I was halfway through re-reading Anne Brontë’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, when something struck me: the heroine, Helen, is a mother. Which, in 1848, was very unusual. Mothers were so rarely the heroines of Victorian novels. Sometimes they didn’t even appear in the backgrounds of novels; from Jane Eyre to Oliver Twist, the great protagonists of Victorian fiction have often lost their mothers before their stories begin.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen, like all the Brontë heroines, falls for a dashing, sexy, dangerous man. But when he turns abusive and alcoholic, she leaves. It’s very refreshing. For its Victorian readers, it was also deeply shocking. What Helen does is a crime. Victorian women who left their husbands very rarely got divorces, even if the husbands were cruel or neglectful or worse. Married women didn’t exist in English law, so they couldn’t fight for their rights. They weren’t allowed to own anything. Helen’s husband Huntingdon has already thrown all her paintings into a fire, because even the things she has made out of her own imagination, and with her own hands, are his. This includes their son. Even though Huntingdon is pouring booze down the four-year-old’s throat, teaching him to swear, and has employed his mistress as a governess, Helen knows she will never get custody of her child. Mothers never did. This was why motherhood was the frontline for Victorian feminists.
So Helen has to steal her son. She has to change her name. She has to move across the country. She has to become a fugitive, an outlaw. When she arrives at her new home, living in a ruined house called Wildfell Hall, earning her living by painting, pretending to be a widow, refusing to make friends, the villagers are suspicious. They joke that she might be a witch. They call her a bad mother. They speculate that she may be an adulteress. They shun her. They warn their daughters off her. She battles on, carving out her career, sticking to her principles, mothering her son her own way and when she eventually marries again, it is on her own terms.
It is revolutionary. And all the more so on reading another Victorian novel with a mother heroine: Ellen Wood’s potboiler, East Lynne. It is not an empowering read. Mother-of-three Isabel Vane runs away with her lover, and is horribly punished. Her lover leaves. She has their child, but he is killed in a train accident. She is also hideously disfigured. She has to disguise herself as a governess in order to see her other children. Then she loses another child. Then she dies of guilt. No wonder Anne Brontë’s novel was just too radical for her first readers.
I am expecting my first child in March. Will I vanish like Anne Shirley? I’ve always looked to fiction to show me how to live, but as I get ready for this new adventure, I’ve struggled to find role models
And it still feels radical now. There are still very few mothers at the centres of novels, driving the action, making choices, taking risks. Instead, from Mrs Bennet to Cersei Lannister, fictional mothers are usually foils to the heroes or heroines. Or, they vanish into the shadows. I’ll never forget how upset I was when, in the later Anne of Green Gables books, Anne Shirley became bland, smug “Mrs Blythe” and her daughter stepped into the limelight. Reading it as a child it made me think that if I got pregnant, my story would end.
After I finished writing my book about Anne Brontë, I realised I was pregnant. I am expecting my first child in March. Will I vanish like Anne Shirley? I’ve always looked to fiction to show me how to live, but as I get ready for this new adventure, I’ve struggled to find role models. In Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, the heroine gives up her dream of becoming an “art monster”, to marry and have a child, only to find she has to fight my way back to happiness and to a sense of who she is. While in Maria Semple’s hilarious Where’d you go Bernadette; Bernadette is so desperate to escape the constricting role of suburban mother that she literally vanishes.
I’ve been wondering: when I have my child, do I have to lose myself entirely? And is that perhaps why so few women have written novels about their own experience of being mothers? As Elisa Albert asks in her novel After Birth: “who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it?”
But maybe things are changing. Offill, Semple and Albert’s books, all out in the past couple of years, show that mothers can take centre stage. Even Bridget Jones has a baby now! And not all the new mother heroines lose themselves. When Flora, the heroine of Laline Paull’s The Bees, (and a BEE) becomes a mother, she wakes up. She discovers she is a rebel, and stronger and bolder than she thought. She ends up challenging and overturning the totalitarian world of the hive.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, too, Helen doesn’t lose herself in motherhood. She’s buried by marriage, dulled by it. But when she has her son, she gets her gumption back. She decides to rescue him from her husband. She makes the daring decision to leave. And that’s when she truly becomes a heroine. Motherhood doesn’t rob her of her power and her strength; motherhood makes her a heroine. And that’s a story I think I could try to live by.
Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis is out on January 12th from Chatto and Windus.