Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte

This book has kept cropping up in conversation in the past few months and I decided I wanted to review it … sadly leading a rather busy life means that getting round to things can take a while.  Anne Bronte is all too often seen as the Cinderella of the Bronte sisters, as in she is forgotten not that she is the prettiest and gets to marry the handsome prince.  I’ve heard reviewers snark that she would not be remembered at all if it were not for her more celebrated  sisters.  I think that this is terribly unfair because while perhaps it is true that the Bronte brand is stronger united than it is divided, Anne died at only twenty-nine having already published two novels of excellent quality in a far shorter space of time than her sisters.  She was maturing quickly as a writer and it is impossible to know what she might have achieved had she been spared longer.  

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was Anne’s second novel (I say Anne not to sound like we’re pals but rather because using her surname in this instance could lead to confusion), her first being Agnes Grey which champions the situation of governesses far more than Jane Eyre does.  Still, you can sense a certain strain in the prose – this is clearly an issue that Bronte feels very strongly about and rightly so but she is clearly trying not to rant and because of that I think she almost holds back a little too much leading to Agnes Grey seeming like a rather blank character at times.  Plus, Agnes as a name has not dated well.  Which is a shame because the French form is beautiful.  

But anyway, back to The Tenant.  This book was very controversial at the time of its publication and indeed I would say that it is the most overtly provocative out of any of the Bronte sisters’ novels.  Charlotte Bronte took it out of print after her sister’s death because she simply couldn’t understand what could have possessed Anne to write it since to her it seemed entirely out of character.  Anne passionately explained in the preface to the second edition that she felt it was unfair that boys were equipped for the world while girls were sent out without any warning at all.  I entirely agree with her that mistaking ignorance for the ‘sweet flower of innocence’ is little more than negligence.  The Tenant is a far more assured book than Agnes Grey, it seems that after not quite getting to her point in Agnes Grey, Anne is ready to go to war.

Like Emily, Anne uses a lot of different letters as a way of structuring her narrative.  It starts with Gilbert Markham writing to ‘Halford’, his good friend.  Halford never appears in the novel except in the closing paragraphs when he is identified as Markham’s brother-in-law and to be honest I thought that this part of the structure was a bit pointless – the equivalent of a Lockwood character.  Anyway, Gilbert Markham says he is going to start at the beginning of his story, when the squire of his neighbourhood announces that he has a new tenant at Wildfell Hall, who turns out to be a beautiful young widow Helen Graham and her child Arthur.  While little Arthur is immediately taken with Gilbert Markham (or really, is taken with his dog), Helen and Gilbert do not hit it off well.  He finds her standoffish and humourless particularly compared to the vicar’s  younger daughter Eliza.  

Slowly, Gilbert comes to know Helen and her child better.  Helen is supporting herself, her child and her maid through painting, making her a decidedly odd figure in the neighbourhood. She is upbraided by the local vicar for not allowing her five year-old child to drink alcohol (this will apparently lead to him growing up unmanly) and for not attending church regularly (she has childcare issues).  It’s the plight of the single mother again, Victorian style … whispers grow that Mrs Graham is not who she claims to be.  Anyway, as time goes on, the rumour spreads that Helen Graham is the mistress of her landlord, Mr Lawrence and her reputation is destroyed.  By this point, Gilbert has recognised her superior character and hotly defends her reputation against the gossip but it is largely fruitless.  Gilbert is a flawed character, being blighted with a temper at times but he is essentially well-meaning and finally Helen lends him her diaries to explain her behaviour.  

At this point, all is revealed.  Helen is Helen but she is not Helen Graham, but rather Mrs Helen Huntingdon and no widow at all but rather she has run away from her husband Arthur Huntingdon Sr.  The diaries start with her girlhood in London society where her aunt and uncle were eager for her to make a good match.  Her aunt threw middle-aged, well-meaning but dull men Helen’s way but Helen fell for Arthur Huntingdon even though he had a bad reputation, she was certain she could reform him and refused to hear ill of him.  Of course, they were married and of course, disaster ensued.  Arthur Sr proved himself to be a controlling and selfish husband who became increasingly dependent on alcohol and then finally he proved himself adulterous.  At this point, Helen finally lost faith in him.  

Helen struggled on in their marriage despite having quietly told her husband than all affection was gone, she strove to protect her reputation and to bring up her son well.  However, her husband encouraged their tiny son to drink with all of his equally dissolute friends (dissolute is a word that you can only really apply to Victorian scoundrels … which is another great word).  To add insult to injury, Arthur Sr. also hired his latest mistress as their son’s governess and at this point Helen decided enough was enough.  With the assistance of her long-lost brother … drum roll … Mr Lawrence, she set up her escape with her childhood nurse Rachel and she took her son to the refuge of Wildfell Hall.  Reading the end of this story, Gilbert rushes to Helen’s side where she assures him that they can never be together while her husband is still alive as it would be a sin against God.  Luckily, not long after that Arthur Sr’s liver packs in.  Happy endings all round.  

Tara Fitzgerald as Helen

Sooo … did Anne write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with a bit of a social agenda?  Just a tad.  From what I can recall, by the end of the Victorian era, custody of children under 7 did tend to rest with the mother but I’m not sure about the ins and outs of the law and I do know that when a woman left her husband, if she supported herself from her own earnings, she was liable for theft since everything of hers was his and if she took her children with her then she was liable for abduction.  This is no matter what kind of husband the guy was.  There are a lot of people who are anti-feminism but when you read that kind of thing, you realise we have come a heck of a long way.  

Similarly, a woman could not divorce her husband for adultery even though he could dispatch her for the same offence – basically a married woman had a really bad deal.  When I was at university, I studied a play in French which explored ‘l’état de Veuve’ or basically the honour of widowhood.  As a widow, a woman was answerable to neither husband nor father and could effectively call the shots in her own life – no wonder many women were unwilling to relinquish that.  The novelist Charles Dickens had a mid-life crisis, kicked his wife out the house and banned her from seeing their children and poor Catherine had no avenue for recourse – Arthur Huntingdon is an entirely credible creation.  Of course, it’s important to remember that Anne had seen an alcoholic up close, her own brother Branwell.  

There is lots to be praised in this book apart from its moral crusade side.  Arthur Graham/Huntingdon is one of the more realistic children in fiction – Anne Bronte had spent time as a governess and it does show.  Arthur is a flesh and blood child with believable motivations unlike several other Victorian fictional brats (yes, Charles Dickens, I am looking at you, Oliver Twist deserved a smack).  Arthur Jr. is easily led astray by his hilarious daddy but essentially good-hearted.  It is completely believable for a mother to want to remove her child from a parent like Arthur Huntingdon.  I am aware that this may sound like a propaganda piece for single mothers but this novel addresses a real contemporary social issue – how would a married woman protect her children in the case of marital breakdown?  

There are flaws in this book, Helen Huntingdon can seem a little too angelic in her morals and behaviour and even so, it is hard to believe her in love with Gilbert Markham’s rough farmer particularly given his tendency to overreact (let’s learn a lesson here, Helen).  Still, it is nice to see a love story about a grown woman rather than some completely unbelievable naive young female whose ignorance is supposed to inspiring (again, Charles Dickens – looking at you).   

Sooo … that was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – I first saw it on TV in the late 1990s and really enjoyed it, have to admit that Tara Fitzgerald was inspired casting as she did capture Helen’s uptightness without making her seem unsympathetic.  This is a very brave book on the part of the author, unlike her sisters, Anne wrote to try to inform and improve other people’s minds which may seem patronising or sanctimonious but I do think came from a good place.  Having lived as a governess in several wealthy homes and more specifically seen the downfall of several of the young girls under her charge, it is perhaps not surprising that she chose to channel her passion for change into her work but for that she should be applauded.

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, Stevie Davies
Published by Penguin Books on April 16th 1996
Pages: 535
ISBN: 0140434747

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte

  1. What a great review. I read it earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. It would nice for Anne to get the recognition her sisters do!

    1. I know! To be honest, although I love Wuthering Heights in its own right, I do think that Anne was the better writer than Emily, it’s just that her novels tended to be less Gothic than either of her sisters so people tend not to remember them as much. It’s really unfair because I love this book and Agnes Grey too. Thanks for commenting! Have a great week 🙂

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