Preview: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

A novel by the lesser known Brontë sister Anne has been adapted for the stage at Bolton Octagon and York Theatre Royal

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“That it had faults of execution, faults of art, was obvious,” Charlotte Brontë wrote of her sister Anne’s second and final novel in a letter to literary editor WS Williams.

Some believe Charlotte wanted to protect her younger sister’s memory when she suppressed the republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death in 1849, aged 29. Others believe she was jealous. While the often overlooked youngest sister’s prose lacks the romanticism of the likes of Jane Eyre or Emily’s Wuthering Heights, there are bigger themes at play.

The story of Helen Graham, who defies the law by leaving her abusive and alcoholic husband, takes on an assumed identity and supports herself and her son Arthur through her work as a painter, challenged the staunch morals of the Victorian era.

“Anne’s novels have always impressed me with the rage I can sense in the writer,” says Deborah McAndrew, who’s written a stage adaptation, opening this week in Bolton. “I believe that Anne was genuinely outraged by the treatment of women in society. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is often cited as the first feminist novel and with good reason.”

Despite her dissent, Helen is a moralist but McAndrew says it would be inaccurate to read her as an insufferably saintly woman. “She has a rebellious and willful nature. She is bold in her actions and desires, but strives for integrity in both. Tough stuff for the mid-19th century.”

And Helen is never punished in the story. Instead she is rewarded with the true love of a worthy man – Gilbert Markham, played by Michael Peavoy.

Taking on the role of Helen is Phoebe Pryce, who admits she didn’t know the novel before auditioning for the role. “I can’t quite believe I didn’t. Anne doesn’t get nearly enough credit. I find myself in awe of Helen’s strength, her ability to use her intellect and courage to pull through the most trying circumstances. It’s a beautifully crafted tale that I feel Deborah’s adaptation honours so wonderfully.”

McAndrew says her approach to the adaptation was to swallow the novel whole and then spit it back out as a play. “Structurally I’ve kept with Anne’s three sections. Within that I’ve condensed and amalgamated scenes to resist that episodic tendency that happens when novels get put on stage.”

As with all great literature, many of Brontë’s themes are, sadly, still relevant. “Women still find themselves trapped in abusive relationships, often with their children in danger. It still takes huge courage to leave such a man, especially without any kind of independent financial means,” says McAndrew, pointing out the pertinence of the novel’s characters being upper class. “Often alcoholism and abuse are things associated with poverty today. Anne has the courage to show that these things are present in all strata of society.”

This year marks the second of five years celebrating the bicentenaries of the Howarth family. As the youngest, Anne will be celebrated last in 2020, when the British public will likely be at Brontë capacity. Is this production an attempt to give due credit to the snubbed sister?

“The only good reasons for adapting this novel for the stage are that it is dramatic and relevant,” says McAndrew. “However, if our production brings attention to Anne’s work then I’d be delighted. I believe that she is at least as great a writer as her sisters, and far more radical. She was so young when she died and only just getting started on her craft. Imagine what she might have produced if she’d lived as long as, say, Charles Dickens!”

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is at the Octagon, Bolton, 30 March-22 April ( then at York Theatre Royal, 26 April-6 May

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