The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is not my first foray into the ouveur of the Brontës. Way back in the archives, I read and reviewed Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (loved it!), and Emily’s Wuthering Heights (so-so). Being the dirty completionist that I am, though, I couldn’t stop there: I gotta catch ’em all! So, that’s why I finally picked up Anne’s longest and best-known novel, to complete the set.
The blurb made the story sound surprisingly contemporary – a mysterious and beautiful young widow moves in to Wildfell Hall, and Gilbert Markham finds himself irresistibly drawn to her despite the rumours that swell around town – but don’t be fooled. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall has all the 19th century manners and customs that you’d expect, albeit with some unexpected progressive overtones.
A bit of background: Anne was the youngest of the Brontë sisters. She published only two novels (this one, and Agnes Grey, which is also wedged into my to-be-read shelf somewhere…) before she died in 1849, shortly before her 30th birthday. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall was first published the year before her death, in 1848, under the now-famous gender-neutral pseudonym of Acton Bell. It was an instant success, but… well, big sis Charlotte got her Mean Girl on. More on that below.
To the story: it is an epistolary novel, styled as the letters from Gilbert Markham to a friend of his, including a rather large section drawn from Helen Graham’s diaries (Helen being the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall). Yes, it’s the ol’ Brontë switcheroo: the narrator is not always the “narrator”, and despite a supposed single narrative perspective, others’ points-of-view are substantial to the plot. That makes the timeline a little wonky, beginning in 1847 but telling a version of events from 1821 through 1830. Don’t worry, it all irons out nice and smooth.
Gilbert’s letters begin by describing the arrival of a mysterious widow, one Mrs Helen Graham, who has taken up a tenancy in the nearby abandoned mansion called Wildfell Hall. Although he says the woman is “too hard, too sharp, too bitter for my taste” (page 42), and he has his eye on the local vicar’s daughter, their occasional social interactions pique his interest. Eventually, he gets to know the widow and her son quite well (he and the boy bond over their mutual love of dogs, #relatable). Still, Mrs Helen Graham refuses to divulge much about her past or origins, even though doing so would put an end to some of the particularly nasty rumours that have started swirling around the small town.
This all unfolds in Part One of the novel, chapters 1-15. That section ends with Gilbert mistakenly believing that local man Lawrence has secretly entered into an illicit courtship with Mrs Graham. Gilbert has a real shit-fit (kind of inexplicably, seeing as it’s basically no business of his whatsoever), but Mrs Graham concedes that he has a right to know the truth of who she is and her relationship to Lawrence, so she hands over her diaries to Gilbert in the hope that they will speak her truth for her.
All of this might sound very Austen-y, a social comedy with the central romance pot-holed by misunderstandings. However, in Part Two – chapters 16 to 44 – The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall takes a sharp turn. The introduction of Helen’s perspective, through her letters, reveals an entirely different plot and purpose altogether.
It turns out Helen isn’t a widow at all; rather, she is on the lam, hiding from her alcoholic fuckwit of a husband, Arthur Huntingdon. They married young, back when Helen thought he was super-hot and had the naive notion that she could coax him out of his bad behaviour (with the drinking and the dames and what-not).
Sidebar: The prevailing view in analysis nowadays is that Arthur is a stand in for Anne Brontë’s real-life brother, Branwell, who himself was susceptible to the lures of drink and drugs, despite the efforts of his sisters to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Helen’s story is surprisingly gripping. it’s not like there are a lot of cliffhangers or anything, but I still found myself just-one-more-chaptering as I read my way through, crossing my fingers that the next chapter would be the one where she would leave the sorry sack of shit and be done with it. She’s all about dismantling toxic masculinity, it’s her life-long hobby and obsession, and over the course of the novel she realises and affirms that it shouldn’t be the job of women to reform bad boys. They should reform themselves, or shut the fuck up and leave the rest of us alone. See? Progressive!
Oh, and Mr Lawrence? The one Gilbert thought she was having an affair with? Actually her brother. Whoops!
The story seemed to be wrapping up around the 470-page mark, near the end of Helen’s diary, and I wondered what on earth could be left in the remaining 120 pages… but I stuck with it and, as it turned out, there was indeed more to come.
Part Three – chapters 45 to 53 – begins when Gilbert finishes reading Helen’s epic diary. She puts it to him that he should not pursue any romance with her, as she is not actually a widow and as such is not free to marry him. He’s all “yeah, okay”, but keeps the flame burning for her all the same. His hopes pick up when Helen’s estranged husband falls deathly ill, figuring that his path will be free and clear… only Helen does the “right thing” and zooms right back to her husband’s side to nurse him. Damn.
Still, her ministrations only keep him alive long enough to make him feel good and guilty before he shuffles off this mortal coil (good riddance). Gilbert keeps a respectful distance – also, he doesn’t know where she is or how to get a hold of her – until he gets word that she’s getting married to someone else. He hustles over to her town to do his “I object!” bit, but finds out when he gets there that it was actually Helen’s brother getting married (we’re back on the poor-communication-kills rom-com plot now) and Helen is overjoyed to welcome him back into her life. She makes him wait a bit, naturally, but in the end they live happily ever after.
The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall falls smack-bang in the middle of the Venn diagram of the other Brontë sisters: all the angst of Wuthering Heights, with all the introspection and proto-feminism of Jane Eyre. The defining difference in Anne’s work is that she didn’t gloss over the gritty stuff the way her Romantic sisters did, and she didn’t play up spooky Gothic elements either (Wildfell Hall isn’t a “haunted mansion”, it’s just old and empty). All the darkness in her novel – the alcoholism, infidelity, violence – was real, and graphic for the time.
And that’s why Charlotte, her elder sister, removed The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall from circulation after Anne’s untimely death. It had been a great success on publication, but in Charlotte’s view it disgraced her younger sister’s memory. She wanted Anne to be remembered as a sweet, saintly girl who didn’t write about such horrid things. Never mind the fact that Anne did write about horrid things, and well: Charlotte knew best (and was probably quite jealous of her younger sister’s success, besides). And that’s why Anne basically fell from memory for decades, why the names we most commonly associate with the Brontë brand are those of her sisters.
Still, over the last century, Anne has finally garnered the kind of popular and critical attention she deserves. This might sound ridiculous, but I find it hard not to take it personally that Charlotte screwed Anne over like that. “I was rooting for you!” etc. I keep trying to imagine whether my attitude and preference would be different if I had read The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall before Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but it’s difficult. I guess I’ll just have to let bygones be bygones (even though none of them were actually mine to begin with), and judge the works on their own merit. In that spirit, I reckon The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is a winner. A bit convoluted, maybe, but a breath of fresh air in 19th century English literature.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall:
- “Story was a sort of a downer even with the happy ending.” – Ericka Grant
- “Anne cannot write up to her famous sisters. What a bore!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Too long, too wordy, too predictable and the heroine is insipid.” – ann v menche
- “Interesting story. I never think of people in that era being so messed up. Why do they have so much free time on their hands?” – M Roberts
- “This book is WAY too long. 100,000 words could’ve been deleted and we, as readers, would be none the wiser. The writing style is superb. I don’t think anyone in publishing today could emulate the style in which all three Bronte sisters wrote. The story itself is interesting, but Helen’s “abuse” did not really strike me as abuse, but rather “neglect.” When I first heard about this novel, I thought a woman was going to get repeatedly beaten and raped. But sadly, that is not the case. I guess beaten and raped was “too intense” for the time period. Leave it to Viktor Wolfe to write a good “beaten and raped” story!” – Viktor Wolfe
- “All her angst was a bit tiresome.” – pamie65