Tough to Tackle Reads: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

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I want to start this post with an apology. I try to do my Tough to Tackle Reads segment quarterly and I fell extremely behind with this one. Basically, it came down to bad time management. That said, I’ll get started.

This time around, I chose another major Victorian novel. In case you haven’t guessed it, I love a good Victorian novel. I picked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two of my favourite books and I felt it was about time the third Brontë sister received some attention.

I adored this book. I love how ahead of its time and unapologetic it is. I love how it’s written, I love the depth of the characters, and I even enjoy the morality. I’m a reader who prefers a dark undertone to what she reads. As much as I love Pride and Prejudice, the Brontës’ fascination with the darker sides of human nature make their works that much more compelling to me.

The Book

Published in 1848, Anne Brontë’s novel hit the scene with a splash and a raising of Victorian eyebrows. According to the synopsis on the back cover, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a novel that covers a lot of topics: one man’s physical and moral decline via alcohol-abuse, the slow breakdown of a marriage, a disquisition on the raising of children, and a harsh critique of the role of women in Victorian society.

This book hit close to home for its author. Many of the events within were inspired by Anne’s first-hand account of her brother’s slow decline into drink and his subsequent death a year before her own. Brontë’s novel has shocked and entertained readers for over a century, and its lessons are still relevant today.

The Author

As I’m sure you’ve figured out, Anne Brontë is one of those Brontës. The youngest of the family, Anne is the “lesser known” novelist and poetess member of the famous triumvirate. Her prose differ from Emily and Charlotte’s in that she writes in a sharp, ironic style, not laden with as much imagery and metaphor as her siblings –though don’t doubt she can write a beautiful turn of phrase when it’s called for. If you haven’t read any of the Brontë’s works, I would suggest starting with Anne. I think she’s more accessible.

Anne passed away in 1849, a year after The Tenant of Wildfell Hall hit the bookstores. She wrote only one other novel, Agnes Grey, published in 1845. Charlotte did her best to supress The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne passed away but thankfully it maintained its popularity. By Victorian standards, the book was shocking –it depicts extramarital sex, drunkenness, drug experimentation– so it’s not too surprising that Charlotte would not like it to stand as her sister’s legacy.

However, to say that it’s a book only intended to offend the reader does Anne a disservice. Important lessons, harsh lessons, are imparted within its pages and it’s obvious that the writer felt a strong moral imperative to write about her experiences watching her brother’s decline. This need lead her to write a manifesto of women’s rights that the world needed in turn.

Length

I found the ending of this tale exceedingly long. However, that’s only because I thought it was going to end in a different way. I thought things were being dragged out. They weren’t My copy comes in at a 409 pages, which I don’t think is long for the period. It’s nothing like Jane Eyre, if that helps you. And it’s not dense like Wuthering Heights.

My Difficulty Rating

Since I have a background in reading Victorian novels, I would give this a 2/5. People who don’t read a lot of Victorian work might find it a bit difficult, but Anne Brontë writes quite clearly, so I would give it a 3/5 for the unfamiliar.

Why You Should Read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Like I said, it’s ahead of its time. Helen, the heroine of the tale, initially stays with her abusive husband, Huntingdon, because she believes he carries some good inside of him and surely he will come to his senses. Once it becomes clear that he is much more debauched than she could have realized and saving his soul is far beyond her abilities, she forms a plan of escape. And succeeds. When she returns to his house she does so on her terms, and only her terms. Anne Brontë doesn’t simply disagree with the role of women in Victorian society, she thoroughly thumbs her nose at them.

Class boundaries, even thoughts on traditional marriage roles, take a back seat in this story. Anne, though she is not nearly the romantic her sisters were, believes in the power of love, and you can see it at work in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. However, a realism underscores her notions of love. Love for her son ultimately pushes Helen to leave Huntingdon. Love allows her to have a happy ending despite her dark history. But love is also what gets her stuck in Huntingdon’s clutches in the first place. Yet in the end love leads her to a happy ending, though this time it is a much more mature form.

Still, Helen’s relationship with Gilbert is revolutionary as far as Victorian society goes. Initially, Gilbert’s mother is horrified that he has obviously fallen for an older woman with a dubious past who supports herself with art. Only in the final pages do we see that Helen is the mistress of not one but two incredibly large and opulent estates. She’s very much the elite of society and Gilbert is merely an educated farmer.

Regardless, a meeting of minds and a moral kinship forge a friendship between them that blooms into a romantic relationship Helen does her best to ignore and destroy. Thankfully, she doesn’t succeed. And despite his surprise at the end, Gilbert doesn’t do anything stupid to sabotage it either.

Stories of betrayal will never grow old, though I find it very amusing that this story is described as one of betrayal. If Helen leaving her husband to set up house with the governess he hired to “tutor his son” is betrayal, I’m never going to stop rolling my eyes. I know it was a big deal then for women to stand up for themselves and decide they weren’t actually designed to be the emotional punching bags for their husbands, but come on. I know they were their husband’s property, but come on.

We need a new descriptor for this book. Unless we’re talking about Huntingdon’s continual betrayals of Helen. That I can get on board with.

There’s a comment in this biography of Anne’s that caught my eye: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall “is considered to be one of the first sustained feminist novels…and was an instant, phenomenal success; within six weeks it was sold out.” One, shame on Charlotte for trying to stifle this tale when people obviously needed to read it. Two, I wrote “manifesto of women’s rights” before I read that sentence and I’m glad to see my thoughts were corroborated.

Anne might have been ahead of her time with this story, but this was published well after Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792); John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869) was on its way to being created. I won’t get into every feminist text of the time, but women’s suffrage was a legitimate topic and women’s rights and roles in society were hotly debated.

So it is not surprising that this is a feminist book. An excellent one at that. I love a heroine with agency who not only fights for it but exercises it. Besides that, it’s an extraordinary concept in a Victorian piece for a woman to be her own provider. Helen works to support her and her son when they leave. Not only that, Helen’s agency is consistent throughout the narrative.

Helen chooses to marry Huntingdon, despite her aunt’s strong wishes against it. The fact that her aunt is right about him is neither here nor there, all young people are entitled to their folly. Helen consistently sticks up for herself to Huntingdon and his cronies. Helen chooses to leave him. She also makes the decision to go back. She also sets the tone for her relationship with Gilbert and is the one to affirm that relationship in the end. She always controls her own destiny.

The imagery within the novel is used strongly but subtly. The descriptors of Wildfell Hall reinforce the town’s beliefs about Helen and subvert reader expectations because a tradition in Victorian pieces, inherited from the Romantics, is that beauty equals good and ugly equals bad. Plus, the descriptions early on of Grassdale are dark and foreboding from Helen’s point of view. When Gilbert comes upon the grounds it was like he was describing Camelot. His reaction to Staningly was similar. Even I didn’t realize how well off Helen was, but both estates were initially described in her journals, and the wealth they obviously reflect didn’t mean that much to her.

Finally, one of the most romantic scenes and speeches in literature can be found in these pages. I don’t want to spoil it but I also really want to share it, so I’m giving absolutely no context and no page number:

“This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear: the cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blighted it. Look…it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with cold snow even now on petals. –Will you have it?”

What I Had Trouble With

I truly struggled to get through the parts where Helen’s marriage was crumbling and her husband started showing his true colours. His incessant need for her attention drove me nuts, his belittling of her infuriated me, and her nursing him made me scowl. Truth be told, every scene with Arthur Huntingdon in it infuriated me because I recognized him for what he was from the get-go. I’m much more jaded than our heroine –she’s also a much better and more patient person than me.

There were nights where it took me hours to calm down after putting the book down. He riled me that much. Knowing that the majority of Victorian women, even present day women, have no legitimate way out of abusive relationships is enraging. No woman should have to be afraid of a man. Every woman should be able to pick her future and be allowed to walk away from her mistakes.

read on the wall by Mario Mancuso via Flickr

I’ve never been so glad to have a happy ending in a novel.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, this is still a timely novel. As women’s rights continue to be stomped on into 2017, it’s important to resurrect these old novels and realize our current rights were hard one and the importance of sustaining the fight.

Plus, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is just a damn good book.

 

*Information under The Author and The Book are an amalgamation of textual and biographical information found in my version of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published by Oxford World Classics (Oxford University Press, 2008) and this page on Goodreads about Anne Brontë.

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