Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a reread. I’m not quite sure what drew me back–perhaps the thought that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a great favorite of mine, reveals new dimensions with each reread. Perhaps I thought the same would happen with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--my belief is that reread revelations say more about the change in the reader–not the book.
The plot is fairly simple. The first part of the novel is in epistolary form with letters sent from Gilbert Markham to his friend Jack Halford. Through these letters, Markham recounts events that took place many years earlier in 1827. As a young man of 24, Markham leads a quiet country life with his mother, annoying younger brother, Fergus and sister Rose at Linden-Car Farm. Their social circle is small, and Markham is attached to Eliza Millward, the daughter of the local vicar. Although Eliza is penniless and not beautiful, Markham sees Eliza’s good qualities, and considers her a “very engaging little creature,” with “irresistibly bewitching eyes.” He seeks out her company, and his preference for Eliza is noted by both families.
The quiet life of the community begins to stir with the arrival of a mysterious tenant, a young widow named Helen Graham. She takes up residence, along with her small son, Arthur and surly servant Rachel, at the dilapidated Wildfell Hall which belongs to local landowner, Mr. Lawrence. Of course, with a new person in the neighbourhood, social visits must be made and soon tongues (female tongues) are wagging about Helen Graham. Markham’s first encounter with Helen is not promising; she’s prickly, and standoffish to the point of rudeness. Helen’s solitary situation combined with her anti-social behaviour, her blunt refusal to bow to the opinions of others (including the vicar) win no friends, and the rumours about Helen grow. Eliza, sensing a rival in Helen, is the main offender when it comes to gossip, and in this she is aided and abetted by the very ambitious, sly Jane Wilson. Jane has her eyes set upon marriage to local landowner, Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s landlord, and since Lawrence’s name is linked to Helen’s (in a most unsavory way), Eliza and Jane both have their knives out for Helen. Eliza’s behaviour repels Markham and he realises that everything positive he once saw in Eliza is non-existent. She’s unkind, cruel and petty. Still … she has lost Markham’s attentions and so the lady must be excused to some extent. Markham’s passion for Helen grows and he also becomes attached to Arthur. Markham presses his suit, and Helen, already aware of the gossip surrounding her lonely existence at Wildfell Hall and the condemnation she will receive for the visits of an eager bachelor, finally gives Markham journals of her life which explain exactly why she is at Wildfell Hall. (There’s another reason she gives him the journals which I won’t reveal here.)
Helen’s sections are, therefore, in journal form. The journals begin when she is a young single woman in London. Abandoned by a neglectful father and raised by an aunt and uncle, she is at first pursued by an older suitor. Helen’s aunt approves of the match but Helen wants to marry for love… then she meets Arthur Huntington. Despite warning signs that he is a thorough rotter, and also against her aunt’s dire warnings, Helen insists on marrying Arthur, and it’s a terrible mistake. …
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was considered shocking for its time: and no wonder–alcoholism, domestic violence, adultery, corruption of a child. Is there no end to the wickedness?? There were moments when I laughed out loud (inappropriately) at poor Helen’s naïve belief that she could ‘improve’ Arthur and stop him from all the wicked pursuits he had squandered most of his fortune on during his raucous bachelorhood. The marriage of Helen and Huntingdon is that prototype of the ‘good woman’ determined to save the ‘bad man’ from himself. And of course it’s doomed to failure as we knew it would be. Helen should have married a clergyman and Arthur should have married a thoroughly bad woman (like Annabella Lowborough)–a woman who would have kept him on his toes in the competition to see who could be more unfaithful. But that’s the point isn’t it? Arthur Huntingdon wanted and needed someone like Helen–a disapproving figure who made his exploits all the more fun. And Helen went into marriage wanting to ‘fix’ Arthur. An older, more experienced woman would have known there was no fixing to be done. …
Arthur hones his cruelty in the first few months of marriage, and then quickly tires of his new toy. He abandons Helen for months at a time, and then brings his dissipated friends for fun and games. Yes he wants to indulge in every vice, but it’s so much more fun to do it in front of Helen. Helen reminds me of the character of Jane Eyre in her strong morality and backbone, and I liked Helen a lot for the first part of her story. While I had great sympathy for her situation, her naiveté, her economic and legal plight, eventually I grew tired of her lectures. Since all she did was provide Arthur with cheap, cruel entertainment, why is she wasting her breath, I asked myself? (Course it’s that classic abuse cycle repeated ad nauseum.)
I’m not going segue into a PhD discourse about why this novel is important or the character of Branwell Brontë, etc. etc. The novel is amazing for its time and its scandalous, revolutionary approach to inheritance, education, divorce, and woman and child as property. Helen’s refusal to bow to the ‘authority’ of the pompous clergyman is another rejection of the patriarchy in which she is drowning. Her individual morality soars over any formal notion of religion. Some of Helen’s speeches are jaw-dropping when she speaks upon the rights of women, and yes this is Feminism before there was such a word. It’s impossible to read this novel and not feel that laws must be changed. As it is, Helen must endure all humiliations heaped upon her by her husband. She has no recourse to the law, manages by the skin of her teeth to support herself through painting, and is shunned by society for finally leaving her abusive, dickhead of a husband.
Arthur was already a boozing whoremonger when he married. Helen bored him with her otherworld goodness and her preaching, and any appeal to his conscience had the opposite result. It merely urged him on. This is why Helen and Arthur were the worst possible partners for each other. I’m going to add that by the time the novel ended, if I had been Arthur Huntington, it would have been a nightmare to wake up to Helen by my side telling me to prepare for my maker. Payback’s a bitch–there he is a helpless invalid in bed (yes serves the bastard right) and Helen delivers the coup de grace. He probably croaked just to get away from her. Here he is asking if he will survive:
“I’ve had a dreadful time of it, I assure you: I sometimes thought I should have died: do you think there’s any chance?”
“There’s always a chance of death; and it is always well to live with such a chance in view.”
“Yes, yes! But do you think there’d any likelihood that this illness will have a fatal termination?”
“I cannot tell; but, supposing it should, how are you prepared to meet the event?”
“Why, the doctor told me I wasn’t to think about it, for I was sure to get better if I stuck to his regimen and prescriptions.”
“I hope you may, Arthur; but neither the doctor nor I can speak with certainty in such a case; there is internal injury, and it is difficult to know to what to what extent.”
“There now! you want to scare me to death.”
“No; but I don’t want to lull you to false security. If a consciousness of the uncertainty of life can dispose you to serious and useful thought, I would not deprive you of the benefit of such reflections, whether you do eventually recover or not. Does the idea of death appall you very much?”
“It’s just the only thing I can’t bear to think of: so if you’ve any–“
“But it must come sometime,” interrupted I, “and be it years hence, it will as certainly overtake you as if it came to-day,– and no doubt be as unwelcome then as now, unless you–”
“Oh, hang it! don’t torment me with your preachments now, unless you want to kill me outright. I can’t stand it, I tell you. I’ve suffered enough without that. If you think there’s danger, save me from it, and then, in gratitude, I’ll hear whatever you like to say.”
I would have liked Helen more if the death and religion lectures had been delivered with an acknowledgment that she was enjoying the reversal of power. In other words, if she’d not been such a saint and was just a little bit wicked.