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Back catalogue: Anne Bronte

Angel or Sister?: Writing and Screening the Heroine of Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Aleks Sierz (1998)

Adaptation is a real temperature-raiser. While film versions of the major Eng Lit classics - such as Jane Austen's Emma, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre or Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights - often provoke howls of disappointment and accusations of infidelity to the original, small-screen versions of minor classics are usually greeted with a sigh of relief. Where leisure time is felt to be precious, they offer an easy way of finding out about a book or author you've never had the time (or perhaps even the inclination) to read. When major classics become cultural icons, everyone in some sense has a claim on them in terms of investment in the work's imaginary world. By contrast, minor works have less cultural resonance. Except for those with an intense cult following, they are less well known, so their translation from print to film excites less controversy. Ignorance of the original does wonders for tolerance.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is one of these minor classics. While most people have a set of vivid images of Heathcliffe and Cathy or Jane Eyre and Rochester, who - outside of the world of the academy or the dedicated fandom - could summarise the plot of Anne Bronte's second book, or name its protagonists? This situation cannot be reversed just by the screening of the BBC's version of the novel, but this broadcast does provide an opportunity to look at how Bronte's feminism translates from the novel to the screen.

At first glance, Anne is a member of a special sisterhood, a family of literary genius. But the problem with seeing her as the kid sister of Charlotte and Emily is that her individual critical vision gets buried under the weight of the Bronte myth. For about 150 years, Bronte scholarship tended to make Anne a 'literary Cinderella', covered by the ashes of history for failing to be as successful as her sisters. Because her family habitually called her 'dear little Anne', 'dear gentle Anne', or, in Charlotte's words, a 'patient, persecuted stranger' whose mind and feelings were covered 'with a sort of nun-like veil', (1) scholars have tended to put her at the soppy end of the Bronte line-up: Branwell the devilish degenerate; Emily the wild pagan; Charlotte the sturdy feminist; and, finally, Anne the mild Christian. Recent feminist scholarship has helped redress the balance - but only a little. (2)

But now (at last) perhaps we can see the Brontes as both sibling rivals and supportive sisters - not only giving each other emotional support, but also honing their writing skills together in their workshops. If Anne was downgraded for more than a century, the villain of the piece was Charlotte. For while she certainly galvanised both her sisters into print, she equally certainly put the dampers on Anne's achievements. 'However solicitous Charlotte may have been of Anne's health, she was often deprecatory of her talents' - this 'mixture of maternal care and sisterly jealousy' is relevant because, after Anne died at the age of 29, Charlotte was responsible for propagating a picture of her as a woman who had misused her talents. In particular, Charlotte's deep distaste for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ensured that its theme - the Woman Question - was seen as 'an entire mistake'. (3) Charlotte even blamed the book for hastening Anne's death. So instead of promoting the image of her sister as a critical feminist, Charlotte propagated the idea of a doomed, weak female, morbidly drawn to unpleasant subjects. In this case, the sister subverted the sisterhood.

If you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall today, its powerful prose soon gives the lie to such images of weakness and vulnerability. Published in June or July 1848, its plot has a touch of melodrama: 'When Helen Graham becomes the new tenant of the dark decaying Wildfell Hall, her independent spirit and radical views set her apart from the staid rural community around her. Gilbert Markham, a young farmer, finds himself powerfully drawn to her but the enigmatic Mrs Graham's unconventional life and behaviour disguise a hidden past with many secrets, secrets the world of Victorian England would rather were buried forever.' (4)

'Told through Helen's diaries and those of her suitor Markham, the compelling story of her unhappy marriage and escape to the moors is gradually revealed'. (5) Divided into three parts - first, Gilbert Markham's narrative of Helen Graham's arrival; second, Helen's diary of her marriage and her escape; third, Gilbert's concluding narrative of the death of Helen's husband and its consequences - the novel shows how a youthful ministering angel develops into a mature and autonomous woman. As such, it is the middle section - an extended flashback which takes the form of Helen's diary - that is the crucial text.

This tells how Helen, an idealistic young woman, marries Arthur Huntingdon against the advice of her aunt. Already aware of his reputation as a rake, Helen believes she can redeem him through her own good nature. But when he rejects her moral persuasion - preferring the dubious joys of the bottle and illicit affairs to the comforts of home and a new baby - Helen becomes disillusioned. As the marriage breaks down, she bars him from her bedroom. He retaliates by trying to bring up their son 'as a man', by teaching him to hunt, drink and swear. Unable to bear Arthur's behaviour, Helen plans to flee, only to be defeated at her first attempt when her husband confiscates her property, and vindictively burns her paint brushes, symbols of a creative life he's excluded from. But when he introduces his mistress into the household in the guise of a governess for his son, Helen makes a second, and this time successful, attempt to run away. Taking her child with her, she hides out in an old country house and earns her living as an artist.

Not only is Helen's diary an account of one woman's search for identity, it is also a polemic against Victorian marriage laws. In mid-Victorian Britain, the married woman was - in legal terms - a 'feme covert', the absolute property of her husband. Having no legal existence of her own, she had no right to own property of any kind. As a popular phrase of the time put it: 'Husband and wife are one person under the law, and that person is the husband'. (6) In this context, if a wife left her husband, their children were invariably considered to be the 'property' of the male. Until the reforms of the later half of the 19th century - in particular the 1882 Married Women's Property Act - a paradoxical situation existed in which marriage was held up as a fulfilling goal for young women, despite the fact that it meant legal extinction.

For Helen, one of the turning points in her marriage is when Arthur burns her paint brushes, which are legally his possessions. Because she has no recourse to law to protect herself and her child, Helen is forced to run away, to take things which are in theory her husband's property and to adopt a secret identity. Bronte's critique of marriage is made from the point of view of an outlaw, a woman forced to steal her own child. By means of the character of Helen, Bronte challenges the two central myths of Victorian womanhood: the Angel in the House and the Fallen Woman. Named after a mid-century poem by Coventry Patmore, the Angel in the House was a myth which saw women as idealised, innocent creatures who needed male protection - and the best form of protection was confinement to a solid, middle-class home. Along with this came the notion of Separate Spheres - the man dealt with public business, the woman with private. According to the popular ideology of Separate Spheres, women were intrinsically different from men, their sphere of action being moral, while that of men was material. Women inhabited their own worlds where, far from the stress of competitive aggression, they could nurture the nation's values. Here woman was not just a homebody, but an embodiment of pure virtue, humble and submissive. That the myth of domestic heaven often concealed the reality of domestic hell is a central theme in Bronte's book. Bronte not only 'shatters the Victorian icon of the submissive wife', she also shows how women support the myth by their high-minded desire to return reprobate men to the 'paths of virtue'. (7) The fact that Arthur has a reputation for being corrupt only makes him more attractive to Helen - she wants to save him from sin, she wants to prove that women are angels. For her, 'men behaving badly' are hell-bent souls on the road to ruin. It is only when she realises that her efforts are alienating him further that she resolves to quit the marriage - and then only when her son is threatened.

By running away from her legal home, Helen becomes both an example and a critique of another Victorian myth, that of the Fallen Woman. Based on traditional Christian notions of woman as the daughter of Eve, the idea of the Fallen Woman was based on the belief that women were innately prone to corruption. Victorian society made a rigid separation between pure angels and immoral women. Conceptions of women's passive sexual nature, plus ideas about patriarchal possessive individualism gave rise to a comprehensive ideology of male dominance which policed any transgression within polite society with rigid severity. By leaving her husband, Helen quits respectable society and becomes a moral outcast. Though she has done nothing wrong, she is automatically a Fallen Woman. But the paradox is that 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall rewrites the story of the Fallen Woman as story of female excellence' - using the idea of a woman's 'higher nature', Bronte challenges the idea that to be pure you have to be a slave. (8)

One of the achievements of feminist scholarship has been to rediscover, after more than a century of condescension, Anne Bronte's individual voice. Feminist readings of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall now see it as partly a critique of Emily and Charlotte's novels: 'a powerful and disputatious sister-novel to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights' and 'a sharp commentary on Charlotte's Jane Eyre'. (9) The evidence for this is compelling. Not only do Wildfell Hall's initials (W H) echo those of Wuthering Heights, but the novel's letter scheme (Huntingdon, Hargrave, Hattersley) is akin to that of Wuthering Heights (Heathcliffe, Hindley, Hareton). Despite such kinship, Helen is represented as a more rational figure than Jane Eyre or Catherine Earnshaw. Crucially, she learns to distrust the kind of Byronic male that both her sister texts admire so much. Whereas Heathcliffe and Rochester have a romantic power based on their viciousness, male violence in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is portrayed as sordid, stupid and unreasonable. Ever the Enlightenment rationalist, Anne implicitly criticises her sisters' view of desirable men by showing how all violence is deplorable. In doing so, she uses 'wholesome truths' to counter the 'soft nonsense' of her sisters' romanticism. (10)

If The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was 'far more radical' than many works of Victorian women's fiction that are now viewed as feminist, it's hardly surprising that it provoked indignation when it was first published. (11) While Charles Kingsley approved of its critique, he also abhorred its 'unnecessary coarseness'. Other reviews in The Spectator and The Rambler deplored its scenes of debauchery and regretted its 'morbid love of the coarse'. Words like 'offensive', 'revolting' and 'disgusting' litter the reviews. Accurately enough, some reviewers found the women in the novel 'superior in every quality, moral and intellectual to all the men', the more attractive men being deemed 'womanish'. Although it was published under a male pseudonym, Acton Bell, one reviewer speculated that it had been written by a woman, but 'assisted by her husband, or some other male friend'. Sharpe's London Magazine even warned that Bell's talent was a bad thing - because it might tempt 'lady-readers' to read 'his' book. (12)

One of the results of this chorus of disapproval was that it hardened Charlotte's attitude to her sister's novel. A year after Anne's death in May 1849, Charlotte republished her sister's novels, but not without adverse comment on the theme of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While the unholy alliance of Charlotte and the male reviewers tried to restrict the number of women the novel managed to reach, it has to be admitted that Anne's text doesn't construct its ideal reader in a simple way. Helen may be a feminist heroine, but she also mixes pious aspirations with her secular desires. Autonomous, spirited, independent of male approval, she doesn't need a master, she wants a partner. At the same time, she embodies Anne's radical protestantism - the voice of Helen's diary favours biblical allusions, is strenuous in its struggle with depravity and serene in its certainty of universal salvation. Its piety reminds us that 19th-century feminism often spoke in the tone of a religious tract. Religious belief not only colours Helen's subjectivity, but also illuminates the way in which she survives the ordeals of her marriage. Under this Victorian lamplight the men look for sex, fun and laughter, while the women are left with prayer, earnestness and tears. (13)

In the Preface to her novel, Anne says that she is not writing to entertain, but to instruct. Her heroine has to struggle with conscience to reach the truth; eventual triumph depends on the salvation not of her husband's body, but of his soul. By using a first-person narrative in the diary section - still a relatively rare device for a female author in the nineteenth century - Bronte is able to address her female readers directly. Yet even this is not unproblematic. In the book, the diary is made public because Helen is forced to let Gilbert read it. In other words, Bronte allows her heroine to reveal her heart, but does so with a man reading, as it were, over her shoulder. So while her ideal reader is an evangelical woman - able to identify with both the secular and religious struggles of Helen - Bronte never forgets that female writing passes under the male gaze. Just as Helen calls her diary her 'best friend', 'a confidential friend into whose ear I might pour forth the overflowings of my heart', (14) so the book itself must have been a friend to its female readership. The more anti-feminist men of the time, alerted by the reviews, would surely have banned it from their homes.

If what formed female readers into an implied sisterhood was their common legal and cultural disabilities, what encouraged each independent-minded reader to believe that others existed was the book itself. In other words, the text - especially when read alone in private - acts both as a meditation and a consolation. It not only advocates reforms, but also cultivates a fantasy of escape; it implies the existence of a select sisterhood of like-minded women. So although Helen is a woman alone, betrayed as much by other women as by men, the novel constructs an imaginary community of women, an elite who may have been politically liberal, but were certainly evangelical. Religious conviction turns the disadvantaged many into the chosen few. (15)

As adapted by David Nokes and Janet Barron - and shown on BBC 1 on 17 and 24 November 1996 - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a perfect example of a film version of a classic that achieves cultural distinction at the cost of political nullification. Not merely a high-quality frock flick, it was also part of the on-going living-room wars for the hearts and minds of the audience. With a cast led by Tara Fitzgerald (Helen), Rupert Graves (Arthur) and Toby Stephens (Gilbert), its primetime scheduling on Sunday night was seen as an attempt by the BBC to reclaim ground lost after the costly failure of its bio-pic of Cecil Rhodes. As the Sunday Times noted: 'After the ruinous Rhodes, BBC 1 returns to Yorkshire, Haworth and sex.' (16)

One problem was that since the adaptation follows the novel closely, with a slow build-up, the risk was that people might turn off after the first episode - before the audience-friendly scenes of Arthur's debauchery in the flashback of the second episode. To avoid this, the BBC screened the first two parts on the same evening, making that night a frock fest. But the marketing of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was not just a matter of clever scheduling. While the BBC packaged the video and audio cassette spin-offs as being a 'frank treatment of women in marriage', the editor of Radio Times may have thought that advertising it as a feminist polemic was a bit naff. Instead, Radio Times ran a feature article by Alison Graham on 'The Bronte Business', which looked at 'Bronte-mania' in Haworth, Yorkshire, home of the sisters after 1820. With its coachloads of visitors hunting souvenirs - Bronte tea towels, Bronte knitting patterns, 'Bronte biscuits (a brittle ginger nut)' - Haworth notches up an average of 250,000 visitors a year. Jane Sellars, director of the Bronte museum in the Parsonage, was keen on the BBC adaptation: 'You find you can transport the [novel's] situation into the late-20th century. Helen has been abused. She is a single parent without financial independence who takes the daring step of actually running away to save her child and herself'. (17) However clumsy, this is an apt description of the film's project.

But the marketing of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall did not stop at the Radio Times. As well as screening the adaptation on two successive Sundays, the BBC also released a video cassette version and an audio cassette, recorded by minor members of the film's cast. The film music, by Richard G Mitchell, was also made available. All were commercial successes. (18) Not to be outdone, Penguin Books reissued its version of the paperback, complete with the customary gawky cover photograph of the cast. It promoted this with an offer, advertised in the Guardian, of the chance to 'win a weekend for two in Bronte country'. Along with first-class rail travel, the winners of the draw would get a weekend at the Weavers hotel in Haworth, plus 'complimentary breakfast and dinner (alcohol not included)'. (19) Fifty runners-up were promised a free copy of the Penguin paperback, usual price 4.99.

Amusing as such marketing devices are, the ratings battle between the BBC and ITV is no laughing matter. When the last episode of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was screened on 24 November, ITV countered by broadcasting Andrew Davies's much-hyped version of Jane Austen's Emma. This battle of the costume dramas was seen as a ploy by ITV to attract younger, more up-market viewers - those beloved by advertisers. (20) But most critics agreed that the result of what Sean Day-Lewis called the 'contest between the two 19th-century clergymen's daughters was that unfashionable Anne [Bronte] beat 1990s favourite Jane [Austen] by a clear margin'. The Beeb's victory came about because, according to Amanda Craig, 'in the battle of the brunettes', Tara Fitzgerald 'wins hands-down' over Kate Beckinsale, whose Emma is not 'a patch on Gwyneth Paltrow's'. (21) Despite the critics, however, more people watched ITV that Sunday than BBC 1 (11 million to 9 million viewers; 40 per cent to 36 per cent of audience share). And as the critics' discourse crosses freely from television to cinema, the once-humble costume drama becomes a fiercely contested cultural arena.

Watching the BBC's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall it is easy to see what the fuss was about. Many critics praised this stylised adaptation's moody good looks, all shadowy interiors and bleak moorlands. Aptly enough, the most memorable scene to be filmed in bright sunshine is the last one: when Helen agrees to marry Gilbert. With vivid flashbacks mimicking the way the novel was written, this gritty film - directed with lots of dizzying camerawork by Mike Barker - avoids the chintzy cuteness often associated with frock flicks. 'The actors wore no make-up or wigs,' notes Alkarim Jivani, media editor of London listings magazine Time Out, 'the costumes were allowed to get dirty and the prettiness quotient is deliberately kept low.' Using a 'colour palette of murky browns and grungy greys', the film's camera is 'furtive and halting, making the viewing experience an edgy one'. While the Independent's Thomas Sutcliffe praised the way the film was 'scraped clean of historical patina without being crassly anachronistic', Simon Hoggart loved the way it 'refused to obey the lush conventions of costume drama. No gorgeous ball gowns, no honey-coloured mansions, no parasoled picnics on emerald hillsides'. (22)

In this way, the film was a departure from the cosy heritageville inhabited by the past in Middle English culture. You can understand why it was compared with Jane Campion's The Piano (1993). Highly stylised camerawork and lighting effects are not the only reasons for enjoying The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. More to the point is the way it takes the argument of the novel and recasts it in a different medium. In some scenes this heightens the meaning of the original: while in the book, Helen hints at Arthur's depravity, the film can and does vividly show how he and his chronies try to corrupt his tiny son, forcing him to drink wine and teaching him obscene rhymes. Similarly, showing Arthur's infidelities emphasises the book's point about male double standards; showing his son kill a canary emphasises his brutalisation; and showing leeches on Arthur's body emphasises his illness. In addition, Nokes and Barron add ironic textual allusions of their own: as Helen arrives in church, the vicar is preaching on turning water into wine (John, 2:1-11); at the end, there's the quotation from Samuel Johnson about a second marriage being the 'triumph of hope over experience'. While some of novel's scenes had to go - Helen's paint brushes escape the flames - others were added. In particular are five scenes which focus on the female body: Helen and Arthur making love; Helen giving birth; and Arthur attempting to rape her. All three subjects were taboo in Victorian fiction. (23)

While adding sex to classic novels often panders to popular sentimentality - the kiss at the end of the BBC's 1996 Pride and Prejudice, for example, gave Jane Austen the Barbara Cartland treatment - the sexual strand in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall raises other questions. For cultural conservatives, these concern 'taste and decency' - Alkarim Jivani reports that 'the more conservative BBC-ites' objected to sexual material in a costume drama. (24) But conflicts between progressives and conservatives within the BBC are less important than the evidence of our eyes. The problem with these scenes is not a question of taste but of voyeurism. Although they are all short - the longest is barely 70 seconds - they are shot in a way that invades Helen's privacy, turning her into a defenceless object of a prying gaze. However 'tastefully' done, such voyeurism negates the feminism of the novel by subjecting its heroine to the male gaze. On the other hand, it could be argued that, by focusing on the vulnerable body, these scenes also cultivate sympathy for Helen as a woman. Whichever attitude you take, it is certain that the difficult politics of the novel - an example of first-wave feminism which fought for equal property rights - have turned into the easy viewing of the film, a reflection less of second-wave feminism's emphasis on the personal being political, than of an apolitical post-feminism.

None of these scenes solicit our sympathies quite as much as the film's ending, which boldly rewrites the novel from Helen's perspective. While in the book it is Gilbert who, at the end, suffers because he believes - mistakenly as it turns out - that Helen is about to remarry after her husband's death, in the film the same misunderstanding is reproduced, but with a twist. This time it is Helen who believes she has stumbled on Gilbert's marriage (to someone else). By means of manipulative dramatic tension and a shift in perspective, we see the situation through Helen's eyes. So while for the first third of the film we tend to intrude on Helen's privacy, as if we were local gossips fascinated by a mystery woman (and voyeurs of her intimate life), by the end we are on her side. We finish up by seeing Helen's story completely from her point of view.

While changing the ending of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall translates the novel's sympathies into film language, what is gained by this is thrown away by Tara Fitzgerald's portrayal of Helen. As several critics pointed out, the film is weakest at its centre. Jasper Rees called Fitzgerald 'a sarf Londoner' who 'habitually mislaid whole areas of the alphabet', while Lindsay Duguid pointed out that she 'cannot convey the hard dignity of Helen Graham; her petulant expression and Notting Hill dropped consonants ("May I not love the sinner bu' h'e the sin?") soon irritate'. Not only did her Estuary English cause dismay, but so did her 'chilly aggression': Nancy Banks-Smith called her 'a heroine to give man frostbite'. (25)

Clearly, Fitzgerald turns the 19th-century struggler with the truth into a 20th-century gutsy heroine, an in-yer-face sister of the Spice Girls. As a post-feminist woman, her aggression is typically 1990s in its laddishness. While in the book Helen is a woman with a mission - to save souls and reform laws - in the film her only role is to entertain. So just as television series such as Prime Suspect create images of strong women, they also prefer to show liberal individualism rather than radical solidarity. But when drained of politics, the image of the strong woman panders to a kind of Sunday-night armchair feminism which flatters both sexes, but rarely challenges either. If the original novel implied a sisterhood of solitary readers who might take heart from Helen's story - with its muted happy ending where, contrary to Victorian expectations, it is the woman who proposes marriage - the film version doesn't construct an active sisterhood so much as a passive audience.

What's lost in turning the book into the film is not only the novel's political message (embedded as it is in a complex narrative) but also its religious, rationalist and critical tone. Even the romantic moodiness of the screen version works against it, since it is precisely this Byronic tone which Anne criticised in her sisters' work. Where the novel appealed to 'confidential friends' who shared its pious and critical insights, especially in the privacy of reading, the film appeals to a much wider, more diffuse public. Still, as Richard Gott observes: 'Novels on screen written by women (Jane Eyre) or with a strong female heroine ([The] Portrait of a Lady) have certainly had a stronger thumbs-up from my women friends than from me.' (26)

Where does that leave the purist fan? The sad news for those who expect the adaptation to be like the original is that this is impossible: 'All adaptations have to be interpretations,' says Andrew Davies, even reading 'is a kind of adaptation'. (27) The shock that departures from the text - greeted in some well-read households with grunts of 'It's not in the book' - invariably provoke is exactly the point of departure for a rethinking of the original. The result is the paradox that the closer an adaptation clings to the original, the more it is redundant - but the wilder the adaptation, the more potentially fruitful is its clash with the original. In this respect, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) tells us more about Joseph Conrad than the BBC's Nostromo (1997); Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1996) more about Jane Austen than Douglas McGrath's Emma (1996). In each case, the subversion of expectation forces us to think afresh.

This moment of violence, when the spectator realises the profound, unmistakable difference between an original and its translation can be either a moment of closure or of opportunity. For the conservative fan, the further the adaptation departs from the original the worse it is. But the disorientation that some adaptations induce has its uses. It leads back to the original, and forces the reader to ask what the original really means, which of its meanings change, and why. If culture is to mutate rather than stagnate, the violence of adaptation is not a luxury but a necessity.

In the film version of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the violence is confined to the film's sexual strand and to its portrayal of the heroine. Unlike the original novel, the adaptation is not politically radical. It does, however, contest some cultural icons: by using the conventions of dirty authenticity rather than sunlit fantasy, it criticises the idea that the past must be filmed as a never-never land, what A A Gill called 'Emma's cosy Munchkinville'. (28) Furthermore, by turning its heroine into an example of girl power, it tries to link today's issues - a woman's rights over her body - to yesterday's. In this way, it translates a forgotten book into a popular broadcast. But while the film successfully turns a 19th-century critique of marriage into a 20th-century story of a single mother on the run, in the process its politics boil down to a banal affirmation of cocky liberal individualism. If it is true that when 'there is a conflict between issues and spectacle, spectacle usually wins', (29) it is also true that the way cultural radicalism is a substitute for political radicalism is a tendency typical of British culture in general. In the end, the film reminds us that to read an adaptation's hidden agenda, the spectator must, to paraphrase Brecht, not only learn to watch, but to watch critically.


Thanks to Dr Robert Barnard for his comments on an early draft of this paper.


1. Maria H. Frawley, Anne Bronte, New York: Twayne, 1996, p 1.

2. See, for example, Naomi M. Jacobs, 'Gender and Layered Narrative in Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall', The Journal of Narrative Technique, 16, 3 (Autumn 1986) pp 204-19.

3. Elizabeth Langland, Anne Bronte: The Other One, London: Macmillan, 1989, pp 1, 47, 50; Edward Chitham, A Life of Anne Bronte, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, p 14.

4. BBC, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, video cassette, no. BBCV 5972, 1996, cover blurb.

5. BBC, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, audio cassette, no. ZBBC 1945, 1996, cover blurb.

6. Stevie Davies, 'Introduction', to Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996, p xviii. In a novel of female dispossession, the heroine cannot even call her surname her own. 'Graham', her mother's maiden name, is a pseudonym that Helen adopts when she flees. She is also known as Helen Lawrence (maiden name) and Helen Huntingdon (married name). For a close reading that raises the possibility that she's illegitimate, see John Sutherland, Was Heathcliffe a Murderer? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp 72-7. But if Bronte intended to signal Helen's bastardy, she was too subtle by half - none of her contemporaries noticed.

7. Margaret Smith, 'Introduction', to Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, p xvi; 'This chivalrous vision of the sacred influence of women had been a central concept of the Victorian domestic ideal', Elaine Showlater, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977, pp 183-4. For an account of how patriarchy is enforced psychologically, with female complicity, see Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, London: Virago, 1977.

8. Langland, Bronte, p 119.

9. Davies, 'Introduction', p ix; Smith, 'Introduction', p ix; Langland, Bronte, pp 50-60. The novel is also rich in other feminist themes such as self-identity and self-representation. A rationalist tract which makes a reasoned argument in favour of better education and employment opportunities for women, it also advocates an enlightened view of bringing up boys and a woman's right to choose her own friends.

10. Langland, Bronte, pp 57-8, 118.

11. Frawley, Bronte, p 135; Showlater, Literature of Their Own, p 84.

12. Reviews quoted in Smith, 'Introduction', pp ix-x, xvii; Davies, 'Introduction', pp xvi.

13. See Juliet McMaster, '"Imbecile Laughter" and "Desperate Earnest" in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall', Modern Language Quarterly, December 1982, pp 352-68. For an account of how female writers cope with a patriarchal heritage that goes back to religious texts such as Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim's Progress, both of which Bronte knew well, see Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. But their idea that Helen is sexually masochistic is unconvincing, see Langland, Bronte, p 162.

14. See Frawley, Bronte, p 124.

15. As a concept, sisterhood can have the function of papering over divisions and conflicts. The idea of an implied sisterhood of Bronte readers ignores the fractures due to rival religious groupings, class antagonisms and shifting gender alliances. For example, when the feminist Harriet Martineau publicly accused Charlotte Bronte of unfeminine coarseness in her writing, issues of class and taste show that 'the sisterhood was not as united as modern critics would have us believe' (Elizabeth Lowry, 'They Had It in Them', Times Literary Supplement, 21 March 1997, p 7.)

16. Sunday Times, 17 November 1996, culture section, p 31.

17. Radio Times, 16-22 November 1996, pp 21-2; cover blurb of BBC, Tenant, video cassette.

18. BBC policy is not to issue sales figures for videos, cassettes and music, unless they are spectacular successes such as Pride and Prejudice, but a spokesperson for BBC Marketing Department said, 'The Tenant sold extremely well on both video and audio. While sales were not at the phenomenal levels achieved by Pride and Prejudice, we are very pleased with its success, which was helped by good reviews' (26 March 1997).

19. See, for example, Guardian, 28 November 1996, p 15.

20. Time Out, 4-11 December 1996, p 179.

21. Country Life, 5 December 1996, p 118; Observer, 24 November 1996, p 92.

22. Time Out, 13-20 November 1996, p 175; Time Out, 20-27 November 1996, p 191; Independent, 18 November 1996, p 24; Spectator, 23 November 1996, p 66.

23. One thing that film adaptation of classics do is to explicitly 'make said' the 'not-said', or unspoken sub-text, of the novels. See Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

24. Time Out, 13-20 November 1996, p 175.

25. Independent, 23 November 1996, p 4; Times Literary Supplement, 22 November 1996, p 20; Independent, 18 November 1996, p 24; Guardian, 25 November 1996, p 6.

26. 'Can Women Give Blokes What They Want?', New Statesman, 11 April 1997, p 47.

27. 'Not as Good as the Book: Pride and Prejudice', The English Programme, Channel 4, 10 February 1997.

28. Sunday Times, 1 December 1996, culture section, p 3.

29. Peter Reynolds, 'Introduction', to his (ed.) Novel Images: Literature in Performance, London: Routledge, 1993, p 10.

© An earlier version of this chapter appeared as 'Angel or Sister? Writing and Screening the Heroine of Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' in Deborah Cartmell et al. (eds), Sisterhoods: Across the Literature/Media Divide, London: Pluto Press, 1998: pp 16-31.

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