“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë

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.

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25 responses to this post.

  1. Great review. I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, its my favourite of all the Bronte novels and sadly neglected. I think Anne suffers from being always placed with Charlotte & Emily, she’s a very different writer. To me she’s more like Eliot or Gaskell, a social realist, rather than the more Gothic style of her sisters.

    Reply

    • I was certainly pleasantly surprised by it, because, to be honest, i wasn’t really too sure what to expect. I agree this is a very different novel: Anne’s literary imagination seems to run on distinctly different lines from those of her sister’s. I really should move on to Agnes Grey now, I think.

      Reply

  2. Fantastic review! I haven’t read this book yet but I will certainly add it to my list, it’s been a while since I have delved into some Victorian melodrama. This one sounds really interesting. On a separate note, do you think there was a lot of sibling rivalry between the Bronte sisters? I can’t imagine the irritation of being the sister of the ladies who wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights!

    Reply

    • I am not really one for reading biographies. I understand there is a very fine biography of the Brontes by Juliet Barker, but I haven’t read it. I know the rough outline of their lives, and have visited Haworth many times (I used to live not far from there). I guess it must have been fairly intimidating having Charlotte and Emily as sisters, but on the evidence of this, Anne holds her own confidently enough!

      Reply

  3. I loved this novel, much more so than I did ‘Jane Eyre’ (a book I’ve never had much time for…). Much underrated – a literary Mark Waugh 😉

    Reply

    • I do enjoy the Gothic genre quite a bit, and loved the Gothic elements of Jane Eyre. I’ll even confess to being slightly disappointed that this one, despite its title, didn’t have any Gothic elements! But yes, to class Anne as the “also-ran” of the Three Sisters is grossly unfair, and does her no favours at all.

      Reply

  4. Sibling rivalry, yes, but as you might guess, complicated. Remember it was Charlotte who had trouble getting published, mostly because the novel she wrote stank. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published together as a triple decker, which must have led to some confusion.

    Agnes Grey is so drab and trivial that I fear it has served as a mental obstacle to reading Wildfell Hall. But I will get to it someday. Reviews like this one help.

    Although calling Anne B. a social realist does not help so much. Oh well. The task of a critic is to suffer.

    Reply

    • Well, labels such as “social realist” are all relative, aren’t they? Anne Bronte is not Zola, admittedly, but in comparison to the best-known Bronte novels – Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – she is certainly towards the social realism end of the scale.

      Mind you, in comparison with JE or WH, even Alice in Wonderland is towards the social realism end of the scale!

      Reply

      • Why do you think that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are completely devoid of social realism ? Class issues are big in both novels, and the premise of The Tenant of Widfell Hall is basically a subplot in Wuthering Heights .
        JE is about a young educated woman’s journey for being equal with men, and WH is primarily about child abuse. Emily and Charlotte were less direct in their messages than Anne, who was outright preachy, but it’s definitely there. Saying that they’re less socially realistic than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is, you know, kinda absurd.

  5. Posted by Malcolm on August 9, 2013 at 3:27 am

    I don’t think I own The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I am sure it won’t be in our library, but that does sound like a book that I would like. I doubt if I would mind the happy ending even if it doesn’t fit well. Anne Bronte may have felt her book needed some leavening for the reader. Or perhaps just for herself.

    I don’t like Wuthering Heights at all, and have never found the character of Jane Eyre attractive. She comes across better in televised versions where you see rather than read of her personality – in print she sounds rather smug and superior.

    Reply

    • From what I know of yourtastes (which, after so many years, is quite a bit! 🙂 ) I think you would enjoy this one.

      i don’t object to the ending of this one, by the way: it just seemed a bit curious after what had gone before!

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  6. Ah, the Brontes, haven’t thought of them in ages. Thank you for jarring my memories of long hours spent totally engrossed in reading their novels. They are dark and disturbing, the sorry picture they paint of human nature, the general bleakness of the married life for the women of their time, but their books are utterly fascinating in a strange hypnotic way

    Reply

    • Hello Margaret,
      The Brontes have long been a significant presence: Wuthering Heights has long been a great personal favourite of mine, despite friends who tell me it’s merely immature schoolgirl fantasy, and who wonder how I could lose my judgement to such an extent as to think highly of it!

      Also, my mother lives not too far from the Bronte parsonage, and I love that drive over the moors towards Haworth. Haworth moor looks exactly as Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre may lead you to expect!

      I now want to read the other Bronte novels – “The professor”, “Shirley”, and, despite Tom’s strictures, “Agnes Grey”.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

    • Oh, Agnes Grey is merely ordinary, a pleasant book. The Professor is terrible.

      Reply

  7. Posted by alan on August 9, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    “The noble and sacred institution”. Steady on old chap.

    Reply

  8. Yes, I’m a big, burly, leather-clad biker in real life — Remind me to tell you the story of the time I walked into the public library to check out C. Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It’s a hilarious story. — so, you wouldn’t think I’d be reading this kind of stuff, but…

    I loved Jane Eyre and most definitely was impressed with E. Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, so I’ve often wondered if I’d be a bit disappointed in The Tenant… by A. Bronte.

    I’ve had a digital copy and a real hard cover copy for quite a few years now. I’ve never yet attempted the book. I think I may set it a bit higher on the reading list thanks to your article here, H.

    As always, your opinions and insights regarding classic literature are informative and interesting. If I ever get to read this book, I’ll let you know what I thought about it.

    Regards,

    ~Eric

    Reply

  9. I have been meaning, ever since I retired earlier this year, to get down to reading (or, in many cases, re-reading) the classics – to which end, I downloaded a great many of them, including most of the Bronte novels, from Gutenberg. My order of priorities of “to be read” books keeps on changing, but, having read this post, I think I shall move “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” much higher up my list of priorities.

    Reply

    • I do hope it isn’t a disappointment after all the build-up I’ve been giving it! 🙂

      We aren’t talking Mansfield Park or Anna Karenina here – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is far more modest in scope and in ambition. But it certainly is very good for what it sets out to be. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

      Cheers,
      Himadri

      Reply

    • Hello Di, and thanks for that. I hadn’t considered the parallels before. I have recently finished Mansfield Park, and am trying to write up something about it for this blog, and, given the extraordinary intricacy of that novel, I am finding it difficult. It is a far more intricate work than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but the idea of Helen being a close cousin if Fanny’s (temperamentally speaking, of course) is an interesting one. (though, of course, Fanny would never have fallen for someone such as Arthur Huntigdon…)

      Hopefully, I’ll have something reasonably coherent on Mansfield Park on here some time over the next week or so.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

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