Wednesday 4 October 2017

Book Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

Book Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

[This review is heavy with Spoilers. If you are planning to read the book and wish to keep the plot unknown to yourself, avoid the portions under ‘Plot’. But books like this are about so much more than the plot, that it should hardly matter.]

A Mistake

I have been staring at the word file, with nothing in it but the words above and a blinking cursor below, for upwards of five minutes. If that does not sound like much, do consider that this never happens to me – when I do have something to write about, I’m normally going along merrily at my forty-typo-errors-a-minute rate.

But there are so many things that invade my mind when it comes to the review of this particular book, so many approaches I think I could take, so many facets to delve into, that I fear I do not quite know how to begin.

So let me begin, then, with a mea culpa:

In February 2016, at the beginning of my review of Agnes Grey, I wrote that Anne Brontë, though a fine author in her own right, suffers for being the younger sister of such acclaimed stalwarts as her sisters Charlotte and Emily.

As my fingers moved to close the book after I had read the end of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I realised that I had been very, very wrong. The Tenant establishes the youngest of the supremely gifted Brontë sisters as an author of extraordinary keenness and erudition, one fully deserving to bear her last name.

(c) Kitty Grimm

But in my defence, Agnes Grey, while a book of many merits, was not, overall, particularly significant, while both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are seminal works of fiction. The Tenant is not exactly that, perhaps, because it is more a deconstruction.

“A deconstruction of what?” you may ask.

Of the entire genre of modern romance literature - the Mills & Boons, the Harlequins, the bodice-rippers with their dashing heroes and shrinking-violet heroines, the Prince Charmings in their magnificent Palaces and the Princesses in theirs, the cold Lords and the warm-blooded Ladies, the rascally rogues and the ‘good women’ who reform them.

The Tenant takes every trope that every two-bit author of romances abuses and holds it up to the harsh mirror of reality.

Yes, in 1848, Anne Brontë had already written the deconstruction of a genre that flourished – and continues to do so – over a century later.


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins with the arrival of the eponymous character to a sleepy rural village in the north of England, where she has rented a few rooms in a sprawling, but long-neglected country house. Helen Graham is a beautiful young widow, with an adorable child in tow, and quickly engages the affections of Gilbert Markham, a wealthy young farmer who transfers them to her from the Vicar’s younger daughter, Eliza Millward. Markham’s attentions are met with indifference at first, and though the haughty young widow appears to draw closer to him over time, her determination to not entertain any romantic avowals from him only grows stronger. His frustration grows as rumours begin to circulate about the fair widow, originated by Eliza Millward and her cronies, to the effect that the woman he loves is the kept woman of Fredrick Lawrence, the owner of Wildfell Hall, and that the child is also his. As Markham finds what he believes to be evidence of the truth of these rumours, he draws away from her in anger and quarrels with Mr. Lawrence. But eventually, Helen Graham confesses the truth to him, and therein lies the crux of the tale.

Helen paints Arthur Huntingdon's likeness
(c) Kitty Grimm

The story she tells him, through her diary, is in the beginning, all-too-familiar. It is the story of a young and impressionable girl falling in love with a handsome, charming rascal, whose reputation for ‘roughness’ only adds to his glamour. Head over heels in love with his physical beauty and determined that her own goodness can reform him, Helen marries Arthur Huntingdon, a shallow, hard-drinking, carousing friend of her guardian. Over a period of time, Huntingdon shows himself to be a neglectful husband, far more interested in his own enjoyment than in making his marriage work. Worse, he is a liar and a profligate, and does not hesitate to manipulate Helen in a low, cunning sort of way to get what he wants. His depredations extend gradually to adultery and chronic drunkenness, and Helen’s fear for his corrupting influence on their son (also named Arthur) drive her to despair. Meanwhile, one of her husband’s carousing friends, Walter Hargrave, offers himself as a lover to Helen, continually trying to act as a friend when she needs one and emphasising to her, whenever he can, her husband’s unworthiness. But to Helen, his approaches are odious, steeped as they are in dishonesty and stained with the sordid grime of proposed adultery.

Finally, when Huntingdon breaks from his first mistress, and tries to introduce his second into the house, Helen is forced – at a time when divorce was virtually legally impossible – to take her life into her own hands and run away from her husband, to live in the remoteness of Wildfell Hall under an assumed name.

Markham’s suspicions about Lawrence and Helen are gone, but now their love faces the insurmountable hurdle of there being a living husband in her life, and with no possibility, at the time, of a legal separation, they are left with no choice but to part. The further events in their lives and the eventual coming together of the distressed Markham and Helen form the final portion of the book.

This is the edition the Slacker read from

Each primary character has a personality that is his or her own. Markham, perhaps the weakest of the lot, still comes across as real - impetuous and sullen, but sincere. Lawrence is a quintessential shy, effete but good-natured country squire. Huntingdon is a villain, yes, but as believable a villain as a domestic drama can hope for. He is complex, his habits are not just told to us, as many modern authors do, they are shown - his dissembling, his promises to reform and unwillingness to actually do so, make his decline and degeneration become real to the reader, just as it does to his wife.

Even among Huntingdon’s partners-in-vice, there are distinctions; they are not merely props but represent different stages of the immoral life – Hattersly the gruff party-animal who has some good in him still, Hargrave the conflicted, spoilt brat whose love is tainted with vice and whose vices are a little mitigated by what seems to be a real depth of emotion towards Helen, Lord Lowborough the depressive, recovering alcoholic and gambler who may not partake, but still cannot tear himself away from his old companions while bearing a pathetic love for his wife, Annabella and Grimsby, the recalcitrant rake with little to redeem him at all – the evil genius, perhaps, of the whole group.

Similarly, Helen’s friends have their own foibles, Millicent the meek, Esther the ingénue, Annabella the temptress, all have more to them than the one-word archetypes I assign them. Even Markham’s rural friends and acquaintances are quite true to life.

But it is Helen Huntingdon who is the most powerful figure, and rightly so. Immature and full of love at first, cautious but hopeful later, and bitter and angry before the end, an essential moral goodness pervades her character without making her flawless or boring. Her capacity to analyse and reflect, her progression from hope to despair to acceptance, her strength in seeking to earn her own way in the world, her determination to find happiness when it is there to be found and her protectiveness for her child are all shown, not just told, something which, alone, would make The Tenant stand out.

Helen and her son.
(c) Kitty Grimm

A word as well for the complex framing device that the author uses – this is a book that is nominally in the form of a series of letters written by Markham, and then extracts from Helen’s diary nested within. Complicated as it may appear, on reflection, the need for this becomes apparent – it allows the writer to tell a story as a history as well as, where required, in something closer to ‘real time’, thus exploring the changes in the narrator’s mental state as her marriage breaks down. As a reader, it was interesting to note how the tone changed as different characters took the point-of-view and the subtle devices through which the illusion of ‘letters’ and ‘diary’ were maintained.


At first glance, I do not know if this plot summary appears to be particularly innovative. Considering the existence of a whole sub-genre of ‘feminist literature’ that exploits the ‘drunk, abusive husband’ trope and ‘emancipation through divorce / separation’ doctrine, I can see why it might not seem significant.

Consider then, that in 1848, the very thought of a woman leaving her husband militated so violently against the conventions of the day that several magazines refused to review The Tenant. Consider that the depiction of drinking and hunting and gambling as outright negative traits in a conjugal sense was extraordinary and led to a fire of abuse upon the author’s head. Consider that the depiction of a bad marriage in such stark detail was seen as attacking the very institution of matrimony itself.

But more than all this, consider that what Anne Brontë was attacking was also every romantic notion that young women held, and hold to this day. She could not have known that, a hundred-and-seventy years later, women would hold up Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester (the protagonists of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre respectively) as romantic ideals and fantasize about them, though maybe the early reception to those books, published a year earlier, did include some such response from the women readers. Either way, in The Tenant, the youngest Brontë sister effectively demolishes the romantic facades of both these heroes – there are shades of them in Huntingdon and Hargrave.

The reality of Heathcliff’s devil-may-care attitude and his manipulative wickedness is seen in Huntingdon and Helen’s relationship; Mr Rochester’s devious concealment of his first wife and attempts later to justify his behaviour to Jane through moral sophistry reflect clearly in Walter Hargrave’s courting of Helen as well. In other words, for the hordes of readers who, to this day, continue to idolize and idealise such characters, The Tenant would serve as an effective antidote – or maybe it would not; I do think that the shallow readers who comprise the former group are unlikely to draw any lessons anyway. And as though that were not enough, in the depiction of the relationship of Lord Lowborough and Annabella is ample proof that Anne was not writing only to make a sympathetic victim of the female protagonist – Lowborough is a man trying to overcome the very vices Helen’s husband refuses to, and his resultant depression, his need for a dependent relationship with his wife, and her contempt for him, is as modern and real in outlook and portrayal as could be wished.

But if I were to say that The Tenant is Anne’s ‘response’ to the works of her sisters, or even, as is commonly held, a purely moral tale, I would be falling short of identifying its scope. Walter Hargrave, with his pretended friendliness and melodrama, is every ‘nice guy’ who complains that ‘girls don’t want nice guys’. Huntingdon is every shameless ‘bad boy’ that women love, only to later regret. The strength of Helen – and even of Markham – is in their being flawed but real, plain and sincere.

In that sense, I see the book as remarkably deep in its understanding of the nature of relationships, of love, of marriages, and prescient in stripping away the worst excesses of authors of romantic novels who were not even born when Anne died, aged 29, a year after The Tenant was published.


A remarkable maturity flows from the pen of the author. A felicity with words we expect from her, and we do receive it – the language has a cadence and a dialect that is its own. Descriptions are vivid and symbolic and the themes of nurture and neglect are woven into scenery and the seasons.

When Markham first visits Wildfell Hall, he walks through an outer courtyard of brambles and bushes, much like the disordered life of its tenant. On later visits, a semblance of order is restored to it, until it is almost a garden, and later, when Helen leaves, neglect is the garden’s lot again. Huntingdon himself has a scene where he returns from bird-shooting muddy and covered in blood, a predator who has not only killed, but defiled his prey, much as he will do to Helen later. Even the scenes of drunken fights and emotional abuse or delineated so well and so faithfully, that they could, with minimal changes, form a part of a contemporary book – and do it better than most authors I have read. The use of nature and weather as motifs to parallel the plot is done with deftness and tremendous skill.

The writing itself is reasonably-paced by Victorian standards, though the favourite vice of the era – a tendency toward melodrama – is inevitably present in this book as well. Hargrave’s dialogue, in particular, reads like an exercise in theatrical delivery. Similarly, there are places where Brontë deliberately delays a denouement to prolong the drama which can make a reader grit his teeth, though I suspect this was quite commonplace in the era she wrote in.

Another possible issue is the moralising tone that Helen often takes in her internal monologues, a tone which clearly reflects the author’s own opinions. A deeply spiritual soul in real life, Anne’s own beliefs in the positive side of her Christian faith shine through the narrative. Her interpretation of the Book of Revelations appears to have been a firm belief that there is a ‘Universal Salvation’ for even the worst of sinners, and that true repentance can redeem any vice in the eyes of God, even if the hearts of men may be justified in turning away from such a sinner forever. Biblical references pepper the text, so for those who do not like that sort of thing, The Tenant may give cause to pause. I personally felt that the thoughts reflected well the sensibilities of the time, and as with another book on a not dissimilar subject (by an Indian author who has chosen not to publish the work yet), the sermonising is woven well into the story and the author does not forget the importance of having a story to tell in the quest to put forth her views.

Anne Brontë wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall expressly to bring forth the true horrors of the vices of drinking and gambling and the harsh realities of a bad marriage. It is said she drew on her experience of seeing her own brother, the much-beloved and least-deserving Branwell, fall prey to these very vices. In a letter, Charlotte Brontë said that it was clearly very painful for Anne to depict these vices and these scenes as honestly and keenly as she does, but she did so all the same with a determination and strength of conviction that the elder sister had not thought the younger capable of. That Anne accomplishes the delineation with aplomb is a testament to her powers of observation, strength of character, and her ability as a writer to translate those observations into the written word.

A special mention here, of the writer’s ability to hold together complex sentences, especially a 350-word beauty near the middle of the book which paints a superb, visual scene of Helen’s life at her husband’s country home and her yearning for his presence. It is writing that makes an impact when it needs to, and glides gently over the reader’s consciousness when it needs to do that. The Tenant is not a ‘coming-of-age’ story or one of deep volcanic passions, but it is a reflective story, a kick-in-the-face to silly notions of perfect love and the ‘reformed rogue’.

The tragedy of the ‘woman author’

When it came out, the violence and rough language, the unvarnished depiction of adultery and the agency shown by Helen Huntingdon in leaving her husband, were seen as radical, even immoral, by the puritanical standards of the time.

It was also a source of much confusion. Anne Brontë published under a male pseudonym, “Acton Bell”, just as her sisters did (Emily was Ellis Bell, and Charlotte was Currer Bell). A muck-up by Anne’s publisher led to their books being advertised, in some markets, as being by the same writer. There was already confusion about whether they were in reality men, and The Tenant, with its strong female character and attack on conventional thinking of the time, was also speculated to be the work of a female author. There was even one reviewer who theorised that it must be the work of a married woman, who made her husband write the “really disgraceful scenes” which no woman should or could write.

Sketch of Anne by her sister Charlotte

That was the 1840’s, of course. What is galling is that women writers face the same nonsense to this day. An author I know, whose book is a crime thriller with a very dark underlying theme of child abuse has been told that as a woman, she should not be writing such things – as well as had it suggested to her that she must be a victim herself, or how else could she write like that. She is not, I am sure, the only one. ‘Being a woman, how could you…’ is the start of many an exercise in patriarchal condescension. To this day, women who try to break away from writing formula romances are subject to some form of the criticism that Anne Brontë faced in 1848. I would go so far as to say that they would owe her a debt of gratitude for writing what she did, when she did.

I close this review with the conclusion of Anne’s own Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a passage which, I think, can be used, to this day, to silence such critics (emphasis added by me):

“As little, I should think, can it matter whether the writer so designated is a man, or a woman, as one or two of my critics profess to have discovered.  I take the imputation in good part, as a compliment to the just delineation of my female characters; and though I am bound to attribute much of the severity of my censors to this suspicion, I make no effort to refute it, because, in my own mind, I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be.  All novels are, or should be, written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.
Anne Bronte, July 22, 1848”

'Sunrise', a sketch made by Anne Brontë during her term as a governess

1 comment:

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