The BBC’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Katie Farr, Lancaster University

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) addresses the issue of women’s freedom more directly than any of her more-famous sisters’ novels, making it worthy of being adapted, studied and remembered. May Sinclair said that “the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England” (Gérin, 7). However, in 1848 the book was criticised for its structure and its subject matter, with its unflinching depiction of alcoholism, and a heroine who criticises the marriage laws of the time. Even Charlotte Brontë said that “the choice of subject was an entire mistake” (Brontë, lxi). This criticism has resulted in a huge gap in popularity between Anne’s major work and those of her sisters. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre enjoyed both critical acclaim and popular success and has remained popular ever since, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights became increasingly admired by critics from the late nineteenth century and experienced a meteoric rise in sales sparked by the 1939 film version. But Anne’s work remains underappreciated despite the appeal of its feminist message to a modern audience.

The difference is clear when comparing how often the sisters’ works have been adapted. The 1996 Mike Barker BBC television adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of very few adaptations made of Anne Brontë’s fiction, compared to the countless adaptations inspired by her sisters’ novels, Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847). The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lists thirteen film and eleven television titles of Wuthering Heights, and twelve film and thirteen television adaptations of Jane Eyre, and many more shorts and works inspired by the texts, including adaptations under different titles. In contrast, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has just two listings, a television series from 1968 being its only other adaptation. 

Barker’s adaptation deals well with the criticism of the structure of Brontë’s novel, which is told through Gilbert’s letters and Helen’s diary. The critic George Moore complains, “the diary broke the story in halves” (Gérin, 14). The adaptation maintains the use of Gilbert’s perspective for the first episode, without resorting to the book’s contrived framing device of Gilbert’s letters to his brother-in-law. The second episode is from Helen’s perspective, with the use of flashbacks in the first episode creating a seamless transition to the extended sequence of Helen’s history, giving the audience previews of Helen’s past before it is fully revealed.

These flashbacks are one of several methods used to represent the psychological realism of the novel. They occur at times of stress for Helen, such as when Gilbert rescues Arthur from a tree, which triggers the flashback of the child Arthur surrounded by drunk, leering faces. The flashbacks are partial and symbolic: a wine glass dropped by an unseen hand, a dead bird held aloft. They are accompanied by music which interrupts the silent background of the surrounding scenes. Richard G. Mitchell’s score conveys character emotion rather than establishing the historical period of the narrative. Haunting women’s voices link Helen’s story to the sadness and struggle of oppressed women, reminding the audience that she represents generations of women subjected to the same laws and social expectations. These audio-visual methods represent Helen’s past trauma and internal emotions, which are directly narrated in the book.

The settings also carry symbolic resonances. Wildfell Hall is old and filled with dust, but as Helen rips a curtain from the window, she laughs, “At least the light is good”. Although it is a decrepit place compared to the grand setting of Grassdale Manor (shown in the second episode), Wildfell Hall is filled with natural light, while Grassdale Manor, from which she fled her abusive marriage, is mostly shown dimly lit with candles. Whilst the light in itself conveys happiness and escape from the darkness of her marriage, it also has a material purpose in giving Helen a space in which she can paint, allowing her financial independence. We see her walking and painting in the moors, which Carmen Pérez Ríu describes as the “characteristically Brontëan space for women’s self-disclosure and freedom” (56).

The adaptation’s use of flashbacks and the perspectives of both Gilbert and Helen creates a compelling drama whilst maintaining Anne’s realist style. Anne shares the use of gothic mansions and the wild moors as settings with her sisters, but there are no ghostly apparitions like in Wuthering Heights or voices calling mystically from afar as in Jane Eyre. Anne says, “the truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it” (29). In this way, the realism of the novel is designed to faithfully show the abuse and hardship faced by Victorian women, and appeal for their freedom.

Questions for Discussion:

In the novel, Helen’s story is related through her diary entries written at the time, whereas in the television adaptation, she is writing from memory years later. How does this change the way her story is presented? Take a look at the scenes where she discovers Arthur’s affair (Episode 2, 00:42:32-00:48:30), and compare them to the same events in Chapter 33 of the novel.

In 1848 writing about sex was strictly taboo, whereas sex scenes were commonplace on TV and in novels by the 1990s. The physical relationship between Arthur and Helen is made explicit in this adaptation, including both romantic scenes such as Arthur kissing Helen’s baby bump, and scenes of attempted rape. Is this imposing a contemporary perspective on a Victorian text, or more accurately portraying what Victorian life was like for women?

Some of the humour from the novel, such as Gilbert’s relationship with his brother Fergus (see Chapter 13), has been left out of the adaptation. What is the effect of the humour in the novel? Why might the writers have decided not to include it in the adaptation?

Helen says it is “better far that he [her son Arthur] should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence with such a father” (357). What do Helen’s disastrous first marriage to a wealthy man with a country seat, and her presumably happy second one to a yeoman farmer, indicate about class status? How might Victorian ideas of class inform contemporary discussions?

Further reading:

Birden, Lorene M. “Frank and Unconscious Humor and Narrative Structure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp.263-286.

Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, edited by G.D Hargreaves, Penguin Classics, 1988.

Brontë, Charlotte. “Biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë, edited by Angeline Goreau, Penguin Classics, 1988, pp.lvii-lxiv.

Gérin, Winifred. “Introduction.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë, edited by G.D Hargreaves, Penguin Classics, 1988, pp.7-18.

Han, Catherine Paula. “The Myth of Anne Brontë.” Brontë Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 2017, pp. 48–59.

Holland, Nick. In Search of Anne Brontë, The History Press, 2016.

James, Caryn. “Critic’s Notebook; As Cameras Whir, The BrontëNovels Come Into Focus.” The New York Times, 24 October 1997.

Pérez Ríu, Carmen. “‘Don’t Forget This Is How I Earn My Living’: Internal Focalization, Subjectivity and the Victorian Woman Artist in the Adaptation of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (BBC Miniseries, 1996).” Brontë Studies, Vol. 40, No.1, 2015, pp. 44-58.

Shaw, Marion. “Anne Brontë: A Quiet Feminist.” Brontë Studies, vol. 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 330–338.

Thormählen, Marianne. “Standing Alone: Anne Brontë out of the Shadow.” Brontë Studies, vol. 39, no. 4, 2014, pp. 330–340.

Title Matching ‘Jane Eyre’, Feature Film/TV Movie/TV Series/TV Special/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, IMDb.com. Accessed 05 August 2019

Title Matching ‘the Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, Feature Film/TV Series/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, IMDb.com. Accessed 05 August 2019.

Title Matching ‘Wuthering Heights’, Feature Film/TV Movie/TV Series/TV Special/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, IMDb.com. Accessed 05 August 2019.

ABC’s A Christmas Carol

By Andre DeCuir, Muskingum University

Animation ultimately is the best method in conveying the importance of change in A Christmas Carol because animation, in a sense, occurs in the text itself. For example, when the young Scrooge reads alone in the schoolroom, the “exotic characters from that reading troop into the barren room and enact their familiar adventures” (Stone 15-16). Vibrant, colorful figures move about in an otherwise still room, having a “softening influence” on Scrooge. The vision gives “a freer passage to his tears” (72). An animated version of A Christmas Carol that aired on the ABC Television Network on December 21, 1971 acknowledges major themes such as the powerful flux of memory and emotion in creating flexibility necessary for significant change. The pulsating animation style of the characters and backgrounds create a world never static, always on the verge of change. Here, Scrooge can eventually pass through his crusty oyster shell into this world, diffusing kindness and generosity.

Stylistically, the film resembles John Leech’s 1843 illustrations for A Christmas Carol. The lines in the animators’ drawings, however, were not “cleaned up”; in other words, lines in the hair, faces, and clothing of the characters and in the backgrounds were not completely erased. When the drawings were filmed one by one and set in motion, lines of differing lengths and thicknesses gave another dimension of movement to the characters. A character might be standing still, but the lines within the character’s outline shift slightly, giving the character a “shimmering” appearance. In a close-up of Scrooge, the individual hairs of his eyebrows wave, and the curls of one of the gentlemen collecting for charity appear to have a life of their own.

John Leech’s illustration, “Scrooge Extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits”

This technique is most appropriate in the animation of the scenes involving the Ghost of Christmas Past, a figure Leech did not draw, perhaps due to the complexity of Dickens’s description. The ghost’s head and limbs vibrate and then divide like cells into multiple appendages, faithful to Dickens’s description: “now a thing with one arm, now one leg, now with twenty legs” (68). In addition, the features dissolve from those of a youth to those of an old man and back again. We see Scrooge quickly “morph” like the ghost, frame by frame, from a youth and adolescent in the schoolroom to a young apprentice at his desk at Fezziwig’s.

The style continues with the next two ghosts. At warp speed, the Ghost of Christmas Present whisks Scrooge to the Cratchits’ home, to the hut of miners, to a lighthouse, and to the deck of a ship on a stormy sea. Even the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge and the viewer on a dizzying, zigzag route from the chamber housing the sheet-covered body to the Cratchits’ house where Bob Cratchit kneels at the bedside of Tiny Tim, muttering, “’My little child!’” (Dickens 122).

The rapid movement of the scenes, writes Sammon, “suggests the flow of time” (134). The fluid animation of the characters, coupled with the speed of the scenes, creates a malleable world where barriers will be short lived. In such a setting, significant change such as Scrooge becoming a better man overnight is inevitable.

Questions for Discussion:

Williams’s animated version only runs 26 minutes. Discuss an omission or omissions that you believe are needed in this version. Does the film make up for the omissions in other ways?

Reread Dickens’s description of the Ghost of Christmas Past. The original illustrator, John Leech, did not contribute illustrations of this ghost. Why not? What ideas about memory and change could Dickens have possibly attempted to convey through the ghost’s strange appearance? How does the animated version convey those ideas?

Harry Stone acknowledges that in the text itself, there are “rapid shifts from scene to scene, . . . telescoping, blurring” (16). The scenes in the animated feature flow quickly, almost too quickly. Discuss the significance of this flow, perhaps linking it to the flux of memory and emotion and its role in the conversion of Scrooge.

Further Reading:

Buckwald, Craig. “Stalking the Figurative Oyster: The Excursive Ideal in A Christmas Carol.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 27, no. 1, 1990, pp. 1-14.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. The Christmas Books, Volume One. Penguin, 1985.

Guida, Fred. A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story on Screen and Television. McFarland, 2000.

Sammon, Paul. The Christmas Carol Trivia Book: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Every Version of The Dickens Classic. Citadel, 1994.

Stone, Harry. Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairytales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making. Macmillan, 1980.

BBC’s Sherlock

By Joanna Swafford

Thanks to the witty, fast-paced BBC’s miniseries Sherlock, a new generation is becoming obsessed with the famous fictional detective (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his best friend and sidekick, John Watson (played by Martin Freeman). Sherlock, created and written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, consists of 90-minute episodes that follow our hero in present-day London. This Sherlock is a self-described “sociopath” who cosherlockbbcnsiders “sentiment” and most other people (Watson excepted) beneath his notice and cares more about his cases than his clients. Watson, as in the books, is a veteran recently returned from fighting in Afghanistan, but in this version, he initially blogs about Sherlock’s adventures as part of his PTSD therapy. The series covers many of the pivotal plot points of the stories: Holmes and Watson meeting and becoming flatmates, the famous hiatus when Holmes fakes his own death, their reunion, and Watson’s marriage to Mary, as well as many cases.

The cases in Sherlock often have clear connections to the original stories, as even the titles demonstrate: for instance, A Study in Scarlet becomes “A Study in Pink,” “A Scandal in Bohemia” becomes “A Scandal in Belgravia,” and The Hound of the Baskervilles becomes “The Hounds of Baskerville.” The stories are also bursting with scattered, subtler nods to its source texts: “A Scandal in Belgravia” contains a brief montage of Holmes solving crimes, including the murder of a “speckled blond,” a quip that alludes to the much loved-story “The Speckled Band.” The series is particularly invested in making use of modern technology: its episodes hinge on smart phones, computer passwords, or rumors of incredibly powerful computer programs, and the show highlights its fascination with all things digital through dramatic floating word overlays when characters type, deduce, or text. The series also makes use of transmedia storytelling, as Watson’s blog actually exists and is updated in time with the show, often detailing cases that are not shown on screen, including “The Speckled Blond.”

While the show has a dedicated following, it also has a number of detractors, who are displeased with the show’s queerbaiting and representations of women (especially when compared to the stories) and people of color. These discussions can lead to lively discussion and a better understanding of both the adaptation and the original source material.

Questions for Discussion

How is the relationship between Sherlock and John characterized, and how is it similar to or different from the relationship in the stories? How does Sherlock treat John, and how does it relate to the stories?

What narrative, musical, and cinematographic strategies does the series use to show Sherlock’s intelligence and deductive abilities? How do those strategies relate to Conan Doyle’s strategies? What do the differences in strategies tell us about differences in media, genre, and audience?

The original Holmes stories have an international scope: they meet Irene Adler (an American), the King of Bohemia, and a man from the Andaman Islands, and they travel to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, to name just a few examples. How and why does Sherlock echo or alter that geographic focus? How does the show’s portrayal of people from beyond England echo or alter the story’s own anxiety’s about Otherness and “foreign” influence?

Irene Adler in the stories is an American opera singer who outwits Holmes with her deductive abilities and skill at disguise—her cross-dressing even fools Holmes—and leaves town with her husband. Her brilliance causes Holmes to reevaluate his previously negative opinion of all women. Irene in Sherlock (in “Scandal in Belgravia” from Season 2, episodes 1) has a very different role. How is she represented? Do the changes to her character and fate alter the quasi-feminist message of the original? How do the changes to her character also alter the portrayal of Holmes?

Further Reading

Frankel, Valerie Estelle. Every Canon Reference You May Have Missed in BBC’s Series 1-3. LitCrit Press, 2014.

Porter, Lynette. Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Essays on New Adaptations. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2012.

Primorac, Antonija. “The Naked Truth: Postfeminist Afterlives of Irene Alder.” Neo-Victorian Studies 6.2 (2013): 89-113.

Stein, Louisa Ellen and Kristina Busse, eds. Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Vanacker, Sabine and Catherine Vynne, eds. Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi-Media Afterlives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.