I went into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall conjecturing that Anne Brontë would prove to be the underrated sister, and my conjecture was right. Although I love and appreciate Jane Eyre, and I can see why others love and appreciate Wuthering Heights, where is the love for Anne? Charlotte and Emily get to become household names, more or less, their most famous works easily recognizable even by people who will never read them. But mention Agnes Grey or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and you’ll often get a blank stare. It’s not fair, because this book is pure gold right here. Indeed, I’ll venture that it’s raunchier than Jane Eyre and takes even more risks than Wuthering Heights; I thoroughly disagree with Margaret Smith’s claim in the introduction that Anne lacks “mastery” of the novel form. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has not quite claimed my adoration in the way many of Hardy or Eliot’s works have, but it still has its own magic.
Let’s start with discussing the narration, because it’s something that jumped out at me almost immediately. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an interesting example of the Victorian novel. Like many of its brethren, it is epistolary in nature. However, the initial narrator is not the eponymous tenant, as I expected it would be. Instead, the framing narrative is a series of letters written by Gilbert Markham to his friend, J. Halford. Only after eavesdropping of Shakespearean dimensions does Gilbert confront Helen and obtain the journals in her own hand, which he subsequently transcribes (without a photocopier, yikes) for Halford’s private amusement (great guy, this Gilbert). Thus the middle half of the novel transpires from Helen’s perspective, and is, in essence, a flashback that explains and justifies her presence at Wildfell Hall. After her journal concludes, the novel returns to Gilbert’s perspective, where he reacts to what he has learned and tries his best to make amends.
This split narration allows Brontë to showcase her ability to write with both male and female voices. She aptly portrays a young country squire whose chief concerns are managing his family’s property, socializing, and keeping one eye open for marriageable young ladies in his social circle. Gilbert is kind but not particularly deep; he is mostly a foil to the scurrilous Arthur Huntingdon. Whatever his character, though, he is most striking because Brontë captures a young man’s voice so well. You see him confess his attractions to Eliza Millward, to Helen, even as he muses on how inappropriate these might be. Brontë depicts his insensitivity to (or insensibility of) Helen’s awkward social status as the reclusive tenant of Wildfell Hall. Gilbert understand propriety but sometimes allows his passion and youth to override his sensibilities.
When we switch to Helen’s voice, we see propriety reinforced by a bulwark of staunch, salvationist Christian belief. Helen is quite moral, a characteristic both demonstrated by her actions and remarked upon by numerous characters, who frequently liken her to an angelic being. It seems important to Brontë that we perceive Helen as faultless, at least in the case of her marriage. Helen perseveres in her marriage to Huntingdon even when it becomes almost unbearable; she acknowledges she misjudged his initial character, but she sees it as her duty to stay entwined with him. She only leaves him, ultimately, for the sake of her son; ensuring he is raised properly is a higher duty than remaining with her husband.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has me itching to read Middlemarch again, which also features marriages that turn out unhappily. This is a recurring motif in many a classic Victorian novel, particularly those by women—probably because, with divorce requiring an Act of Parliament, marriage was quite a shackling state for both parties, but men were allowed to be much looser in their behaviour and dalliances than women could, if they wanted their reputations to remain intact. Brontë certainly remarks on this double standard, though she doesn’t go so far as to criticize it in the way that Eliot does. Multiple men offer Helen an opportunity to do as Huntingdon does; she rebukes each offer with harsh criticism. Brontë would prefer neither partner to be unfaithful. Both Alice Lowborough and Arthur Huntingdon are punished for the infidelity with death; the former dies “in penury” and alone while the latter has at least his faithful wife by his side. Only characters who take steps to reform, like Lord Lowborough or Ralph Hattersley, are allowed to live and prosper. This, along with Helen’s constant and consistent upbraiding of all the men she meets, from Hargrave to Huntingdon to Gilbert, creates a strong current of Christian morality throughout the book. Therefore, Brontë is reflecting on the tragedy of women essentially being forced into unhappy and unfaithful marriages, but she is also promulgating a moral duty, on the part of both men and women, to behave better to each other and make these relationships work.
I love the gradual way in which Brontë shows Helen’s marriage deteriorating. First we have the actual courting, of course, with various and sundry characters opining one way or the other on the sense of marrying Huntingdon. In this society, this is perhaps the most important decision a woman will make. Across many such Georgian and Victorian novels, we often see that marrying for love does not, in fact, work out very well. The characters whose voices we initially ignore for their focus on status, or wealth, or simple propriety, turn out to be prescient in their assessment of the quality of a romantic match. Yet Helen succumbs, the marriage goes ahead, and then it starts to unravel.
The warning signs, the rumblings, oh, the portents! He rushes her through their Continental honeymoon, because he had seen all the sights before! He abandons her frequently for months at a time to gamble and carouse in London. He is slow to love or appreciate their child, because young Arthur diverts Helen’s attentions from him. Yet Brontë true masterstrokes come in his transformation from rogue to outright villain. He is openly unfaithful, encourages his child to drink and swear, etc. These scenes are mild by our standards, but they are outright scandalous by Victorian standards, to the point where reviewers remarked that the book might not be suitable for ladies’ eyes, such distress it might cause! In other words, Brontë pulls no punches in her portrayal of an emotionally abusive relationship. It is both disconcerting and delightful, in a literary sense, to see this happen before our eyes.
This is where I disagree with the estimable introduction writer, Margaret Smith. She claims that Brontë shows us Helen through Gilbert’s eyes, but not vice versa. Moreover, we might “forget” Gilbert altogether in the middle of the novel because we don’t see him reacting as he reads and transcribes Helen’s journal. I’d argue, however, that we don’t need to see Gilbert through Helen’s eyes. This isn’t a flaw in Brontë’s writing but a reasonable decision. We know what Helen thinks of Gilbert through her conduct around him, through the fact that she gives him these journals in the first place. Similarly, we don’t need to remember Gilbert in the middle part of the novel. His reaction at the end is sufficient.
I concur with Smith that the ending is somewhat more sanguine than one might expect given the tragic body of this story. It all shakes out a little too well, a little too conveniently. Far be it from me to want a tragic ending (though, I do like some of Hardy’s more tragic tales…). Nevertheless, after attempting to depict what she views as an unacknowledged reality within her society, Brontë opts for some marital hyperbole. I don’t see this as diminishing the power of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but the last few chapters are probably the least interesting parts of the book. This is a shame, because there is interesting commentary to be had on Gilbert and his understanding of his social status vis-à-vis Helen, whose situation changes dramatically in the last few chapters. It’s all just so rushed, though.
There is a temptation—I certainly succumbed to it, at times—for modern readers to view books like this through a haughty lens. We snicker, or react with condescending horror, at the constraints that women faced in this society. For women in Helen, Millicent, Esther’s positions, marriage was often the only respectable escape, and marriage was, if not forced on one, at least foisted upon one like an unlooked-for extra helping of gruel. Brontë depicts this admirably, and we are entertained and a little shocked. But I have to ask—is it really all that better these days?
I mean, yes, women have the appearance of more liberty in our society now. But we still see women marrying men because they view it as an “out” from their present situation. We see women staying with men who are abusive, or at the very least unhealthy for them, for a panoply of reasons, ranging from children to, as Helen does, wanting to care for the partner who has let them down so completely. In many situations, women who leave their husbands still face censure; women who are unfaithful face a double standard compared to men who sleep around … the way we talk about sex and romance and relationships has definitely changed since Anne Brontë’s time, but the morality and mores seem quite similar. Judgment is swift for women who do not toe the line.
So that’s what The Tenant of Wildfell Hall left me thinking about, not the society Brontë depicts for us in the book, but the one we currently inhabit. Feminism has made great strides, but we have much further to go before Helen’s situation seems almost too alien to fathom. Until then, this book still has incredible relevance to readers of today; it is also brilliantly, compassionately, empathetically written. Anne Brontë has as much skill, if not more, than her two sisters, and a truly just society would put all three Brontës into the literary spotlight. They are sublime, and this book is sublime, and I highly recommend it.