Tenant of Wildfell Hall

As Anne Brontë’s novel opens, the young and cocky Gilbert Markham becomes aware that there is a new woman residing at the dilapidated Wildfell Hall: Helen Graham, a widow with a young son. He’s careless at first, because Mrs. Graham is distant and reserved. After a few weeks of her company and her strongly expressed opinions, however, he begins to care for her, and to be jealous of the attentions paid to her by other men. When his jealousy overwhelms him, and he demands answers to the mysteries surrounding Helen’s life at Wildfell Hall, she gives him her diary to read.

This volume makes up the second portion of the novel. It reaches back to her entry into society as a tender 18-year-old, her meeting with Arthur Huntingdon, their courtship, and the long, heartbreaking series of disappointments and conflicts that make up their marriage. Finally, Helen decides to leave Arthur for the sake of her baby son. But with no support anywhere — no money of her own, no laws to back her up, no friends except those who think she is mad to do what she’s doing — can she succeed?

Jenny: I’ve read both Wuthering Heights and (of course, your favorite and mine) Jane Eyre, but the third Brontë sister has been on my list for a long time. And this was an incredibly interesting novel! While I thought that it was moderately successful as a novel (by which I mean that it’s good, but it’s no Bleak House) I thought it was tremendously successful as an examination of a woman’s position and the inequality of the marriage contract.

Teresa: Like you, I’ve had Anne Brontë (and this book in particular) on my list for a long time. I was fascinated about the ways that it was similar to, yet different from, her sisters’ work. Both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre deal with unbelievable situations, but this novel is much more grounded in reality. It definitely seems to have more of a social conscience—at least a more overt one.  But Anne Brontë still uses of some of the Gothic elements her sisters employed to draw the reader in. There’s a sense of menace that pervades much of the novel, from the early talk of Helen Graham as a widow with a secret through the detailed account of her married life. It feels Gothic, but the situation is absolutely real.

Jenny: Oh, it was all too real! I absolutely cringed at the descriptions of Huntingdon’s infantile sense of humor, his petty cruelties, his “degradation” (a word that is repeated over and over.) The trap that Helen finds herself in must have rung true to many women: the man with absolute power over his wife, and deserving absolutely none of it in terms of intellect, moral superiority, or indeed anything except his maleness. In fact, this made me question some of Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester is surely suspect from this point of view (as well as a few others, but let’s not get into that right now — we can come back to it if we need to!) And to be honest, I didn’t like Gilbert Markham, either. Not much of a hero, if you ask me.

One theme that stood out for me was Helen’s anxiety to stop the damage being passed on to another generation. Huntingdon wanted to “make a man” of his son, by passing on his alcoholism, his misogyny, his spendthrift nature, and every other vice possible. “Being a man,” in this novel, is no compliment. So what’s the alternative, for little Arthur? Do we ever see a real role model for him? Not to be flippant, but is his goal to become a woman?

Teresa: Certainly his goal ought not to be to follow in the footsteps of any of the men in this book. They’re all terrible, in one way or another. Even the ones who are basically decent men are either blind to Helen’s situation or too impotent to do anything about it, or they’re amiable doofuses like Gilbert. But Helen’s response to the conundrum was fascinating, and so relevant to questions of child-rearing today. The debate the characters have about how Helen has trained her son to be repulsed by alcohol involves the same questions people have today about how much to shield children from the world. Helen seems to err too far in the sheltering direction, but I can see how she doesn’t feel she has much choice.

And that’s not the only area where the novel felt contemporary to me. There’s a section leading up to Helen’s marriage where she talks about how people have warned her about Huntingdon’s dissolute habits, and she declares that she can change him, even perhaps seeing it as her calling:

There is essential goodness in him; and what delight to unfold it! If he has wandered, what bliss to recall him! If he is now exposed to the baneful influence of corrupting and wicked companions, what glory to deliver him from them! Oh! if I could but believe that Heaven has designed me for this!

How many women, then and now, go to the altar carrying that vain hope in their hearts? (A hope that has perhaps been nourished by the novels of the other Brontë sisters.)

Jenny: Exactly! This book shakes its fist in your face and says, Oh, sister, you’re never going to change him, because the entire system backs him up: the Church (although not the Bible), the laws, the family, the money, the society, public opinion from women and children and men. Everything and everyone will be against you. You’re on your own.

Which is why I found so much of the book so thrillingly realistic and engaging — all the parts where Helen was struggling against her husband and her fate, struggling against a hardened heart — and found the ending rather dissatisfying. I didn’t think her romance with Gilbert was very convincing (I would go farther and say that Gilbert was less pleasant than an amiable doofus; his assault on Lawrence, his mistrust of Helen and his “sullenness” are pretty icky) and I think she’d be wary of a second marriage. What did you think?

Teresa: I was of two minds about the second marriage. I would have preferred for Helen to be able to be independent or to find someone else entirely, but there was a point when it looked like she was marrying Mr Hargrave, and at that point, I was fully behind Gilbert. Hargrave was frightening, but Gilbert was mostly just a brat. I think, too, that he had grown out of some of his brattiness after hearing Helen’s story and realizing how harsh the world could be. I think that’s why he was so frustratingly, ridiculously hesitant to express his feelings in the end.

Actually that whole last section that didn’t quite work for me. Until that point, I had sort of thought that Gilbert wasn’t really a character in the story, except as a vehicle for setting it up, sort of like Mr Lockwood in Wuthering Heights. He wasn’t much of a romantic hero, that’s for sure, and I really didn’t care about him. If this is Anne’s idea of romance, I’m not sure she would be any more satisfying to go “dude watchin’ ” with than her sisters! (And, yes, I’ll admit, I still do carry a torch for Mr Rochester—the reformed version at the end of Jane Eyre anyway. Jane was clever enough to let life change him instead of tying herself to him in hopes it would happen!)

Jenny: Yes, but look at Mr. Rochester from Helen’s perspective, if you can. He marries his first wife for nothing more than money, by all accounts — sealing a business deal. When she doesn’t live up to his expectations (and who knows what those are), he has all the rights. He locks her away instead of helping her (if she could be helped; we don’t know that for sure.) When something he likes better comes along, and at least this time it isn’t money, he decides to do something snakebelly low: take the second woman’s rights and reputation away, too, until it’s too late. A year and a day, yeah right — she’ll be pregnant by then, and in bigger trouble than ever. Jane was smart enough to wait until bigamy charges couldn’t be leveled and until he couldn’t exactly beat her, but she still shackled herself to someone who would do those things! (I’m not saying this is the only way to look at Mr. Rochester, or even my way, but I’m thinking it might be Anne’s way.)

Still, the characters of Helen and Huntingdon are exquisitely drawn. The idea that someone like Huntingdon could be sexually attractive and roguish and fun with his friends and a “gentleman,” in all accepted society, and still a terrible, terrible husband and human being, is chilling. And Helen’s gradual hardening is beautifully done. I also liked Esther — Helen without the bad life experience.

Teresa: Oh, I think you’re probably quite right about how Anne would read Rochester’s actions, and it’s a fair enough reading—if not the only one. The complexity of the characters is what makes Jane Eyre such a favorite, and I’d say the same complexity shows up in many of Anne’s characters. It may be that even Gilbert starts to appear more multidimensional on a second reading. I’m so glad I finally read it for the first time and enjoyed it enough that I know it’s a likely candidate for rereading someday.

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26 Responses to Tenant of Wildfell Hall

  1. I read Jane Eyre years and years ago, so I remember very little than what was recapped in The Eyre Affair, and I’d never run across the works of the other Brontë sisters. I quite like that this one deals with the power dynamic between a man and a woman more realistically than the other Brontë novels; somehow, that’s more horrifying than any Gothic affectation.

  2. Violet says:

    Great review of one of my favourite books. I think the Brontes knew a thing or two about degradation, having Branwell for a brother! If you’ve not read Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow, it’s a really well-done re-imagining of the Brontes and their various travails.

    I think maybe Anne had the most-developed social conscience of the three sisters. Her novels were quite hard-hitting in their day. The idea that a married woman would leave her husband was quite shocking, never mind the circumstances.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree with you about Branwell. My edition had some excellent notes that talked about that. And your point about the shocking nature of the material is actually well made in the novel itself!

    • Teresa says:

      I have The Taste of Sorrow and may try to read it soonish. I keep hearing how wonderful it is!

  3. Amanda says:

    I read this book two years ago and loved it! I loved hearing your back-and-forth thoughts.

  4. Steph says:

    Loved your dialogue on this one! Having just read my first Anne Bronte, I find I’m still trying to figure out who she is as an author and definitely want to read this one by her next. She definitely seems to favor a more realistic (almost mundane) approach to her fiction, so I think it’s actually quite remarkable her writing is as engaging as it is. Agnes Grey doesn’t really have any Gothic elements, so I think it’ll be fun to see how she plays with them in Tenant.

  5. Jenny says:

    My sister read Tenant for a class last year, and she said the same thing y’all did, that the novel felt surprisingly modern in parts. She said that the characters felt like they have been written by a modern author. It sounds so interesting!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I’d agree with that assessment. It was such an interesting book to read in that respect. A little didactic in places, but very gripping in others.

  6. Emily says:

    I’ve been meaning to pick this up for ages; thanks for the great, thought-provoking review! (Love that “dude watchin’ with the Brontes” comic, btw.) One wonders about the sisters’ conversations among themselves re: marriage and gender relations…

    • Jenny says:

      Apparently they had a whole make-believe world when they were children that continued some way into adulthood. I can just imagine those play sessions!

  7. Kathleen says:

    Great “conversation” and review of this novel. I love this format and it really makes me want to read this book.

  8. Jenners says:

    Your conversation about the book strikes me as probably being more interesting than the book itself (at least to me … I wasn’t a huge fan of Jane Eyre). Very well done.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you, but the book really was quite engaging! Give it a try. (Though if madwomen and fires and bigamy can’t grab you, I’m not totally sure this will…) :)

  9. rebeccareid says:

    I have had this on my shelf for my Victorian Summer and I didn’t get to it yet. It sounds very good — more so than Agnes Grey, which wasn’t a favorite of mine.

  10. Sasha says:

    I’ve only read a handful of chapters — nothing juicy yet, haha. Although I am enjoying how Helen “introduces” herself to her new home — the gossip, the visiting, the menace you talked about. I haven’t moved on, I wanted to give the book the attention it deserves — something I can’t give it yet, sadly.

    But I did read your dialogue to the end [not spoiler-phobic at all, haha], and I know I’ve got good things to look forward to.

    Thanks, Jenny and Teresa! :]

  11. anokatony says:

    Even as one of those dreaded males, I found the book conversation between Jenny and Theresa extremely interesting.

  12. Pingback: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Bronte « amused, bemused and confused

  13. Eva says:

    I loved Tenant! I’m not a fan of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, so I was quite surprised at my own reaction. Now I’m curious about rereading it. :)

  14. Lauren says:

    When I read this I couldn’t put it down. I loved it. The only Bronte book (so far) that I love more is Jane Eyre. But Tenant is definitely a second favorite . :)

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