The Tenant of Wildfell Hall — A Woman's Hidden, Painful Past

Ask whether someone has read any Brontë, and you'll likely be regaled with opinions about Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights. Far less known is the literary output of the third (youngest) Bronte sister, Anne.

Only recently (winter/spring, 2018) have I added Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to the list of Brontë books I've read. I've also added it to two other overlapping but non-identical lists: my favorite books and the best books I've read. (It's possible for me to acknowledge that a book is wonderfully written and simultaneously declare that it is not to my taste.)

Why didn't anyone ever tell me that Anne could write like that?

Actually, someone did. A reader of this site wrote to me in 2017, "I did want to ever so highly recommend Anne Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I will never relegate her to the bottom of the Brontë sisters again." Thanks for that recommendation, Tricia!

And now, some notes about the book.

Gilbert's world. Tenant employs a multilayered perspective. It is told through letters written by a certain Gilbert Markham to his friend J. Halford, Esq., about events starting in the autumn of 1827. However, many of his letters reproduce parts of another character's diary, covering events from 1821 to 1824. That diarist, referred to as Mrs. Graham or as Helen, quotes from various other people, some of whom are telling her what yet other people have said. So at some points, one person [Halford] is reading what a second person [Markham] reports that a third person [Graham] had written regarding what a fourth person had told her a fifth person had said.

Convoluted as that sounds, it all makes internal sense within the story's structure. And, while the author doesn't address the reader directly, Gilbert's letters to Halford serve adroitly as a vehicle enabling the "eavesdropping" reader to follow the central characters' thoughts and actions.

When we meet Gilbert, he is — with some reluctance — continuing a line of "gentleman farmers." His world is circumscribed by his mischievous and gossipy family members, his business dealings, and the church that every local resident is expected to attend on Sundays. The sudden appearance of a lovely young widow, in a once-stately hall and in a pew, sets his acquaintances' tongues wagging and his own heart trembling.

The mysteries of Helen. The key questions around which this tale develops are "Who is the mysterious Mrs. Graham?" and "What role will she play in Gilbert's life?"

The first query is gradually unraveled through Helen's diary, which occupies more than half of this substantial book. She weaves a cautionary tale of being enraptured and then abused by an untrustworthy and intemperate man — unusually gritty material for that era.

As modern-day readers, we may be as charmed as she was by her would-be beau declaring

I would sooner die than relinquish her in favour of the best man that ever went to Heaven — and as for her happiness, I would sacrifice body and soul ... devote my life — and all its powers to the promotion and preservation ....

but we are unaccustomed to having all those fine words exposed as mere empty utterances, delivered by someone with no intention of fulfilling his fine promises ... and with a substance abuse problem that drags him, and those around him, into despair. (This part of the narrative is surely based on Anne's sad experience of watching her brother Branwell spiral down through dissolution and into death.)

Helen realizes that her beau's foibles will prevent their future from being as rosy as he promises. Recognizing the challenge that awaits her, she tells her aunt, "... I would willingly risk my happiness for the chance of securing his." Modern readers may regard with a jaundiced eye a woman's determination to "fix" whatever is broken in a man.

As for the second query, regarding Gilbert vis-a-vis Helen: I will leave that for the reader to discover!

A sedate pace. Upon plunging into this book, one immediately realizes that Anne employs the lush, rambling prose characteristic of Charlotte's work. The second sentence of Tenant measures more than 100 words! Fair warning to anyone whose tastes run to tight, taut, terse storytelling.

The book's unhurried nature applies to both its content (long descriptions, extended conversations) and its structure (extended series of connected events rather than a few highlights).

In the middle part of the book, as Helen's diary is reproduced, parts of the story become overly repetitive. The gentleman in question behaves a certain way over and over. His friends expose their own personalities and flaws repeatedly. While Anne might have thought this necessary to make some characters' proclivities abundantly clear, I felt that a third of that section could have been excised with no loss of meaning. (But experiencing "too much" of Anne Brontë's writing is hardly a terrible fate.)

A terrific story. This extended tale of mystery, morality, attraction, and addiction is a worthy addition to the Brontë canon. It also has a notably early-feminist streak, as Anne (like Charlotte) makes pointed criticisms of women's expected and restricted roles in that era's society.

With her enthralling prose and her courageous approach to hushed-up issues of that day, Anne deserves the sort of acclaim long accorded to her sisters. I join the aforementioned site reader in highly recommending The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.


QUOTATIONS

These selected passages should give you a taste of Anne Brontë's skill, perspectives, and wit.

[About a "plain, quiet, sensible girl" who differed in those ways from most characters in the book but was perhaps similar to a Brontë sister or two:] She was trusted and valued by her father, loved and courted by all dogs, cats, children, and poor people, and slighted and neglected by everybody else.

[About one of the local busybodies:] Mrs. Wilson was more brilliant than ever, with her budgets of fresh news and old scandal, strung together with trivial questions and remarks, and old repeated observations, uttered apparently for the sole purpose of denying a moment's rest to her inexhaustible organs of speech. She had brought her knitting with her, and it seemed as if her tongue had laid a wager with her fingers, to outdo them in swift and ceaseless motion.

[After a young woman tries to impress a young man by singing:] Perhaps, he was as much charmed with her performance as she was.

[Gilbert's mother, on marital relationships:] You'll do your business, and she, if she's worthy of you, will do hers; but it's your business to please yourself, and hers to please you.

[Gilbert's mother, revealing her lofty view of her son:] I never saw any one so altered as you within these last few days: you haven't a good word for anybody — friends and strangers, equals and inferiors ....

[Helen's aunt to her:] ... [B]eauty is that quality which, next to money, is generally the most attractive to the worst kinds of men; and, therefore, it is likely to entail a great deal of trouble on the possessor.

[Helen's uncle to her:] "Very good!" cried he. "Now that's a good honest answer — wonderful for a girl!"

[Helen, concluding a conversation with her husband:] I went, but hearing him mutter something as I was closing the door, I turned again. It sounded very like "confounded slut," but I was quite willing it should be something else.

[A friend writing to Helen about a man the friend has agreed to marry:] 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.

[Helen reporting on that friend's marriage:] She professes to have discovered numberless virtues and perfections in her husband, some of which, I fear, less partial eyes would fail to distinguish, though they sought them carefully with tears; and now that she is accustomed to his loud voice and abrupt, uncourteous manners, she affirms she finds no difficulty in loving him as a wife should do, and begs I will burn that letter wherein she spoke so unadvisedly against him. ... [I]f, for duty's sake, she had not made every effort to love her husband, she would doubtless have hated him to the end of her days.

[Helen lamenting the shortcomings of her marriage:] I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! ... [H]ow much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

[Helen, relentlessly optimistic despite hardships:] Surely I have now got down to the lowest gradation in Arthur's affection, and discovered all the evils of his nature: if there be any further change, it must be for the better, as we become still more accustomed to each other: surely we shall find no lower depth than this.

[Later, though, reason overtakes her:] Fool that I was to dream that I had strength and purity enough to save myself and him! Such vain presumption would be rightly served, if I should perish with him in the gulf from which I sought to save him!

[Helen on her interactions with a woman she dislikes:] It is like handling brier-roses and may-blossoms — bright enough to the eye, and outwardly soft to the touch, but you know there are thorns beneath, and every now and then you feel them too; and perhaps resent the injury by crushing them in till you have destroyed their power, though somewhat to the detriment of your own fingers.

[Helen on a young woman she admires:] I often wonder what will be her lot in life — and so does she; but her speculations on the future are full of buoyant hope — so were mine once. I shudder to think of her being awakened like me to a sense of their delusive vanity.

[Helen seeking to awaken a man to his poor treatment of his wife; he speaks first:] "I positively think I ill-use her sometimes, when I've taken too much — but I can't help it, for she never complains, either at the time or after. I supposed she doesn't mind it." "I can enlighten you on that subject, Mr. Hattersley," said I; "she does mind it; and some other things she minds still more, which, yet, you may never hear her complain of."

[Continuing the preceding conversation; Helen speaks first:] "Then you do delight to oppress her." "I don't, I tell you! — only when I'm in a bad humour — or a particularly good one, and want to afflict for the pleasure of comforting; or when she looks flat and wants shaking up a bit."

[Helen, facing a grim future:] What a good thing it is to be able to command one's temper! I must labour to cultivate this inestimable quality: God, only, knows how often I shall need it in this rough, dark road that lies before me.

[Helen, fulfilling a wife's role:] As far as in me lies, I endeavour to live peaceably with him: I treat him with unimpeachable civility, give up my convenience to his, wherever it may reasonably be done, and consult him in a business-like way on household affairs, deferring to his pleasure and judgment, even when I know the latter to be inferior to my own.

[Helen, softening in the face of adversity:] I was beginning to relent towards my wretched partner — to pity his forlorn, comfortless condition, unalleviated as it is by the consolations of intellectual resources and the answer of a good conscience towards God ....

[Helen, warning a young woman:] Marriage may change your circumstances for the better, but in my private opinion, it is far more likely to produce a contrary result.

[Gilbert, after reading Helen's diary:] I could readily forgive her prejudice against me, and her hard thoughts of our sex in general, when I saw to what brilliant specimens her experience had been limited.

[Gilbert on his prospects regarding Helen:] ...[S]ome faint germs of indefinite hopes were beginning to rise in my mind; not that I intended to cherish them after all that had been said on the subject, but there they must lie for a while, uncrushed though not encouraged, till I had learnt to live without them.

[Gilbert on another man's battle with alcoholism:] ...[T]he temptation to return to the vice of his youth, and seek oblivion for past calamities, and deadness to the present misery of a blighted heart, a joyless, friendless life, and a morbidly disconsolate mind, by yielding again to that insidious foe to health, and sense, and virtue, which had so deplorably enslaved and degraded him before.

[Gilbert on a third party's role in his romantic life:] He had not attempted to check the course of our love by actually damming up the streams in their passage, but he had passively watched the two currents wandering through life's arid wilderness, declining to clear away the obstructions that divided them, and secretly hoping that both would lose themselves in the sand before they could be joined in one.