Warning: I will try not to spoil The Tenant of Wildfell Hall too, too much because I loved it and want everyone to read it because I now thoroughly believe Anne Brontë doesn’t get the attention she deserves.
This spring, I read the three Jane Austen novels I’d never read before: Northanger Abbey, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. The only thing I love more than nineteenth century Brit Lit is crossing great works of literature off my to-read list, so I decided to un-shame my English major self by getting my Brontë on. Reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights put a Brontë bee in my bonnet (get it? bonnets? the nineteenth century? I slay myself). I’ve been struggling to finish Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for months, but today I emerged victorious. And I really, really loved this novel.
In my post on Wuthering Heights, I say much more about the Brontë family history. Anne’s work has never achieved the lasting popularity and place in the literary establishment as her sisters’, and her work is very different from theirs. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are Romantic novels brimming with Gothic elements: creepy houses, ghosts, and other supernatural forces. Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff are textbook Byronic heroes: Jane Eyre struggles to remain true to herself in spite of her love for the former, and Catherine Earnshaw’s love for the latter drives them both to ruin and death. As Kate Beaton says much more beautifully than I ever could, that is not how Anne Brontë works.
I haven’t yet read Anne Brontë’s first novel, Agnes Grey, which I understand is the story of a governess (much like Jane Eyre in that respect, but both Anne and Charlotte were employed as governesses in real life). But from what everyone knows (at least, those of us who know Anne Brontë even exists), Anne wrote realist novels and her work shows a great deal of moralism. Not that Jane Eyre is immoral or anything, but from what I’ve read in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I don’t think Anne Brontë’s characters would stand for Mr. Rochester’s bullshit.
First, a tangent: in a class I took on the Victorian Social World, we read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I’d really like to re-read this novel in light of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I’d also like to re-read Charlotte Brontë’s least successful novel, Shirley, which I read the following semester in another class. Both North and South and Shirley are what we called “social problem novels” (a term I prefer to “social novel”), and both specifically address millworkers suffering at the hands of their unfeeling mill-owners—which sympathetic young women of strong moral character try to fix. (These novels are very similar and Gaskell was Charlotte Brontë’s friend and biographer…coincidence? Another reason to re-read.)
When I read North and South, I was bored by the paragraphs of moral debate that make up much of the dialogue between characters. Shirley I enjoyed much more: all the moral debate is still there, but a lot of it is explicitly feminist and there’s some great Brontë fire burning underneath the dialogue (the Brontë sisters are full of rage and it’s the best). While Charlotte was writing Shirley, her remaining three siblings died, including Anne, and I’ve read that some of the characters may even be based on Anne and Emily as she worked through her grief—it’s certainly more in Anne’s mode than that typical of Charlotte. Though I’ve read Shirley was popular and well-received at the time of its publication, today it remains the least popular of Charlotte’s works.
Back to Tenant. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins detailing the life of a gentleman farmer named Gilbert Markham. Gilbert lives with his mother, brother, and sister out in the countryside. He has a girl he’ll probably marry and a social circle of neighbors. When a young widow, Helen Graham, and her son, Arthur, begin renting out an old mansion in the vicinity, everything changes for Gilbert. Helen doesn’t really fit in with the others and she has some pretty radical ideas about women’s place in society and child-rearing. Rumors begin to abound about Helen, and her neighbors gossip about her and socially isolate her. Gilbert grows to fall in love with her at the expense of his relationship with his community, but she pushes him away. Finally, she gives him her diary to set the record straight.
Here I don’t want to get too far into the spoilers, but I’ll say what’s already on the back of any edition: Helen is not a widow. She has taken her son and fled from an abusive marriage to an alcoholic (Arthur Huntingdon) and lives at Wildfell Hall in hiding. Over half the novel is recounted through Helen’s diary entries, beginning with her as a young single woman and details the years-long dissolution of her marriage. Once Gilbert knows her secret, they both struggle with their feelings, social obstacles—you know, the stuff of high drama.
Tenant is very much a social problem novel. The introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition sheds light on the temperance movement in nineteenth-century England: with alcohol being mass-produced for the first time (and much stronger than home brews), there was an epidemic of alcoholism throughout England. Because much of Anne’s papers have been lost or destroyed, it’s not apparent the degree to how much Arthur Huntingdon is based on the Brontës’ brother, Branwell, but Branwell was a bit of a real-life Byronic hero himself. He was an alcoholic, an opium-eater, fathered an illegitimate child, had an affair with his employer’s wife (at the same house where Anne worked as a governess), racked up a ton of debt, and then died of tuberculosis. Even without this biographical tidbit, it’s fascinating to read Tenant alongside the more popular novels by Charlotte and Emily. Anne’s Byronic hero, Arthur Huntingdon, shares a lot of traits with Rochester and Heathcliff, but his romantic appeal wears off pretty fast and he becomes more the villain of the novel than anything else.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was shocking for its time. I found it shocking to this day: I don’t pretend to be as widely read in Victorian novels as I’d like, but I don’t recall reading another novel of the time period that deals explicitly and at such length about alcoholism, abuse (physical and emotional), extramarital sex, and the plight of women to have not enough social standing to become independent agents (please correct in the comments if you have taken a class with me and know otherwise). The novel was written in 1848, it takes place in the 1820s. Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, to divorce in England required great expense and intervention by either ecclesiastical courts or by Act of Parliament (with some exceptions, such as a wife’s adultery—I only learned this through the end-notes and introduction to this novel). She would have had no rights to the custody of her son.
The part of Tenant that I responded to the most strongly was by far the feminist overtones. The Wikipedia article calls it “the first sustained feminist novel”—it must certainly be one of the earliest. Of course, novels by Jane Austen and even Charlotte Brontë deal with the lower social status of women in the nineteenth century. But I must agree that Anne Brontë’s is one of the first to have feminism as one of its central tenants—that is to say, it addresses and challenges explicitly the plight of women’s social positions (i.e., subordinate to men) at large (or at least as a widespread problem among the characters’ social class). Helen is treated horribly by her husband (and so are her husband’s friends’ wives treated by theirs), but she is not a shrinking violet by almost any means. She’s a fighter through and through; she struggles against her husband’s bullshit and the bullshit of other men, she fights to be independent and tells other women not to settle for an asshole just to be married, and even in hiding at Wildfell Hall she lectures her new social circle on why “boys will be boys” is a crock. I mean, we are STILL arguing about “boys will be boys” over 150 years later.
Structurally, the book is kind of hard to deal with: it’s written as an epistolary novel. Gilbert Markham writes to his friend Halford at the beginning and end of the novel. More than half the novel is taken up by Helen’s diary entries, which are presumably being sent verbatim to Halford. Helen’s diary really makes up the emotional core of the novel, but the epistolary format is a little clunky and the two narrative voices don’t seem to differ all that much. Gilbert can be kind of an asshole sometimes (and sometimes he takes on some pretty Byronic traits that can be terrifying), and Helen’s unwavering morality can get tiresome. Still, though, what I liked about this novel far outweighed what I didn’t like about it.
Finally, we get to a couple more important points I want to mention. I’ve been looking into Anne Brontë’s biography. As we know, Charlotte outlived her siblings and was probably complicit in building a lot of the myths surrounding the family and may have even destroyed some of her sisters’ papers and other manuscripts. Wikipedia has it that while Agnes Grey’s popularity paled to that of Wuthering Heights (the two were published in one volume after the success of Jane Eyre), Tenant sold out quickly and caused quite a splash. But when it came time for it to be re-published in 1850 after Anne’s death, Charlotte Brontë suppressed the re-printing. When Tenant was re-printed, it was heavily edited to the point that it barely resembled the original. In fact, these crap editions still exist today, so be sure to obtain a copy based on the original text, such as the Oxford World’s Classics edition.
And now I just really, really, really want to read books about the Brontës because they are fascinating to me—and I, for one, really want to find out what the hell was up with Charlotte Brontë suppressing the facts and works of her sisters. And I’ve decided my goal for this year is to finish reading every novel published by the Brontës. I probably won’t re-read Shirley, but if I can get through Villette, The Professor, and Agnes Grey, I will feel sufficiently Brontë’d.