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Spring Term Notes #1: The Figure of the Artist in Wildfell Hall

Despite the best of intentions, the strains of living between Cornwall, Exeter and Ireland have meant that I have barely been able to use this blog to support my teaching in 2017: which is a shame, since I've had three really fine seminar gorups over the last 11 weeks, with lots of discussion. So, having jotted down nascent ideas throughout semester, I'd like to bear some witness to this term's work by posting three short blogs in the next few days.

First up, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the major novel of the 'other' Brontë. It's the narrative of a mysterious woman arriving in a provincial community with a dark secret, and engages themes of abuse, morality and family. Whilst I'll immediately declare myself a Charlottiste (not a word), and defend Jane Eyre and Villette rigorously, I'll go out on a limb and say I find Anne Brontë's novel far more interesting and textured than Wuthering Heights. In any case, it works well on my third year module, and always provides plenty of discussion.

One aspect that cropped up with two rather different readings this year was the protagonist's career as a professional painter. It's quite an unusual trope for a novel of the time - especially one that initially seems to track into Austenesque territory of social gossip and flirtatious possibilities - and Brontë manipulates it in several ways, with some important scenes involving portraits and images, as well as complex dynamics around looking, concealing and gazing.

When asked to discuss the female artist figure, one small group in the seminar read somewhat against the grain. Whilst it's fairly conventional to position the depiction of a professional artist as a radical move, they noted she was pressed into it through financial necessity - a necessity which, without giving too much plot away, has brutal causes behind it. They lighted on the motif of 'framing' to evoke the way that Helen is compelled to commodify her beautiful images for others: 'I cannot afford to paint for my own amusement', she notes, and it is telling that the first painting that the reader sees is a view of Wildfell Hall but disguised under a false name. Also worth mentioning here is that she herself is the object of curious gazes, both as an artist and a woman: 'I don’t know what to make of her at all', Markham's young sister confides in the same chapter. Ultimately, her narrative is also 'framed' within others: formalistically, by the fact that her diary comes to be recapitulated within the pages of letters sent from Gilbert Markham to another male correspondent; more literally in the facts that she comes to marry Markham and, to some extent, the conventional grounding of female happiness in marriage is restored.

Another group took a more conventional (in conclusion) but no less interesting tack, foregrounding the studio space. Very much a 'space-within-a-space' inscribed within the domain of the domestic, it cleverly blurs, of course, the private/public and home/work binaries which undergird the supposed separate spheres ideology (initially, visitors are shown into the studio because the fireplace is cold in the sitting room). Moreover, as the students pointed out, it's a space which Helen controls. She continues to paint when people visit, neglecting the etiquette of conversation, and carefully admits Markham to give his tasteful opinion but also accuses him of impertinence when he ventures to turn a painting which the artist has concealed. It's defiantly her space.

There's something interesting here too, I think, about the distancing between Helen and her life which is implicit in the stance of the artist, something particularly apparent in these studio scenes (and also in the en plein air painting of chapter 7). Maybe because I was teaching Rossetti's 'In an Artist's Studio' at the same time, I was struck by the fact that because Helen paints things - especially intimate and narratively-loaded things like her own child or Wildfell Hall itself - it allows her some agency over emotional materials. The female self is usually an emotionally-charged object subject to a gaze; by contrast, the female painter is a subject who creates a constructed emotional object with technique and reflection. The gaze is diverted, and the female self hollows out a space of autonomy.

Of course, Markham does consider her - even when painting, perhaps especially when painting - a sexually desirable object, as we find in chapter 7's amorous glances at her 'graceful neck and glossy raven curls that drooped over the paper'. We can also recur to the first group's point about framing and about financial necessity - ultimately, the agency of the artist only exists within a greater unfreedom of economic survival. Yet that undecidability is perhaps precisely what makes the figure of the artist is Anne Brontë's masterwork so compelling.

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