Friday, March 8, 2013

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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.


  1. I had almost the opposite reaction to this in that I didn't like Gilbert or his story much at all--he struck me as childish and thus annoying--but I was totally sucked in by Helen's story. I could see where it was going, and it was relentlessly upsetting, but of course that was intentional, as she was trying to expose just how helpless women who got into a bad marriage were. As a work of art, I don't think it has the power of her sisters' novels, but as a work of social commentary, it's pretty amazing.

  2. I think I liked Helen more in Gilbert's story. In her later diary and then the letters I thought her too much the martyr, to the point that I felt just the tiniest bit of sympathy for Huntingdon (which didn't last).

  3. An excellent post! I did a read/listen combo of Tenant in December, but never got around to posting. Like Teresa, I was totally sucked in by Helen's story. This novel must have been very progressive and daring in terms of its social commentary - I loved it! Can't wait to read Agnes Grey.

  4. I read this a few years ago and loved it, though I remember disliking Helen as a character - I thought she was too self-righteous and saintly, and like you, I preferred reading Gilbert's story. I do think it was brave of Anne Bronte to write a book like this with so many themes that must have been shocking for her Victorian readers. I suppose alcoholism was an important subject to Anne as her brother Branwell was an alcoholic so she would have plenty of personal experience of it. Sorry you didn't enjoy this book as much as I did, but I'm glad you still found some things to appreciate that made it worth sticking with!

  5. JoAnn, I did wonder if there were mothers who read this and thought the book too much for their daughters especially - I know from the introduction that Anne Brontë was accused of coarseness. But maybe other parents thought it could teach their children something.

    Helen, I think I will appreciate this book much more on reflection, or if I read it again. I was fascinated by the biographical context that the editor gave in the introduction, including Branwell's alcoholism, and his affair with a married woman. It made me want to read more about the Brontës themselves!

  6. I agree with Helen, in as much as all the Bronte sister were well acquainted with the consequences of alcoholism because of the life Branwell lived. I don't know if you know the portrait of the three women that he painted with the smudge in the centre where he painted himself out, presumably because of his self-digust. This is perhaps one of those occasions where a televised version helps. There was a very good one out of the UK some years ago, which might be available on DVD still if you were interested.

  7. Alex, when it comes to film or TV adaptations, normally I subscribe to the Purist Principle, that "the book is always better" (also known as "Don't judge a book by the movie"). But then there are always exceptions, and I could see where this would work very well on film.

    I've read about the portrait, though I can't remember if I've actually seen it at the National Gallery, or it's just familiar from the description in Penelope Lively's City of the Mind.

  8. I know that a lot of people love this book, but I found it so repititious that I ended up skimming the second half, and didn't feel like I missed much. Like you, I thought it started out exceptionally well, and I thought the first half pretty good, but then it became endless...maybe it was an early example of experimental fiction in which the author creates the environment for the reader that simulates the world of the protagonist. Helen was living a nightmare that never seemed to end, and so does the reader!

    I've read a theory that Tenant of Wildfell Hall is actually Anne Bronte's way of screaming at her brother Bramwell for throwing his life away through dissapation.

  9. I bought a copy of this last year and haven't been able to get into it. I am now afraid that I won't like it at all, but perhaps I should give it another shot as you did find some positive aspects to her story. In general, though, I am out of love with the Victorians and prefer the literature of the first half of the twentieth century these days.

  10. Jane, that is a fascinating idea, that she may have been trying an experiment. I do think that since it was such a serious step for a woman to leave her husband, and take a child, Anne Brontë wanted to make the strongest possible case for why Helen was justified in doing that, finally - hence all the details, and the recounting of years of suffering.

    Anbolyn, this is not a book for a grey day - but I haven't found any of the Brontës' books to be light reading.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!