Emma and the Silencing of the Working Class Woman

Today I finally made it to the Manchester Art Gallery to view the epic painting ‘Work’, by artist Ford Madox Brown. It is a dense painting, full of intricate detail, in which Brown attempts to depict the gospel according to Thomas Carlyle – that all work, even cotton-spinning work, is noble. There is much to observe in this one painting. Brown was, amongst many other things, a fastidious and conscientious artist, and the opportunity to take in the facial expressions of the many characters the painting is populated with, was one that took time, and much contemplation. Everything that appears in the painting is deliberate – from the girl with the short hair with a baby slung over her shoulder to the almost goblin-esque face of the young boy she is reaching towards, pulling at his hair. These were Brown’s ‘poor Cholera parentless brats.’ The ribbons the baby wears indicates mourning for the death of their mother, the father absent, Brown himself condemning him as a drinker who would be sentenced in the police court for neglecting them’, while the poor young girl is made a ‘premature scold.’

‘Work’ by Ford Madox Brown, Manchester Art Gallery.

The workers of the painting, the navvies, represent strength and beauty, ‘the lusty manhood’ of ‘Work.’ Brown was determined the prove that there was beauty in the working classes, an integrity in the work they undertook, and value in work and those that worked. The painting is brimming with untold stories, each painted figure hiding a story known only to Brown. Take, for example, the two figures standing at the far right of the painting, two well-dressed men who watch the navvies at work. These figures are portraits of Carlyle, together with Frederick Denison Maurice, a preacher and social reformer who founded the Working Men’s College in London.

Amidst all the busyness and allegorical undertones of the painting, however, is one figure whose story still remains largely unknown. Her name was Emma. Born Emma Hill, she was the wife of the artist. Somewhat ironically, Brown painted her as one of the rich. Yet Emma was a working class woman. Before her marriage to the artist, she was uneducated, barely literate, and made her living as a model for Brown, before bearing an illegitimate daughter that he fathered. Brown married her – eventually – but after a great deal of reading about Emma, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Brown’s desire to marry Emma was driven to a large extent by guilt over his illegitimate daughter and how she would be perceived, rather than a need to give Emma the love and security she craved from him. For all his lauding of the working class in this painting, it is hard to look at it, knowing something of Emma’s story, and not see Brown’s internalised antipathy to the working classes.

It remains somewhat frustrating that Emma’s origins and her history remain somewhat unknown. The wives of Rossetti, Millais, Morris – their stories are better known – and it is difficult to try and pin down the reasons why. Emma was undoubtedly a beautiful woman, as was Lizzie Siddal (wife of Rossetti), Effie Gray (wife of Millais) and Jane Morris. Yet their faces are better known to art lovers, their stories still told. Yet Emma? She seems to have faded into obscurity, the shadows of the past covering her so that the light of posterity shines anywhere but in her direction.

Emma Madox Brown, wife of the artist.

I have given much though to why this is so. Emma played her own important part in the Pre-Raphaelite art movement that still retains a revered place in the history of art. She modelled for Brown, for Rossetti, and supported Brown has he struggled to make a living as an artist. She was the dearest and closest friend of Lizzie Siddal, even inviting her to live with her and Ford despite the resulting chaos it brought into her home, her family, and her life. She helped deliver the babies of the wives of the artists of the PRB, and they turned to her for her experience and advice. Yet when the stories of the people who surrounded her are told, she disappears. It seems poor justice for a woman who gave so much of herself for others, yet left so little for herself. What it comes down to, in my view, is that Emma was just a working class girl made good, who then ruined herself with alcohol. For Emma carried the stigma of her addiction. She was hopelessly – and ruinously – addicted to drink. It would ultimately kill her.

There is no real romance in her story. Nothing to cling to. She wasn’t a trailblazer feminist, struggling to find a place in a male-dominated world. She wasn’t a poor tragic muse that overdosed to end the misery of her existence as her friend Lizzie Siddal did. She was simply a working class woman, struggling to keep herself and her daughter alive, and then struggling to feel accepted in a society of London artists in which she felt like an imposter, as the wife of an educated man of the world, a talented artist who had spent time on the continent, while she had barely left London before meeting the man she would marry. Her husband even sent her away to be educated before he would condescend to marry her. She then had the audacity to age, bringing with it that peculiar invisibility that seems to cloak all women whose youth has been left behind them. It almost feels like, even today, we have moved no further forward. For all our talk of diversity and inclusion, working class people still remain unseen, unheard, unvoiced. More so if they are middle-aged women who were once considered beauties.

When you zoom in on the rich woman Brown painted, which Emma was the model for, you see her with her eyes shut, her lips pursed together – as if she can see nothing, and can say nothing. I spent my time at the gallery today wondering what Emma would have been thinking as she sat for her husband, knowing that he was painting her as something she was not. Rich. Emma never had anything of her own. She had nothing, and even in marriage to Brown, she gained nothing other than the security of his name. Ford’s diary revealed the ambiguity of his feelings for Emma. She must have felt that every single day she lived as his wife. Those closed lips of hers tell us so much about what she couldn’t say, and how her story remains shrouded and silent.

Emma has been an obsession of mine for many years. I felt an affinity with a woman who was in a marriage where she never felt secure, and looked for a way out. For Emma, alcohol was her answer. There was no divorce. No way out. I live in a world in which there is an exit door available for an unhappy marriage. I wonder what Emma could have done had she but been given the opportunity to make her own way in the world on her own terms, without needing to rely on the love and support of a husband who could not – and was never going to be able to – give her what he needed. She was a remarkable woman given the constraints under which she lived. I hope her story – one day – becomes better known.

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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