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REVIEW: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

tenantI’ve been making my way through the Bronte sisters’ oeuvre for the past couple of years; for the longest time I’d only read Jane Eyre (in school, originally). Then I dove into the big bowl of crazy that was Wuthering Heights, before taking the suggestion of readers that Anne’s quiet realism was an antidote to Emily’s lurid and twisted imagination, and picking up Agnes Grey.That book was just alright in my view; it wasn’t bad but the first person narrator was kind of dull and sanctimonious. Still, I again listened to readers who said that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a good deal better than Agnes Grey, and decided to continue the great Bronte experiment with this book. I’m glad I did.

The novel begins with a framing device (those Brontes loved their framing devices!): Gilbert Markham writes his friend about the mysterious widow who has moved into the neighborhood with her young son. Helen Graham paints and resists attempts from her neighbors to know her better. Despite her standoffish attitude, she and Gilbert form an attachment; Gilbert also becomes a friend to her young son Arthur. Rumors fly about Helen, spread by a spurned love interest of Gilbert’s. He finds himself torn by jealousy and frustration; Helen won’t let him court her and resists his romantic advances. When he accuses her of loving another man, Helen gives Gilbert her diaries, which explain the truth of her circumstances. Most of the rest of the story is then told by Helen, as narrated in those diaries.

The truth is that Helen isn’t a widow at all; she has fled her profligate husband and is essentially in hiding with her son. The diaries trace her early infatuation with Arthur Huntingdon, a handsome and witty man whom her aunt cautions her against (Helen was raised by her aunt and uncle). Despite her aunt’s warnings, Helen much prefers the charismatic Huntingdon to her other dull suitors. She knows that he has bad habits and is not as devout as she is (and that’s putting it mildly), but she thinks she can reform him. (A sentiment that is no doubt familiar to female readers since time immemorial.)

As her diaries go on to show, Helen’s living in Delusionville, and the Truth Train’s about to choo choo on through. Not only is Huntingdon reform-proof, he actually gets worse over time. Both his increased drinking and the birth of his son (of whom he’s alternately jealous and ruinously over-indulgent) serve to blacken Huntingdon’s already tarnished character. His low point comes when he carries on an affair at a house party the Huntingdons hold, more or less right in front of Helen and the woman’s browbeaten husband. Huntingdon is definitely the type of character whose bad behavior builds upon itself. It’s almost like the worse he acts, the worse he feels like he has to act, in order to top himself.

Certain aspects of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall really were a bit shocking to me, or rather they were shocking coming from a 19th century novel written by a woman. The depiction of Huntingdon’s affair, while exceedingly tame by today’s standards, felt unusually frank for a book published in 1848. The book is considered by some readers to be an early example of a feminist novel; it was condemned by many at the time it was published for its alleged “coarseness.” I’m at a loss, though, as to how any reader could believe that the depiction of debauchery in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall amounts in any way to an endorsement of said debauchery.

My view is that the main moral intention of the novel was to show young women the dangers of marrying impetuously (it’s a theme Bronte returns to several times, as when Helen counsels friends about their own romantic travails). As such, I can see it being received badly; mostly male critics would not like the implied criticism of their bad habits. It’s not stated explicitly but it’s nonetheless made quite clear just how powerless Helen is in her marriage; her first attempt to gather a nest egg and flee Arthur on her own is found out and brutally quashed. She eventually has to enlist the aid of her brother, which just drives home the point that women of the era were helpless without some sort of male sponsorship.

Helen is indeed admirable as a feminist heroine. She reminds me a bit of Jane in Jane Eyre; she has a sense of self and of morality that is inviolable. She commits the scandalous act of actually fleeing her husband, something readers today will not judge her for, but I’m guessing some readers did when the book was published. (She does it mostly to save her son from becoming a wastrel like his father, but still.)

Huntington is undoubtedly a villain, but he has some dimension. The structure of the novel doesn’t really allow for much of an understanding of why he is the way he is, but he presents as a spoiled child who has always had sufficient charm, looks and money to get what he wants, and who has never had to grow up and learn to focus on someone other than himself. At least in Helen’s view, he just doesn’t seem to want very much to be good; he can’t be bothered. Her goodness seems to irritate him, perhaps pricking at the tiny bit of conscience he has left.

Later in the book, it becomes clear that Huntingdon is an alcoholic, as well as given to other vices (possibly opium, definitely overeating and womanizing). Still, it’s hard not to feel a bit of pity for him in the end, on his deathbed (uh, sorry, spoiler, I guess) – he is terrified of dying but won’t accept the comfort that Helen offers by repenting his sins.

(Incidentally, it’s thought that the character of Huntingdon was based on Branwell Bronte, the Bronte sisters’ only brother. Branwell was a dissolute who died at 31, probably of tuberculosis exacerbated by his drinking problem.)

To the degree that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall works as a romance, one big sticking point is the hero – Gilbert. He’s better than Huntingdon, sure, but he’s not great. Markham comes off in his own first-person account as childish, petulant and given to lashing out (he attacks Helen’s brother at one point, thinking him her lover, and when he realizes the truth, his apology is insufficient and sullenly given, IMO – especially considering that he actually does real injury to Lawrence). It was hard to see what Helen saw in him, except that he wasn’t Huntingtdon.

Helen herself is most interesting as a character early in her own writings, when she is first drawn to Huntingdon. She’s a good person, but young enough to be somewhat foolish. She convinces herself that she can reform the bad boy because she wants the bad boy; he’s so much more interesting than her other uninspiring marital options. By late in her marriage, she’s developed a pious streak that can be a tiny bit off-putting. Still, her saintliness is never too irritating (even when it defies belief) because it lacks the martyrish aspect that is so present in many a goody-goody heroine. Furthermore, she’s not naive (at least not after a few months of marriage to Huntingdon); she’s just extremely firm (to the point of stubbornness) in her beliefs.

So, my grade for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a B+. What next? I think I still have Villette,  Shirley and The Professor, all by Charlotte, to go in my Bronte-a-thon.

Jennie

 

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

23 Comments

  1. Jennavier Gilbert
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 13:57:44

    I still haven’t read this one even thought it’s been on my TBR for years. I loved Agnes Gray when I read it as a teen, although that might be because I’d had to read Wuthering Heights right before it and I really, really hated it. I loved Villette although it felt a little derivative of her and her sisters earlier works. Good luck!

  2. cleo
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 15:22:20

    I haven’t read this, but I love the review. I was going to say that a lot of those 19th C heroines lived in Delusionville, but then I remembered my 20s and my own time in Delusionville.

  3. Raven Ames
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 16:10:30

    Great review! What I found so remarkable about Helen – leaving her husband with her son and supporting herself through her art – are the things that made Helen so unpopular with her 19th century readers, but speak so eloquently to 20th & 21st century readers. I, too, was shocked at the depiction of Arthur Huntington degrading his wife, his son, his friends -there is one point where he even offers Helen up for his friends to rape. Whereas Heathcliff and Rochester are damaged and damaging men, Arthur is vile, bad just to be bad, with no real redeeming qualities.
    There was much discussion at the time at whether Acton Bell, Anne Bronte’s male pen-name, was actually a man or a woman. Those who believed it was a woman writing were horrified that any woman would write this type of male character, it was unthinkable that a woman could write such a male character, but perfectly acceptable for men to write equally dubious female characters. Bronte responded to this criticism in the preface to the second edition of Wildfell Hall (which sold out as well) – “All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man ~ July 22, 1848.” Anne Bronte was a writer who was very much of her own time and simultaneously ahead of her time. Definitely time for a re-read!

  4. Little Red
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 17:12:00

    Never read the book but I did enjoy the British television production from the mid-90s starring Tara Fitzgerald as Helen, Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham, and Rupert Graves as Huntingdon.

  5. Jennie
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 19:29:19

    @Jennavier Gilbert: Hmm, I think I will go for Villette next. I’m reading The Picture of Dorian Gray now, which is good so far but has a minor (I think) character whose portrayal is distressingly anti-Semitic, so that’s kind of leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

  6. Jennie
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 19:36:58

    @cleo: Hah, fair enough. I actually find it comforting that it’s not just a facet of modern life.

  7. Jennie
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 19:41:50

    @Raven Ames: I think I mentioned in a “What I’m Reading” that I was put off by the foreword to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, whose author spent most of the piece comparing Anne to Charlotte and Emily and finding her wanting. On the strength of this book, I think she deserves to be considered her sisters’ equal. (Of course I think Wuthering Heights is utterly cray-cray so it’s hard for me to even judge Emily’s talent all that fairly.)

    Huntington was awful but I still think Heathcliff was worse.

  8. trixee
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 20:13:40

    Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels and Wuthering Heights is one of my least favorites. I first read both as a teen and, for me, WH was just a chore to read – a book full of unlikeable characters. Had it not been a school assigned read, I wouldn’t have finished it. But I think I finally “got” WH after seeing the 2009 adaptation with Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley. My sixteen year old self could never have understood such obsessive and destructive love, but as an adult, I found that adaptation heartbreaking and Tom Hardy really brought Heathcliff to life for me. As for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, like Little Red, I haven’t read the book but did see the adaptation she mentions in her post. I recall when I watched it I was a bit shocked by some of the moments having to do with Huntingdon’s activities just like I was shocked by Lovelace’s actions in the adaptation of Richardson’s Clarissa many years back.

  9. Angie
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 21:38:20

    This is one of my favorite books. I even wrote my thesis on it and I just never hear it talked about enough. So it was delightful to see this review pop up today. Anne really does deserve to be considered her sisters’ equal.

  10. CD
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 03:52:35

    I loved both the book and the BBC TV series with Tara Fitzgerald and Rupert Graves. I definitely see it, along with JANE EYRE as an early feminist work – in some ways even more so than JANE EYRE. And even now, with all the faux glamourisation of “bad boys” in modern fiction, including romances, it is useful to have a book that really tells it as it is. “Bad boys” in the 19th century weren’t sexy – and being married to one would be hellish.

    I never could stand WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I’m at a loss to understand Heathcliff’s appeal – it’s not so much that he’s terrible man (which is fun as a character study), but he’s so bloody “it’s all about me” emo about it as well. I actually much preferred the modern take in the TV adaptation of SPARKHOUSE. Sacrilege I know. Maybe I should try the Tom Hardy adaptation to see if I can finally “get it”.

  11. Ros
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 14:27:49

    I basically think people either love Wuthering Heights or Wildfell Hall, but never both. I am firmly in the Wildfell Hall camp. I think Helen is an extraordinary character. Despite the poor decisions she makes when she is young – and the book is clear that they are her decisions, not forced upon her – she is able to extricate herself (albeit with male help) from their devastating consequences. She is not a helpless victim of fate, providence or male authority. I also think that Arthur is a more interesting character than he would be in the hands of a lesser author. Yes, he is vile and wicked in the way that he treats Helen, but he isn’t a cartoon villain. He makes sense in a tragic and hideous way. I don’t ever quite feel sympathy for him, but I do pity him.

    I agree that Gilbert isn’t quite the hero that Helen deserves, or that she would probably get in a genre romance, but I think you are a little unfair to him. She clearly enjoys spending time with him and little Arthur. He isn’t perfect, but he can make her smile, and I think he will make her happy.

    Seconding the recommendations for the BBC adaptation. It’s one of their best, I think.

  12. Jennie
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 19:50:21

    @trixee: If anyone could make me like Heathcliff, it would be Tom Hardy. But I actually think I might have liked the book better when I was younger – I accepted the idea of “overwhelming love” much better then, whereas at my advanced age now, I’m all, “Nuts to that – he’s a psycho. They’re BOTH psychos.”

    I should seek out the Tom Hardy version of WH. The only one I’ve seen all the way through had Juliette Binoche in multiple roles and I didn’t love it.

  13. Jennie
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 19:58:24

    @Ros: The fact that Gilbert made Helen happy was his redeeming quality. And it wasn’t like he was *so* bad. He just seemed rather immature for Helen – a boy, not a man.

  14. Ros
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 20:12:39

    @Jennie: Yes, immature is a fair description of Gilbert. I guess I was responding to your comment that you didn’t know what she sees in him. I think she sees a man who makes her smile and to her, after what she’s been through, that’s worth a lot.

  15. Full of Woe
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 21:12:04

    Did you write a review of Wuthering Heights? I’d love to read it. I keep meaning to read the more obscure Brontës (by which I mean everything not Jane Eyre and WH) but I haven’t gotten around to it. Maybe I’ll tackle this again.

  16. Susanna Ives
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 23:34:58

    Great post. I never finished this book. Somehow, it got lost in a life transition. But I think about it a great deal and should pick it up again. I adored Agnes Grey. To me, Anne is the most accessible of the Bronte sisters. I never got into Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre in literary form, but I love studying about them. Loaded on my eReader is a massive biography of the entire Bronte family. I think it will take me a decade to finish, but it’s fascinating.

  17. Jennie
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 23:45:31

  18. Jennie
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 23:46:08

    @Susanna Ives: I would love to read a biography of the Brontes!

  19. Susanna Ives
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 10:24:52

    @Jennie: Here is the biography The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of Three Sisters that I mentioned. Enjoy! https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13581346-the-bront-s

  20. Meredith
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 10:08:37

    I haven’t read Villette since college, when I was in a very “woe is me” phase, but I remember the book just devastated me, to the point that I’m a bit scared to re-read it! I’d be very interested in your take.

  21. Jennie
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 18:58:48

    @Susanna Ives: Thanks! I may just buy myself an early Christmas present….

  22. Jennie
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 19:00:35

    @Meredith: Interesting – now I’m intrigued!

  23. Egon
    Jan 22, 2014 @ 14:20:21

    It was painful to get through the book with Gilbert’s never-ceasing declarations of love for Helen and his self-tormenting monologues. It hurts me to watch how he persists in his wish to continue to see and love her while she simply says ‘no way buddy, gimme a break’. Has he no honour or last scraps of male pride? It is amazing how quickly people fell in love in the 19th century. Helen believed Huntingdon to be the love of her life after exchanging just a couple of words and glances. She went as far as to express willingness to sacrafice her own life and happiness to bring him to the path of virtue. What humbug! Gilbert fell in love with her head over heels after just a couple of short visits. Another man (Hargrave) also blindly expressed his infatuation for her even though she’s basically a cold fish. She is stern, grave, ascetic woman of rigid principles and little flexibility. It is equally painful to observe how magnanimously and readily she forgave him all his transgressions and wickedness towards herself and their son. Her religiousness borders on fanaticism speaking of God, hell and damnation half the book. On the whole I dare say Anne Bronte made a potentially good story a bore.

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