On Friday evening I headed across town to the haunting and evocative setting of Arnos Vale cemetery to watch the Butterfly Psyche Theatre’s production of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – adapted from Anne Bronte’s novel. The company have been running a season of Bronte adaptations – including the perhaps better known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
The novel’s narrative is mainly told through a letter from Gilbert Markham to his friend, detailing the arrival of the new tenant at Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham. The middle part of the novel is written as Helen’s diary, before switching back to Gilbert’s letter.
This structure informed the performance of the play – with two actors taking on all the character roles and using the framing of a letter and a diary to directly narrate to the audience what was happening in the story. This successfully meant that the audience was able to negotiate what is quite a complex story, while gaining an insight into the inner lives of Gilbert and Helen.
The play began with the male actor addressing the audience as Gilbert. He draws us into the world of his village – with the woman actor taking on the role of mother, sister, brother, landlord, and the wickedly flirtatious Eliza Millward, before entering the stage as Helen. It’s a real skill to be able to perform such a diverse set of roles in such quick succession and allow the audience to latch on to the change of character without feeling jarred, and it’s a skill she had. Changing her posture, her smile, the way she moved her eyes – these subtle movements helped the audience understand straight away whether she was, for example, Helen or Eliza.
Gilbert’s narration meant that as well as the action on stage, we were able to comprehend and empathise with his changing feelings towards Helen, as slowly he finds himself in love with her – and she with him. We see a young man grappling with the first realisation of love and feel with him his shock and horror when he believes Helen has betrayed his love.
The story then switches, and it is Helen who takes centre stage, as the narrative voice moves to her diary and the story of her increasingly violent marriage to Arthur Huntingdon.
The devastating centre of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story of domestic abuse, and Helen’s struggle to decide whether to stay, and remain in a violent marriage, or go and risk the scandal and censure of her peers. It’s a very radical and brutally honest story – made even more so when you consider that Bronte wrote this novel when women didn’t have much legal status at all – and certainly not in cases of divorce.
The actor playing Helen beautifully depicted how marriage turned her from a spirited and principled young girl full of verve and energy, to a grown woman who is trying to survive in a loveless and violent marriage. The actors powerfully brought to life Helen’s internal struggle – she optimistically hopes for a better future with her husband, whilst knowing that in reality such a belief is hopeless. As a result, she is torn between wanting to stay, and knowing she must leave.
Just as in 1848, when the novel was written, readers and audiences today still question ‘why did she stay for so long’. It’s a question we don’t just ask of Helen, but of all women in violent relationships. The ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ question has echoed through the ages – dangerously ignoring the role of the perpetrator and the dynamics of male violence against women. Through witnessing Helen as she battles with the expectations put on her by society, her fears for her son, and her dying hopes for a better future, the audience perhaps are brought closer to understanding the impact of domestic abuse, and the difficulties women face in escaping violent marriages.
Having two actors play all the characters meant that much of the novel was cut – for example the storyline involving Walter Hargrave, and the scenes where Huntingdon tries to corrupt his son by giving him wine and teaching him to insult his mother. As a result, some of the novel’s darkness and horror was lost, as both of those storylines bring to life even more just how impossibly placed Helen was. She knows that if she leaves her husband, she risks being preyed upon by men like Hargrave, and will be seen by her peers as a disgraced woman who is up for grabs. She also knows that if she doesn’t leave, Huntingdon’s influence on her son will increase, and the cycle of abuse re-enforced.
But the effect of these cuts meant that the play could distil the two key core developments of the novel – that of Gilbert from a slightly frivolous and fickle boy to a loving and mature man, and of Helen’s journey towards freedom and a mutual, respectful love. As a result, the production gave the audience access into the inner lives of these two complex and challenging characters in a very personal and powerful way.