Anne was the one Brontë whose work I had not read previously, and had had barely an inclination to read. Overshadowed as her work is by that of her sisters, I suppose she’d just not shown up on my radar.
I am so glad I changed that when I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at the library, because Helen Graham has swiftly taken her place as one of my favourite literary heroines of all time. I can totally understand why many consider it as one of the first truly feminist novels.
Though I had some issues initially getting into the story, I felt it picked up a third of the way through (at the point when someone is thrown off his horse and left for dead) and from then on, I was swept away.
The novel is told through the letters of Gilbert Markham to his friend Halford. Markham wishes to relate the events that have led them to the present moment, to lay them out in order to make sense of them.
Markham relates the arrival of a mysterious stranger to their village, taking up residence in the derelict Wildfell Hall. The lady is young, dressed in widow’s garb, and is accompanied by her young son and a servant. The village is soon alive with rumours, with everyone from the vicar to Markham’s mother paying a visit to glean information. Her protectiveness over her son; her aversion to social gatherings; the unusual manner in which she has appeared, alone – all of these pose questions that drive people to her door.
Markham soon becomes infatuated by her, but his attempts to seduce her, however subtle and courteous he believes them to be, are rebuffed. Markham’s feelings for her overwhelm him, leading to suspicious, jealousy, then violence.
It is then that Helen, acknowledging her feelings for him, decides to reveal all to Markham, handing over her journal to him.
Through this journal, we learn of her dark past in a marriage that is not simply unloving, but abusive. Her husband, Arthur Huntingdon, so attractive at first meeting, soon showed his obsessive, drunken, and adulterous tendencies, and for Helen, it seemed as though there was no escape. Leaving her husband, and taking their child with her, would not simply be scandalous; at the time, it was illegal.
This theme of the socially enforced diminishing of female agency is at the core of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and it is very powerfully portrayed through numerous characters and relationships. The disparaging and disillusioned tone that soon permeates in Helen’s journal is striking:
“…his idea of a wife is a thing to love one devotedly and to stay at home – to wait upon her husband and amuse him, and minister to his comfort in every possible way.”
For Helen, having a degree of independence, if not financial, at least emotional, forms a key part of her happiness. Arthur does not tolerate that, continuously shifting between cruelty and neediness. Their acquaintance, Annabella, marries only for the money and the title her husband offers her. Millicent, Helen’s closest friend, was proposed marriage by a man, and not wanting to hurt his feelings, remained evasive in her answer. However, he interpreted this as a ‘yes’, and she feels obliged to marry him. Through these female characters, Brontë shows how little space for women to change their minds, and whatever choice they made would inevitably slight them in public opinion.
Aside from the central explorations of female agency and romance, Bronte also depicts themes of addiction, religion, and forgiveness. Much like her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shocked and scandalised readers (including their sister, Charlotte), particularly for the detail in which Arthur Huntingdon’s debauchery is described. One can only imagine the further scandal when the author, Acton Bell, was revealed to be a woman writing under a pseudonym. Anne always insisted, however, that she did so to show how destructive such wrong-doing was – she wanted to warn her readers rather than encourage them. The high moral standards to which Helen holds everyone to account may seem excessive and repetitive now. For Anne, though, Helen’s character seems to have been necessary not simply for admonishing other characters, but also for staying true to these morals in spite of the challenges she faces.
As with many of her contemporaries, including her sisters, Anne made use of layered narratives and shifting chronologies: the letters from Markham relating past events, as well as Helen’s journal (her ‘voice’ from an even more distant past), then returning to Markham’s ‘voice’ in his letters to bring us to the present. I understand why some readers may take issue with the letters/journal form of the narrative – I agree that Helen’s words may have had so much more power had she related her story as part of the narrative, rather than in a journal that she simply hands to another character.
Nevertheless, I was captivated, by Helen most of all. I wasn’t expecting the kind of strength she shows, even in admitting her own mistakes. I don’t quite understand her sudden attraction to Markham (who I found to be a rather dull and immature narrator, let alone romantic interest for the heroine). I’ll let that slide though – if Brontë believed they made a suitable match, so be it – there’s hardly much I could do to change that now!
One last thing. I adore imagery like this:
“…he knows he is my sun, but when he chooses to withhold his light, he would have my sky to be all darkness; he cannot bear that I should have a moon to mitigate the deprivation.”
It beautifully captures Helen’s despair, the torment she was forced to withstand when the man she loved was simultaneously so cold towards her and so possessive.
Overall, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a cracking page-turner, one I’m so glad I read (even if it did take me far too long to take any notice of Anne’s work).
*This edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published by Penguin Random House as part of their Penguin English Library series.