The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Paperback Edition (1979)
Introduction by Winifred Gerin
ISBN 0 14 043137 3
This is the first Bronte book I have read in a long time, and it is probably the first time I have read one and been mature enough to understand it. I tried Jane Eyre when I was eleven or so, and somehow got through it, but much of it was beyond me. Now, I hope, I am better able to look at their books from historical and literary perspectives, as well as in light of the life experiences of the Bronte sisters.
Agnes Grey related Anne Bronte’s experience as a governess, but I believe Tenant goes farther in also describing the maliciousness behind supposedly respectable families, the tragic dependence of nineteenth-century women on men, the fatal danger of shielding girls from the world’s evils and allowing boys to face them unprepared, and the harrowing results. These are just a few of the myriad subjects juggled in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
This novel tells the story of Helen and her disastrous marriage with the iniquitous Arthur Huntingdon. It also tells of Gilbert Markham, who falls in love with the still-married Helen. As with Wuthering Heights, Tenant is told partly through a letter written to a friend by Gilbert, and partly through Helen’s diary. This allows the reader to become drawn into the story, by ploughing through 150 pages of Gilbert’s encountering the enigmatic Mrs. Graham (Helen) and trying to piece together her background. Despite the neighbor’s gossiping and Helen’s stubborn reserve, she grows closer to Gilbert, and hands over her diary to explain her catastrophic past and her uncertain, unglorious present. She believes that it will only drive him away; instead, it makes him more attached to her than ever.
Her diary reveals what Gilbert never expected: Mrs. Graham, the supposed widow recently moved into the abandoned Wildfell Hall, is actually Mrs. Huntingdon, whose husband is still alive. Seven years before, Helen had married the dashing Mr. Huntingdon, to the dismay of her guardians. She was very young, in her late teens, and in comparison to the middle-aged, moralizing men she had encountered previously, Mr. Huntingdon seemed to be perfect. It is only after her wedding that she becomes acquainted with her husband’s wild side: his immoderate drinking, his lack of piety, his outrageous selfishness, and so on. To a modern reader, or anyone less naïve than Helen, it is clear that Huntingdon is not so worthy, for he is reckless, occasionally cruel to Helen, and there are hints that he has depleted his fortune and estate. As the years pass and her marriage progresses, his sins only grow greater: he spends months away from her in London, (presumably participating in violent orgies), he brings other irresponsible gentlemen home and embarrasses Helen in front of them, he disregards all of her gentle advice and resents her firmer censures. She patiently endures all of this, until her husband begins corrupting their young son; only then does she realize that Huntingdon will never change, and that she must escape. There is much more to the tale than this, and it continues on afterwards, but I will not spoil it for you.
To twenty-first century readers, Mr. Huntingdon is inexcusable and shocking for his harsh treatment of his wife. From the beginning of their union, he tries to win all of her attention, scolds her for reading or painting while he wants amusement, argues with her that her duty to her him precedes her duty to God or to their son. He is clearly trying to manipulate her so that she is completely dependent on him for happiness and security, even more so than any nineteenth-century woman was dependent on her husband. Later, he verbally abuses her in front of his outrageously drunk friends, complaining that she never gives him a moment’s peace, won’t let him enjoy life, etc. There are points where he leans in and curses at her, where it is said that his words were not fit for the reader to hear. All of this is appalling to face, and it is tempting to say that she could just have left him sooner and saved herself a lot of misery. However, at that point in history married women were entirely under the control of their spouses – he controlled her fortune, any money she made, and any property she possessed. She could not leave without her husband’s consent, and she could not even deny him the right to her bed. The very act of shutting the door in Arthur’s face was staggering for the time.* Perhaps worst of all, the husband had control over the children, so that they could be used as pawns in their marriage. All of this Helen must take into account before running away to hide in the backwaters of England, and yet she does leave, as a contemporary woman would.
For readers of 1848, when the book was published, the novel was scandalous for its straightforward candor with such subjects. When one thinks of the novels of just thirty years before, and the utter lack of such topics as marital abuse in them, it is easy to imagine how audacious such novels must have seemed. Even Anne’s sister Charlotte did not approve of Tenant, and this from the woman who created the, uh, dysfunctional relationship between Mr. Rochester and his wife. However, scholars speculate that Arthur Huntingdon was an outrageous caricature of Branwell Bronte, Anne and Charlotte’s ne’er-do-well brother. To read such a frank account of his behavior must have been painful and mortifying. In any case, Anne faced that pain and completed Tenant as, we learn in the introduction, to save other inexperienced youths from ruining their lives through drink or wild companions or unworthy spouses or whatever.
* ‘The slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.’
- May Sinclair, 1913
Obviously, I enjoyed this book, for all of my indignation at Helen’s treatment and the status of women of two centuries ago. It draws you in to Gilbert’s obsession with Helen,
Arthur’s downward spiral of sin, and Helen’s mounting desperation throughout the story.
Despite its length, it goes by fairly quickly, hurrying the reader through the long,
excruciating years of the character’s suffering and to a surprising ending, considering the book’s steady tone of misery. One problem is, as I said, its format of going between a letter and a diary, going back and forth from a man’s perspective to a woman’s, and so on (which must have confused the critics who were trying to figure out whether Acton Bell was a lady or a gentleman). While you do not want to put the book down, it does make for some choppiness and poor transitioning in the tale. Also, occasionally the story is paused to explain the outcome of a minor character or characters, which is all very well, but what you really want is for Helen and Gilbert and Arthur to come to some sort of resolution, together or apart.
In any case, Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an important if obscure part of the Bronte’s work, as well as an eye-opening description of love, marriage, and debauchery in the late Regency period. What more can one ask for?
P.S. - I apologize for the lack of organization is this review/essay.
P.P.S. - It would be really great if someone else would post in bookcruncher. Thanks.