Divorced woman named Helen Graham moves into a dilapidated house called Wildfell in the beautiful yet unforgiving Yorkshire countryside, earning the attention of a local man called Gilbert Markham and arousing the suspicion and interest of the local gossips. If you think you know this story, think again. This is not The Tenant of Wildfell Hall but rather Sam Baker’s brilliant and brutal take on Anne Brontë’s final novel.
The Woman Who Ran is no simple remake of the 1848 classic, however. “I wouldn’t dare to do anything that presumptuous,” says Baker. “But I did want to explore the themes of Anne’s novel, which were hugely radical at the time, look at what is still relevant, what has changed for women …. And, more importantly, what hasn’t.”
Born in a small town in Hampshire, Sam Baker made a career at the forefront of magazine journalism, editing titles from Just Seventeen to Cosmopolitan and Red. Currently, she’s CEO and editor-in-chief of The Pool, a digital platform that she co-founded last year with the BBC 6 Music broadcaster and former indie-popster Lauren Laverne.
“My agent’s keen that I don’t bang on too much about The Pool,” Baker says. “He wants me to concentrate on the book.” (And who are we to counter advice from the über agent Jonny Geller?) But Baker admits that The Pool, and its growing reputation, take up most of her time, leaving only bits of weekends for writing fiction.
“Most of those you’ll find me in a café in Winchester with my husband [the novelist Jon Courtenay Grimwood] hunched over a laptop,” she says ruefully.
So, Baker’s book … As with Wildfell, The Woman Who Ran is indeed about a woman called Helen who takes up residence in Wildfell House on the edge of a small Yorkshire Dales village. This Helen might run for fun over the fells and hills that inspired the Brontës, but she’s also running from something darker.
Fractured memories give hints of a devastating fire in a Paris flat, a body in the choking smoke, and a woman doing her level best to become invisible.
What follows is akin to a hike across Brontë country in threatening fog. We might think we know where we’re going, but the way ahead, and the path behind, are unclear. Surprises, wrong turns and detours loom in the mist. And always, just out of sight, there’s someone watching ….
Brontë’s Helen Graham shocked Victorian society in her refusal to behave as it demanded women should. Indeed, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered one of the first feminist novels. “It’s my favourite Brontë novel,” says Baker, “and the best, in my opinion.
It definitely doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it should. When I first re-read it I was worried it might have dated too badly, but the themes remain incredibly radical. Anne wrote about a woman who left her violent husband, which women just didn’t do then, and earned a living painting in oils. A medium usually reserved for men. If women painted, they were expected to use watercolours.
“In making my Helen Graham a photojournalist specialising in war zones I was trying to find the modern equivalent. I was, I freely admit, inspired by Marie Colvin, who died in Syria in 2012, whom I admired greatly. She was immensely brave. ”
Baker’s Helen has her own Gilbert Markham, an early retired newspaper man whose journalistic curiosity is piqued by Wildfell’s enigmatic new tenant. Gil really gets equal plot-time to Helen, and is the vehicle Baker uses to explore two of the themes running through The Woman Who Ran: the nature of gossip, and the way we put ourselves on display online, especially on social media.
“In Anne’s novel,” says Baker, “Helen leaves her husband to live in a dilapidated hall and, of course, the local gossip machine kicks in immediately. I wanted to explore how that would work in the 21st century.”
The answer is that the local gossips still gather at the corner shop, the village pub and the local cafe, but gossip feeds on (and feeds) social media and then there is the proliferation of information about ourselves we put there. A virtual world that Gil – just old enough to have not whole-heartedly embraced social media – discovers as he hunts for information about Helen.
Baker says: “I read an interview with the fashion designer Phoebe Philo who said, ‘the chicest thing is when you don’t exist on Google. God, I would love to be that person’. And that fed into something I’d been thinking. What if you had to vanish? What if you couldn’t afford to be on Google? What if being digitally visible could get you killed?”
The reasons for asking these questions are unfolded in The Woman Who Ran with almost unbearable tension, as Baker steadily unravels the plot. And that, really, points to the central theme of this novel, domestic violence.
Just because a woman is strong, intelligent and capable – even if she has risen to the top of a testosterone-fuelled profession – evidence shows these often prove no defence against abuse. (The 2.4 women killed in the UK by their partners every week is testament to this.)
“Helen’s better than her partner in almost every way,” Baker says. “She’s more intelligent, more successful, and more competent. The point about Art is he’s a mediocrity. A mediocre man who simply can’t cope with Helen’s talent. So, he responds with jealousy; becoming controlling, coercive and ultimately violent …. When I started out as a journalist it was still not possible in law for a man to rape his wife.
"That wasn’t so long ago. In the novel, I use an analogy that I stole from a column that Lauren Laverne did. She wrote that being in that sort of controlling relationship is like being in a box. You think that if you don’t touch the sides nothing bad will happen. So, you try hard to make yourself smaller and smaller. You reduce yourself. But the box gets smaller around you. So, the person trapped inside tries to make herself smaller still.”
Baker pauses, and says: “Look, I didn’t set out to write an ‘issue book’. I set out to write a really great thriller using Anne Brontë’s best novel as its foundations. But if The Woman Who Ran opens up debate into violence against women, then that’s fine by me.”
More than a century ago, the writer May Sinclair said of The Tennant of Wildfell Hall that Helen Graham’s defiant slamming of her bedroom door in her husband’s face “reverberated throughout Victorian England”.
Sam Baker has written not only a chilling thriller but also a timely reminder that some less palatable Victorian social mores still have a home in our lives today, and that the slamming of doors in the face of convention to draw attention to domestic abuse is still justified and entirely necessary.
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