the biblical Proverbs. Storytelling, like that found in Proverbs 1-9, uses exempla - both negative and positive - to reinforce the desired behaviour. As Brontë puts it:

To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveler, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts - the whispering 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.

Notice the King James tone of her language, as in the use of the term "snare" which appears in Prov 7:23. This is a novel of warning, with the author motivated by a religiously informed sense of pedagogical duty. Her understanding of the religious writer's role resembles the pedagogical intent of Proverbs that opens with a call to "hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother" who warn youth not to "walk not ... in the way of [sinners]; refrain thy foot from their path" (1:8, 15). Brontë also writes in the second edition preface:
I know that [profligate characters like those depicted in my novel] do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.

Arthur is an exemplum, a negative example of one who did not heed Lady Wisdom's warning. Like the fool of Proverbs, Arthur Huntingdon's decisions destroy him, a victim of Lady F-, Lady Folly. He goes down to what Proverbs calls "the chambers of death," never able to embrace Lady Wisdom even though Helen invites him to do so right up until his last breath.