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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall




Steve Carver looks at 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall', Anne Brontë's second, and final, novel


In her introduction to the 1914 edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the author and critic May Sinclair reminded her fellow Modernists how radical Anne Brontë’s second and final novel had been. When Anne depicted her protagonist, Helen Huntingdon, slamming her bedroom door in her abusive husband’s face, wrote Sinclair, ‘she slammed it in the face of society and all existing moralities and conventions’. And this was no understatement. When the novel was first published in 1848, that slam had echoed throughout Victorian England, a culture in which, as a mother tells her son in the novel, it was considered a husband’s business to ‘please himself’ and a wife’s duty to ‘please him’. Under law, the wife’s property – including anything she already owned, inherited, or subsequently earned – was her husband’s, as were any children. The wife, too, was her husband’s property; although he could divorce her, she had no right to do so herself, and to leave without permission was a crime. As Helen tells the young, unmarried Esther Hargrave, ‘You might as well sell yourself to slavery’.

Sinclair had mixed feelings about Anne’s technical abilities as a novelist, stating that ‘but for that startling and reverberating sound, there isn’t one enlivening thrill, not one, in all the long pages of Anne’s novel’, making this a rather contradictory introduction and hardly a recommendation for the book. But Sinclair acknowledges that her reservations result from a long-held misconception:

The deception, I own, lies mainly in the title. It conjures up I know not what glamour of darkness and of supernatural haunting. For years before I ever read the book I had the fixed idea that it was the tale of a house haunted by hereditary evil … a tale in its gruesome power inferior only to Wuthering Heights.

The error thus lies with Sinclair, not the author. She wanted the gothic romance of Emily – and, no doubt, of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre too – and got instead the unsettling realism of Anne. That said, Sinclair admired Anne’s ‘feminist revolt’, but believed that she had not the skill of her sisters to breathe life into her characters.

This criticism is unduly harsh. In fact, once the reader tunes into the epistolary style and a (characteristically Victorian) long first act, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a real page-turner. Flashing back to the end of the Regency – with all that would morally imply to Victorian readers – the Yorkshire farmer, Gilbert Markham, writes a series of letters to his best friend concerning a mysterious widow, Helen Graham, who took up residence in the only habitable wing of the ramshackle and previously abandoned Wildfell Hall when Markham was a young man. As this is the kind of area – not unlike Haworth – where a dead cow would attract a small crowd, tongues are soon wagging about the reclusive Helen, especially when her views on the raising of her son, Arthur, become known to the local curate. Helen does not agree with the prevailing opinion that a boy must be raised to ‘be a man’, which would include training in blood sports and drinking, profanity, and sexism. Instead, she is at great pains to keep him away from such things, and never lets him out of her sight. The Reverend Millward considers this attitude to be ‘criminal’ and ‘contrary to Scripture’. His righteous indignation is stoked by his daughter, Eliza, who is sweet on Gilbert and fears Helen may be a rival. Helen also works for a living as an artist, which makes her even more alien to the locals. Gilbert, meanwhile, is well-read and cultured, and finds Helen’s obvious intellect deeply attractive. He befriends Arthur, and a cautious platonic relationship with Helen begins. She is clearly hiding something, which Gilbert wrongly assumes is a romantic liaison with her landlord, the local squire, Lawrence. To refute Gilbert’s suspicions and dissuade him from courting her himself, a distraught Helen hands him a journal by way of silent explanation. He is sworn to keep its contents secret, and begins, as do we, to read. Helen’s younger voice takes over the narrative for the next 28 chapters until Gilbert resumes and concludes the story, his Bertie Wooster-like chattiness and the Austenesque tone of the village rumour mill a strong contrast to the intensity of Helen’s confession.

Helen’s journal is electric. Even today, her account of domestic abuse at the hands of her rakish upper-class husband, Arthur Huntingdon, and his dissolute friends, is a challenging read; not for the reasons Sinclair suggests, but because of the relentless and escalating cruelty. And as the journal progresses through several years of marriage, the initially optimistic – she thinks she can change him – and naive young bride becomes more haunted and desperate while her husband descends further into alcoholism, gleefully trying to take their son with him, to ‘make a man of him’.

This is nail-biting drama. To what depths of depravity will Arthur sink? How can Helen possibly escape, having no income and no legal rights, and how can she save her son from becoming his father? These questions drive the novel towards a powerful climax that is at once inevitable yet unexpected and surprising, making for a compelling reading experience. But this is no mere potboiler. The author, through her protagonist, interrogates the early-Victorian view of social class, gender roles and marriage; wrestles with notions of family duty and faith, and presents a raw and honest portrayal of alcoholism, as well as drug and gambling addiction. There is also a strong sexual undertone through Helen’s attraction to charming bad boy, Arthur, Gilbert’s growing passion for the raven-haired Helen, Eliza’s earthy flirtations with Gilbert, the predatory seducer, Hargrave, and the voluptuous Lady Lowborough, the most blatant of Arthur’s many infidelities – all subjects rarely expressed in popular or literary Victorian novels. As George Eliot’s future partner, G.H. Lewes, wrote shortly after Anne’s death: ‘Curious enough is to read Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and remember that the writers were two retiring, solitary, consumptive girls!’

Most shockingly of all, Anne was sticking to that old publishing adage to write about what you know…

Born in 1820, Anne was the youngest of the surviving Brontë sisters. The eldest, Maria and Elizabeth, had died of tuberculosis aged 9 and 10. The terrible disease would go on to first claim the only son, Branwell, then Emily, then Anne herself, who died in May 1849, just under a year after The Tenant of Wildfell Hall  was published and only months after her brother and sister, leaving Charlotte in control of her literary legacy. Like her siblings, Anne had the run of her father’s library as a child and was also active in the Brontë’s famous imaginary worlds, breaking away from Charlotte and Bramwell’s ‘Angria’ to create ‘Gondal’ with Emily. She attended Roe Head School in Mirfield, where Charlotte was by then a teacher, and although a successful, if shy, student, her health suffered, and she also experienced a religious crisis. Charlotte began to worry about Anne’s health.

From this period (largely from Charlotte’s correspondence, editorial input and her discussions with Elizabeth Gaskell), the portrait of Anne that has passed into history is that of a quiet, pious and ‘frail’ young woman, doomed from the outset to an early grave and never fully realising her literary potential. As Charlotte wrote to her friend and publisher, William Smith Williams, after watching Anne face death with quiet dignity: ‘She died without severe struggle – resigned – trusting in God – thankful for release from a suffering life – deeply assured that a better existence lay before her’. And this ‘Christian death’, continued Charlotte, ‘did not rend my heart as Emily’s did’. Instead, ‘I let Anne go to God and felt He had a right to her’. This, she explained, was because ‘Anne, from her childhood seemed preparing for an early death’. 

Being the daughter of a poor clergyman – Patrick Brontë possessing neither property nor a private income – Anne needed to support herself. As Charlotte would later describe in Jane Eyre and Anne in her first novel, Agnes Grey, the only realistic employment options for an educated but indigent middle-class woman were teaching or becoming a governess. Anne chose the latter, and in 1839, aged 19, she went to work for the Ingham family at Blake Hall, near her old school. The experience was traumatic, Anne writing to Charlotte that the brother and sister in her charge were wild, disrespectful, and completely uncontrollable. The children were spoilt and indulged by their mother, who gave the young governess no support, always taking the side of her offspring while her husband berated Anne for her supposed failures. By the end of the year, Anne had been dismissed as incompetent. The demonic Bloomfield children of Agnes Grey, a novel in part concerned with the formation of upper-class young men through education and cultural socialisation, are clearly based on the Ingham brood, just as Agnes’ experiences mirror Anne’s to the point of creative nonfiction.

The following year, Anne obtained another position as governess, this time with the Robinsons of Thorp Green Hall, near York (‘Horton Lodge’ in Agnes Grey). Although faced with similar problems to those at Blake Hall, she persevered and became highly valued by her employers, the girls in her care remaining close friends until her death. All her siblings also worked briefly as tutors or governesses and struggled with discipline and lack of support, but only Anne made a success of it. In 1843, she helped her brother secure a post as a tutor to the Robinson’s only son. But Bramwell began an affair with Mrs. Robinson, and both he and his sister were forced to resign at the end of 1845, Anne writing in the back of her Prayer Book: ‘Sick of mankind and their disgusting ways’. (Whether she was referring to her brother or former employers is unclear. Presumably, it was both.) The seed of Agnes Grey, and perhaps even The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, may well have been planted in her mind that day.

Bramwell had hoped to marry Lydia Robinson after the death of her husband but she spurned his advances. Already erratic and libertine by nature, the broken-hearted Bramwell fell into a downward spiral of depression, alcohol and opium addiction, and debt. His pathetic yet determined self-destruction was witnessed by his family at Howarth until he died of TB in September 1848, aged just 30, his condition exacerbated and accelerated by his continued drinking and laudanum use, and brutal periods of withdrawal when the money from loans begged from friends ran out. Although Jane EyreAgnes Grey and Wuthering Heights all saw print the year before Bramwell’s death, with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall published in June 1848, he was so far gone by then it remains uncertain whether he was even aware of them. Six months later, having denied her symptoms and refused any medical help until it was too late, Emily followed him to the grave.

Again drawing on her experience as a governess, Anne was writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as Bramwell was drinking himself to death in the home the family shared. The horror of this experience, crossed with the toxic masculinity of Blake Hall (the infamous ‘boys will be boys’ bird-torturing episode in Agnes Grey was a true story), and the sexual intrigues of the Robinson household were all poured into the pages of her book. And while Agnes Grey by ‘Acton Bell’ had been reasonably successful, especially for a debut novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an instant bestseller, the first edition selling out even faster than had Jane Eyre.

With its combination of unflinching realism, revolutionary gender politics and sensational drama, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was nothing short of a masterpiece, Algernon Charles Swinburne later writing of it: ‘as a study of utterly flaccid and invertebrate immorality it bears signs of more faithful transcription from life than anything in Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights’. And like most masterpieces, it was misunderstood in its own time, despite – or more likely because – it was such a hit. Contemporary sales versus critical reception therefore paint two very different pictures. These were even more complicated by confusion over authorship, some critics convinced that Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell were all the same person, while others, such as Sharpe’s London Magazine, believed that ‘despite reports to the contrary … no woman could have written such a work’.

Charles Kingsley in Fraser’s Magazine praised the novel’s moral power, writing that ‘society owes thanks, not sneers, to those who dare to shew her the image of her own ugly, hypocritical visage’. He did, however, qualify this by noting that it was ‘not a pleasant book to read’, and that ‘The fault of the book is coarseness’ which ‘makes it utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls’. The Athenaeum similarly praised the book as ‘the most entertaining novel we have read in a month past’ but warned the ‘Bells’ collectively ‘against their fancy for dwelling upon what is disagreeable’. And these mixed signals were by far the best of the English reviews. The Spectator, for example, declared that:

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, like its predecessor [Jane Eyre], suggests the idea of considerable abilities ill applied. There is power, effect, and even nature, though of an extreme kind, in its pages; but there seems in the writer a morbid love for the coarse, not to say the brutal; so that his level subjects are not very attractive, and the more forcible are displeasing or repulsive… There is a coarseness of tone throughout the writing of all these Bells.

The Rambler, meanwhile, subscribing to the view that Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall  were written by the same person, felt that Anne’s novel was ‘not so bad a book as Jane Eyre’, which was ‘one of the coarsest of the books we ever perused’. Fiercely defending the patriarchy, the Rambler liked the Reverend Millward best among her characters. As a satirical figure representing provincial ignorance and arrogance among the Anglican clergy, this preference was akin to hailing Mr. Bumble the Beadle the true star of Oliver Twist. With a dark prescience, the review concluded with the hope that ‘Unless our authoress can contrive to refine and elevate her general notions of all human and divine things, we shall be glad to learn that she is not intending to add another work to those which have already been produced by her pen’.

The problem was that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was so subversive on so many levels. The Rambler therefore also took issue with the doctrine of Universal Salvation argued by the novel’s heroine, as did Sharpe’s London Magazine, which did not mince its words:

The dangerous tendency of such a belief must be apparent to anyone who gives the subject a moment’s consideration; and it becomes scarcely necessary, in order to convince our readers of the madness of trusting to such a forced distortion of the Divine attribute of mercy, to add that this doctrine is alike repugnant to Scripture, and in direct opposition to the teaching of the Anglican Church.

As with the Spectator review (and to a slightly lesser extent, Kingsley’s), Sharpe’s made the common argument that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was at once well written but entirely unsuitable to be read. In fact, it was the quality of the prose, it argued, that made the novel so seductive and pernicious: ‘like the fatal melody of the Syren’s song, its very perfections render it more dangerous, and therefore more carefully to be avoided’. Similar sentiments were expressed across the Atlantic. Edwin Percy Whipple in the North American Review, for example, decried ‘the brutal element of human nature’ that was ‘given prominence’ in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights, although noting that Anne’s novel was ‘less unpleasant’ than Emily’s, ascribing both to the same author, which he took to be male. 

And so it went on, while the novel continued to sell, Anne’s publisher Thomas Newby (who had also published Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights), launching a second edition less than two months after the first. To this, Anne added a preface addressing her critics, as Dickens had done in the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist. And like Dickens, her argument was one of social realism:

My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it … Let it not be imagined, however, that I consider myself competent to reform the errors and abuses of society, but only that I would fain contribute my humble quota towards so good an aim; and if I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense.

This, she felt, was her religious duty:

Such humble talents as God has given me I will endeavour to put to their greatest use; if I am able to amuse, I will try to benefit too; and when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own.

And Anne’s faith was not the blind dogma of the Reverend Millwards of the world, but an evolving and challenging theology in the radical Protestant tradition. For Anne, it was a right and a duty to interpret the Scriptures for herself with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to share what she had learned. And she frequently struggled with this faith, sometimes to the point of doubting the existence of God. Like Helen Graham, she denied the doctrine of eternal damnation as incompatible with the God of Love. Much to the annoyance of her critics, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall redemption was possible for everyone, even Arthur Huntingdon.

But among the novel’s many critics, perhaps the most surprising was her sister Charlotte. After the deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte’s publisher, Smith, Elder & Co., approached her to edit new editions of her sister’s novels to preserve their legacy. This she did with Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, but not The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She explained her decision in a letter to Smith Williams:

‘Wildfell Hall’ it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake – it was too little consonant with the character – tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer. She wrote it under a strange, conscientious, half-ascetic notion of accomplishing a painful penance and a severe duty … She had in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail as a warning to others.

Charlotte developed this thought in her preface to the combined 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey under the heading of ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’:

‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,’ by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception [as had Wuthering Heights]. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid. She had, in the course of her life been called on to contemplate, near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course with fictitious characters, incidents, and situations) as a warning to others. She hated her work, but would pursue it. When reasoned with on the subject, she regarded such reasonings as a temptation to self-indulgence. She must be honest; she must not varnish, soften, or conceal. This well-meant resolution brought on her misconstruction, and some abuse which she bore, as it was her custom, to bear whatever was unpleasant, with mild, steady patience. She was a very sincere and practical Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy communicated a sad shade to her brief, blameless life.

At the height of its fame, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was effectively buried alongside its author. It was not reprinted until 1854, by which time it had fallen completely out of the public eye. In her biography of Charlotte, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote that the novel’s subject ‘was painfully discordant to one who would fain have sheltered herself from all but peaceful and religious ideas’. The Brontë’s biographer Juliet Barker interprets this as ‘Charlotte, it appears, was prepared to consign her sister’s novel to oblivion because she considered its subject at odds with her own perception of what Anne’s character was and ought to have been’. Reading Charlotte’s ‘Biographical Notice’, it is also clear that ‘the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused’ referred to Bramwell’s dissolution and she suspected the book was really about him (which is how Daphne Du Maurier later read it, arguing that Arthur represented Bramwell’s dark side, Gilbert his light). But the real clue to why she hated this remarkable novel so much was her belief that ‘it did her harm’. To the over-protective Charlotte, the writing of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had killed her last sister.

So, what might we take from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall today? Do we celebrate a century-and-a-half of progress in the rights of women, and read the novel as a powerful historical testimony written by a woman born well before her time? Or does it still have something contemporary to say? I would argue that it does. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall remains a harrowing depiction of domestic abuse and alcoholism, social issues that have never gone away. Female partners on low incomes still can’t easily get away from their abusers (my late mother was one of them), and statistically a married woman is most likely to be murdered by her husband. Hollywood leaves us in no doubt that bad boys are still attractive, and many young women still enter into red flag relationships genuinely believing, like Helen Huntington, that they can change their partners. There is something tragically universal about Helen’s story which is as true now as when Anne wrote it.

As the historian Kellow Chesney wrote, much of our continued fascination with the Victorians comes from their ‘strange familiarity’. Arthur Huntington, then, for his many faults, is no gothic villain. He is not evil so much as narcissistic and immature and, as Helen realises – as did Agnes Grey – this is entirely the result of his upbringing as the first son of a wealthy family. As a boy, his mother pandered to his every whim while he was taught to ‘be a man’ by his father. As an adult, he is enthusiastic, spontaneous, and affectionate towards his wife, but also jealous and possessive, to the extent of resenting his own child for taking her attention away from him. He has no inner resources, can barely write, and is easily bored in the country when the weather is too bad to ride or hunt. He demands constant entertainment and instant gratification. At home, he is restless and drawn to the pleasures of London, where he pretends to ‘do business’ but in reality merely squanders his fortune on wine, women and gambling with other equally profligate friends from his own social class, all quite happy to be seen behaving badly in public while they are even worse in private. By the end of the novel, as broken as Bramwell, Arthur has pretty much regressed to helpless infancy.

What Anne Brontë showed in both her novels, from her own observations of the landed gentry, was that Arthur Huntington was by no means unusual. In fact, his upbringing and behaviour were typical for a male member of the social elite, to the extent that many of her critics sprung to the defence of the status quo by attacking his author. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne seems to be suggesting that it is these man-babies than run the world. And, let’s be honest, they still do. 

Steve Carver

Image: Brontë family birthplace plaque, Thornton, Bradford, West Yorkshire Credit: Steven Gillis HD9 Imaging / Alamy Stock Photo

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