We seem to have a habit of cutting our major writers down to our own size. And then, we criticise them for being small. Austen, we are told, wrote romantic novels – chick-lit in pretty frocks; Dickens was a writer of soaps, and he larded them extravagantly with plenty of melodrama and sentimentality to appeal to Victorian readers, who, poor dears, didn’t enjoy the benefit of sophisticated modern tastes; George Eliot was worthy but dull, and Hardy a miserable old doom’n’gloom merchant; and so on.
Meanwhile, the Brontës – all three sisters rolled into a single convenient entity – were, apparently, purveyors of feverish and immature schoolgirl fantasies. I don’t buy this any more than I buy the rest. I have much admired Jane Eyre, and even more so, I think, Wuthering Heights, which strikes me as an astounding feat of the imagination, and executed with a bold panache. I was less impressed with Villette, I must admit: it was an interesting experiment to tell a story from the perspective of a person so introverted as to be virtually autistic, but I am not too sure that the experiment was entirely successful. After all, if the narrator can’t take an interest in the people around her, then why should the reader? Villette did put me off the Brontës for a while: it does, I know, have its admirers, but it’s not for me. However, after a long spell away from the sisters, I figured it was time to head off to Haworth Moor again, and this time have a go with Anne Brontë, who may safely, I think, be described as the least regarded of the three.
Perhaps it is understandable that she is overshadowed by her two sisters: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are hard acts to match, after all, and it is difficult not to carry into her work some preconceptions concerning Gothic romance, untamed and tempestuous passions, and the like. Even the title promises as much: you won’t, after all, find Austen, even in her Northangersque mode of pastiche, naming a place “Wildfell Hall”. How can a novel with “Wildfell Hall” in the title not deal with untamed and tempestuous passions?
In the event, it turned out a quite different novel. The opening section – some quarter or so of the whole in length – presents us with no great Sturm und Drang: rather, we are given a picture of a rural community that seems to me to foreshadow George Eliot, or even Thomas Hardy in his less doom-laden moods. But, unlike George Eliot in Adam Bede, say, Anne Brontë is intent on moving the plot forward. Readers unused to the slower pace of the Victorian novel often complain of slowness – even in cases where the novel is essentially plot-led – but even they will find little to complain of here, I think. The single lady, presumed a widow, who comes into the rural community with her infant child; the narrator’s infatuation with her; the malicious gossip that spreads through the village; the narrator’s initial refusal to believe it and his despair when the evidence becomes too strong – these are all presented with a fine forward momentum, and with considerable narrative skill. And, apart from the mystery surrounding the beautiful tenant of Wildfell Hall, there is no hint of the Gothic at all.
The main part of the novel is taken up by the narration of the tenant herself, Helen Graham (as she calls herself), and here we have a quite devastating critique of marriage on unequal terms. For Helen’s marriage, from which she is now running away, was a disaster from the beginning.
Like all marriages in that society, it is on an unequal footing: it is the husband who enjoys all the legal rights and social privileges. Nineteenth century European literature is full of disastrous marriages – Madame Bovary, A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, The Portrait of a Lady, Effi Briest etc. And it seems to me that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, if not, perhaps, on quite the same exalted literary level as some of these others, can certainly claim to be among the first of these.
If there is one thing we may be certain of amidst all the vagaries of human behaviour, it is that where any person has power over another, that power is used. Like Dorothea Brooke after her – or Gwendolen Harleth, or Isabel Archer – Helen walks into her marriage willingly. Indeed, she walks into it enthusiastically, and against the advice of her affectionate aunt and guardian. This is not because she is foolish, but, understandably given the sheltered upbringing of all women of her class and of her times, she is inexperienced. But once she is in, she is trapped. She is a pious, high-minded idealist, and her husband a selfish and dissipated boor: he tires of her quickly, neglects her, spends his time boozing and whoring, has affairs, and finally, in what turns out to be the final straw, installs his mistress as governess to their boy. There were a few times when it seemed to me that the narrative would turn towards actual physical violence, but Anne Brontë stops short of that: she probably thought she had shocked her readership enough.
The other marriages we see towards the edges of the canvas are equally dispiriting. Here, for instance, is a letter Helen receives from her friend, apprising her of her engagement:
‘I hardly know what to say about it,’ she writes, ‘or what to think. To tell you the truth, Helen, I don’t like the thoughts of it at all. If I am to be Mr. Hattersley’s wife, I must try to love him; and I do try with all my might; but I have made very little progress yet; and the worst symptom of the case is, that the further he is from me the better I like him: he frightens me with his abrupt manners and strange hectoring ways, and I dread the thoughts of marrying him. “Then why have you accepted him?” you will ask; and I didn’t know I had accepted him; but mamma tells me I have, and he seems to think so too. I certainly didn’t mean to do so; but I did not like to give him a flat refusal, for fear mamma should be grieved and angry (for I knew she wished me to marry him), and I wanted to talk to her first about it: so I gave him what I thought was an evasive, half negative answer; but she says it was as good as an acceptance, and he would think me very capricious if I were to attempt to draw back—and indeed I was so confused and frightened at the moment, I can hardly tell what I said. And next time I saw him, he accosted me in all confidence as his affianced bride, and immediately began to settle matters with mamma. I had not courage to contradict them then, and how can I do it now? … Do you think it nonsense, Helen? I should not care if I could see any prospect of being able to love and admire him, but I can’t. There is nothing about him to hang one’s esteem and affection upon; he is so diametrically opposite to what I imagined my husband should be. Do write to me, and say all you can to encourage me.”
It’s hard to imagine a more depressing picture of marriage than this.
The modern reader is, I imagine, likely to be somewhat less outraged than the Victorian reader by a wife walking out on her husband, and is likely to be shocked not by the author’s obvious approval of this act, but by the wife’s utter helplessness and vulnerability: she has, by this act, put herself in the wrong, in the eyes both of the law and of society. The modern reader may be shocked further by Helen’s decision to return to her husband when he is ill: as far as she is concerned, this is no more than her Christian duty, but, possibly, her husband, unintelligent though he is on other matters, is closer to the truth when he accuses her of returning merely to gain her revenge: now, for the first time, it is he who is helpless, and she who has power over him. And, as ever, where power exists between humans, it is used. Reading between Helen’s lines, it is she who kills him with her sense of duty, and with her Christian piety. The psychology at this point is subtle, and Anne Brontë allows us, I think, to see more than Helen does.
In the final section, the narrative is taken up again by the first narrator, Gilbert Markham. The crisis over, this is now all plot, and is, perhaps, the least interesting part of the novel. It all ends rather predictably with a happy marriage. I don’t normally object to such endings – far from it – but it did seem a curious way to end a novel that paints as unremittingly bleak a picture as I have come across of the noble and sacred institution of marriage.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has neither the archetypal resonance of Jane Eyre, nor the feverish intensity of Wuthering Heights; but, though Anne’s voice is quieter than those of her sisters, it is an impressive voice, and the story it tells of an unhappy marriage on an unequal footing set the pattern for much that was to follow. It remains still an impressive achievement.