The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë
I could not wait to be done with this book. It has been on my mental TBR list for several years, and on my TBR shelves for six months or so. I had only a vague idea of the plot as the story of a wife fleeing an abusive, alcoholic husband. I was prepared for bleakness, so initially I was surprised and intrigued when the story opened with Gilbert Markham and his family, including his irrepressible younger brother Fergus and his little dumpling of a sister Rose. The first chapters play out almost like domestic and social comedy, as the quiet lives of the Markhams and their neighbors are upset by a mysterious new arrival in their small Yorkshire town. Helen Graham, a widow, has arrived with her son and one servant to live in the old dilapidated Wildfell Hall. Everyone makes it their business to discover who she is, where she came from, what her circumstances are. Gilbert is drawn to her from the first time he sees her, and he falls rapidly and rather tiresomely in love.
All of this is recounted to his brother-in-law Halford, twenty years after the events took place - in two letters, the longer of which covers 52 of the 53 chapters. As much as I love epistolary novels, that strains belief. According to the introduction, "the novel has been referred to as the longest letter in the English language." But it gets worse. Gilbert in love haunts Wildfell Hall, wildly jealous of Helen's young landlord Frederick Lawrence. Though Helen has all but confessed to Gilbert that she loves him, he can neither believe it nor trust her completely. She finally tears out pages from her diary to give to him, hoping to stop his accusations and clear her name. Gilbert suppsedly copies these entries into his letter, and those 30 chapters become the heart of the book.
I found them intensely frustrating to read. At the start, Helen is a young woman preparing for her first London season under the chaperonage of her aunt and uncle, who have raised her since her mother's death. Her aunt is a woman of strong religious and moral principles, a very serious person focused more on the things of Heaven than of earth. She wants Helen to marry a moral, upright man, one with a good chance of making it to Heaven in the end. Helen agrees in principle, but in practice she is drawn to Arthur Huntingdon, a charming young man with a rakish reputation. She is drawn to him in part because he is a sinner, and she wants to help reform him. That has to be one of the most dangerous delusions for a young person considering marriage: I can be the good influence who changes this person's life, who brings him to life and faith, who saves her and makes her whole. Helen convinces herself that it is almost her duty to marry Huntingdon and save him. I could see where this was headed right from the start, and Anne Brontë spares us little. Helen begins to realize her mistake on her honeymoon, as the reality of her husband's character begins to sink in. She clings to the hope that she can still change and save him, until his affair with a mutual friend shocks her into realizing that her marriage is terminally broken. Her one concern then becomes to protect her young son Arthur.
All of this makes for dreary reading. Huntingdon leaves her alone for months at a time, to carouse with friends and his mistress, then returns home bringing them all with him, to torment his wife and corrupt his son. He has become an alcoholic and a binge drinker. Helen has few friends of her own, and she is cut off from her aunt and uncle. She has no money of her own, no resources. Her diary is her one outlet. (Though she finds solace in prayer and Scripture, there is no mention of attending church or turning to the local vicar for help, even spiritual help, which I thought was curious.) When her husband brings a young woman into the house, supposedly as a governess for Arthur, Helen decides enough is enough. She plans out an escape, writing all the details into her diary, right in front of her husband. He naturally enough takes the diary to read it, discovering her plans just in time to foil them - though he misses the crucial detail of where she will hide herself, another point where I felt my willing suspension of disbelief (WSOD) straining at the edges. I also found it hard to accept that Helen can support herself and her son by selling her paintings, especially since she is entirely self-taught, and she seems to paint mostly pictures of Wildfell Hall. But then what other careers are open to her? She can't be a governess herself, with a young son. Perhaps a writer?
When Helen finally does escape with young Arthur to the Hall, the story then circles back to Gilbert's narration. Now that he knows Helen's secret, they declare their love for each other, and then she decides she must leave the area for another hiding place. Since she is tied to Huntingdon, she and Gilbert must part and never see each other again, though "We shall meet in Heaven," Helen tells him (at which point I couldn't suppress an eye roll and a slight gagging catch in the throat). Thanks to an injudicious endnote early in the book that revealed a major plot point, I knew how this would all end, but I wasn't sure I had the stamina to get there, and I planned to send this book to the library sale as soon as I finished it.
But now, a couple of days after finishing it, I can appreciate it more. I can see how Anne Brontë used her story to explore marriage, particularly women's experiences at a time when they had no rights in law to their property, their children, or even their own bodies (one of Helen's friends suffers physical abuse from her husband). Helen's story is a cautionary tale for women tempted to marry too quickly, caught up in infatuation, without a real knowledge of the other person. It condemns in the clearest terms the dangerous romantic ideal that saintly women who marry sinful men can save them. It's too bad, though, that her aunt's more practical ideas seem so dry and unpleasantly evangelical. I can also appreciate Anne Brontë's treatment of alcoholism here. According to the introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition, she was ahead of her time in writing about it realistically, showing its effects and even suggesting treatments, and in treating it as a disease. I was also interested to learn from the introduction that Anne Brontë wrote her Universalist beliefs into this story, particularly the doctrine that all people, even great sinners like Arthur Huntingdon, will eventually be redeemed through God's grace, that no one will be condemned to Hell eternally.
In the end, I enjoyed Gilbert's story much more than Helen's, but I found much to think about in hers, as I did in Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey. And I'm glad that I stuck with this book after all.