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Anne Bronte's The tenant of Wildfell Hall: A feminist text?

Woolaston, Elizabeth (1988) Anne Bronte's The tenant of Wildfell Hall: A feminist text? Masters by Research thesis, Murdoch University.

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Abstract

The basic argument presented in this dissertation is that Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wild/ell Hall can be interpreted as a nineteenth century 'feminist text', if we accept feminism as simply the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.

Before attempting an analysis of the text itself as a 'feminist text' the dissertation first seeks to recognize and illuminate the problems apparent in claiming that any author writes authentically about women's experience, given that women's experience is never homogeneous, but it is always mediated by class, ideology, ethnicity, race, sex and the age in which the author lives. Chapter One endeavours to place the textual analysis into the context of feminist literary criticism to both demonstrate the complexity of the task and the intended approach to that task.

Chapter Two attempts to place the text into an historical context. This is done in order to illustrate the degree to which personal experience affected authorial intention, to show the manner in which feminist ideology in the text reflects notable contemporary feminist sentiment and to gauge public and critical response to the text.

Chapters Three and Four of the dissertation analyse the Gilbert Markham 'letter narrative' and the Helen Huntington 'journal narrative' respectively. In the 'letter narrative' Anne Bronte chooses to expose sexual inequality and feminine discontent in a typical patriarchal society through a satirical critique of an ostensibly idyllic rural community, represented by Linden Carr. Here she exposes a murky underside to professed communal and domestic felicity by showing the dissatisfaction of the female members and the disharmony between them which springs from a lack of fulfilling employment, except to cater to masculine needs and expectations. Helen Huntingdon creates a social upheaval at Linden Carr because she embodies feminine capability and independence, implicitly rejecting many of the small community's long-cherished shibboleths, which conveniently help preserve the patriarchal status quo. Helen also manages to elevate Gilbert Markham to an equal status with herself, thus allowing Anne Bronte to elucidate the qualities required in men to equip them for egalitarian marriage with women of lofty moral stature and independent ideals.

In the 'journal section' Anne Bronte launches a more vituperative attack on sexual double standards and the potential for masculine tyranny in marriage. In her attempt to expose sexual inequality, unsentimentally and unromantically, Anne Bronte also debunks the mythology surrounding the 'Byronic hero' and the 'Regency rake' simultaneously. Anne Bronte achieves this in a minute and 'realistic' description of the unmitigated iniquity of Arthur Huntingdon and his set of debauched companions. As a corollary to the exposure of masculine excess, Anne Bronte also illustrates a range of possible female response, concluding that a woman has the moral right to leave a thoroughly unsuitable husband. This is so particularly if the morality of the children of the union is equally in jeopardy with the wife's sanity and self-respect.

Throughout the text, Anne Bronte also appeals for equal educational opportunities for women and for more equitable child-rearing practices between the sexes. She spoke ardently for women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes without necessarily being a misogamist. She still revered the institution of marriage, provided it was a union of equals rather than the submission of one partner to the tyranny of the other.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters by Research)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Humanities
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: repository@murdoch.edu.au. Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Mishra, Vijay
URI: http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/41570
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