Anne Brontë's New Women: Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as Precursors of New Woman Fiction
Description: Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were published more than forty years before the appearance of the feminist type that the Victorians called the “New Woman;” yet, both novels contain characteristics of New Woman fiction. By considering how Brontë's novels foreshadow New Woman fiction, the reader of these novels can re-enact the “gentlest” Brontë as an influential feminist whose ideology informed the construction of the radical New Woman. Brontë, like the New Woman writers, incorporated autobiographical dilemmas into her fiction. By using her own experiences as a governess, Brontë constructs Agnes Grey's incongruent social status and a morally corrupt gentry and aristocracy through her depiction of not only Agnes's second employers, the Murrays, but also the morally debauched world that Helen enters upon her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Moreover, Brontë incorporates her observations of Branwell's alcoholism and her own religious beliefs into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Although Brontë's novels contain autobiographical material, her heroines are fictional constructions that she uses to engage her readers with the woman question. Brontë accomplishes this engagement through her heroines' narrative re-enactments of fictional autobiographical dilemmas. Helen's diary and Agnes's diary-based narrative produce the pattern of development of the Bildungsroman and foreshadow the New Woman novelists' Kunstlerromans. Brontë's heroines anticipate the female artist as the protagonist of the New Woman Kunstlerromans. Agnes and Helen both invade the masculine domain of economic motive and are feminists who profess gender definitions that conflict with dominant Victorian ideology. Agnes questions her own femininity by internalizing the governess's status incongruence, and Helen's femininity is questioned by those around her. The paradoxical position of both heroines anticipates the debate about the nature and function of art in which the New Woman writers engaged. Through her reconciliation of the aesthetic ...
Date: August 2001
Creator: Phillips, Jennifer K.