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  • The Case of Helen Huntingdon
  • Ian Ward

Of course it never happened: Huntingdon v. Huntingdon. There was no “case” of Helen Huntingdon, at least not in formal juristic terms. That is the issue. Helen Huntingdon was unhappily married, subject to various forms of spousal abuse. But the law offered no respite. Instead, it left her with a choice: put up with it, or run away. It was not an uncommon dilemma in mid-nineteenth-century England. It was, however, an uncommon subject for public discourse, and it was an even more uncommon subject for literary commentary. Nevertheless, it was the subject of Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. And the furtive tenant, who was hiding from her husband and from the law, was Helen Huntingdon.

As we shall see, on its publication in 1848 the Tenant scandalized Victorian England, and its rather shadowy status in the nineteenth-century canon can perhaps be ascribed to this initial response.1 In its stark portrayal of a dysfunctional, abusive marriage, the Tenant shattered the pretenses of marital harmony so beloved of many Victorians. It was not, of course, alone in doing so. The establishment of the Divorce Court in 1857, to which we shall return in due course, did the same; laying, as Frances Power Cobbe attested, any number of “hideous revelations” before a lascivious public.2 Such narratives, real or fictional, combined to effect a critical transformation in the perception of the female condition in Victorian England, as Mary Poovey has argued, “from silent sufferer of private wrongs into an articulate spokesperson in the public sphere.” In doing so, they helped to “collapse the boundary between the private sphere, where injustices go unchecked, and the public domain, where laws are made and enforced by men.”3

Little wonder that so many reviewers were quite so troubled by Anne Brontë’s novel. It displayed, in harrowing detail, the reality of marriage for many Victorian women—and not just any women, but middle-class bourgeois women, the kind of women who could, indeed, be expected to read a Brontë novel. In short, it resonated. For this reason, modern critics have been rather kinder to the Tenant, appreciating that for reasons of both its subject matter and the subtlety of its epistolary, almost “gossipy” form, Anne Brontë’s novel represents something of a classic of mid-Victorian feminist protest.4 Such an endeavor, the presentation [End Page 151] before an appalled public of the reality of spousal abuse, was appraised by Cobbe, and others, not just as morally “serious,” but as politically vital, a critical strategy in the campaign for women’s rights.5 These novels and narratives complemented the greater legal and political struggles, part of what Lisa Surridge has recently presented as a distinctive mid-century textual strategy for the “disciplining of spousal violence,” one that concentrated on the presentation of “private conduct” before “public scrutiny.” Understood in this context, a novel such as Anne Brontë’s Tenant, Surridge concludes, can be read as a gesture of “active resistance to marital violence.”6

The virtues of an interdisciplinary study of law and literature are various, and well established in contemporary legal studies.7 For one thing, such studies can better equip the lawyer to appreciate the ethical impact of law.8 The presentation of legal allegory or metaphor in literature can arrest the attention of the slumbering law student. Similarly, a literary text can also help in the excavation of modern law. It provides a chronicle, one that can assist the lawyer in charting the archaeology of jurisprudence, the origins and effect of which are often largely subterranean. Dickens used a different metaphor to the same effect. He wanted his novels to “pull the roofs off houses,” to reveal what lay within.9 So, too, did Anne Brontë. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written for precisely this reason.10 As a novel about spousal abuse, and about the situation of wives who sought to flee violence, about the economic condition of such women, their right to property and to their own children, it is also a novel about the effect of law on the lives of real women...


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pp. 151-182
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