In which I review The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel about a woman who leaves her dissolute husband and lives as a recluse with her young son, igniting the suspicions of her new neighbours.
What it’s about: England, the 1820s. Gilbert Markham, a yeoman farmer, becomes intrigued by a young widow calling herself Helen Graham, who moves into the neighbourhood, taking up residence at the dilapidated mansion Wildfell Hall with her young son Arthur and an elderly servant. Helen bucks social convention by supporting herself an artist, rarely attending church, mixing reluctantly in society and showing excessive concern for Arthur’s welfare. Obsessed with Helen, he attacks her landlord Frederick Lawrence whom he assumes is her lover. He confronts Helen, who denies the affair and gives him her diaries to read by way of explanation. Gilbert learns that Helen was an heiress who fell in love with Arthur Huntingdon, a libertine with a reputation for overspending, drunkenness and immorality. After years of abuse and unhappiness, she asks Frederick (her brother) to help her escape with her son. Gilbert confesses his love to Helen, who begs her to forget him since she is not free to marry. Helen returns home to nurse Huntingdon through a fatal illness. After a year passes, Gilbert travels to visit Helen, who has inherited her husband’s estate, and they agree to marry.
Why it’s a classic: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was Anne Bronte’s second and final novel, following the publication and positive reception of Agnes Grey in 1847. Galvanised by the success of her elder sisters Charlotte and Emily, whose novels Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were published in 1847 to great acclaim, Anne published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the following year under her pseudonym Acton Bell. Critics and reviewers were horrified at the novel’s blunt descriptions of alcoholism and infidelity, and the sinister portrayal of Huntingdon. “There seems in the writer a morbid love for the coarse, not to say the brutal”, wrote the Spectator, “that puts an offensive subject in its worst point of view”. Charles Kingsley declared the novel “utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls“. Sharpe’s London Magazine speculated that the novel’s “evils which render the work unfit for perusal” arose from “a perverted taste and an absence of mental refinement in the writer, together with a total ignorance of the usages of good society”, and that the scenes of debauchery “are described with a disgustingly truthful minuteness, which shows the writer to be only too well acquainted with the revolting details of such evil revelry”.
Despite or perhaps because of these condemnations, Anne’s novel became an immediate bestseller, and was rushed into a second printing six weeks later. In her Preface to the second edition, Anne rebutted her critics with a forceful defence of her storytelling: “When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest?”
The Sharpe’s review deduced, correctly, that Anne knew of what she spoke. Huntingdon is thought to be based on her brother Branwell, a painter and poet whose life was blighted by alcoholism and drug addiction, and whose affair with a married woman Anne had witnessed first hand. Branwell died just a few months after the publication of The Tenant, aged 31. In this light, the coarse and ugly truths in The Tenant become central to Anne’s narrative strategy, a warning to her readers about the dangers of addiction, based on her own painful experiences: “Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts … there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.”
Anne died less than a year later, of tuberculosis, aged just 29. After her death, Charlotte instructed her publishers to withdraw The Tenant of Wildfell Hall from publication, writing that “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”.
Biographers have since debated whether Charlotte was acting out of jealousy rather than well-intentioned conservatism. Either way, it was enough to kill Anne’s reputation. For much of the 19th century she became known as the lesser Brontë, eclipsed by the popular success of Charlotte and Emily, though with the occasional champion. Charles Swinburne wrote that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall “deserves perhaps a little more notice and recognition than it has ever received” and that “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.” In 1912, May Sinclair proclaimed that when Anne “slammed the door of Mrs Huntingdon’s bedroom” to prevent Huntingdon from entering, “she slammed it in the face of society and all existing moralities and conventions.”
Anne’s reputation was revived in the 20th century. Her first biographer W. T. Hale argued that Anne’s themes were “way ahead of her times” and that “she rushed in where Thackeray dared not tread”. Her 1959 biographers Ada Harrison and Derek Stanford named Anne the first realist woman writer in British fiction, predating George Eliot by nearly a decade. Winifred Gérin hailed Helen Huntingdon as an early feminist heroine, and posited The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as “the first manifesto for Women’s Lib”. Daphne du Maurier, whose mercurial Maxim de Winter in Rebecca owes something to Arthur Huntingdon, speculated that Anne may have written the novel as a warning to Branwell to mend his ways. Muriel Spark praised Anne and condemned Charlotte as a “harsh sister” who failed to recognise the merits of her writing.
By the 1990s, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was established as a classic of feminist literature. Academic Stevie Davies hailed it as “a feminist manifesto of revolutionary power and intelligence”, noting Anne’s forensic depiction of gender warfare, marital power relations and Helen’s struggle for financial and intellectual independence. The BBC mounted a successful TV adaptation in 1996, starring Tara Fitzgerald as Helen and Rupert Graves as Huntingdon. David Nokes’ screenplay leaned into contemporary feminist responses to the novel, portraying Huntingdon as a violent bully who repeatedly attempts to rape Helen. The novel is also notable for coining the phrase “tied to his mother’s apron string“, in reference to Arthur’s attachment to Helen.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet of Christmas roses. I’ve traditionally had an ambivalent relationship with the Brontë sisters. I loathed Wuthering Heights when I read it at 14, finding nothing of the great romance I’d been promised, and encountering only sadism, sexual obsession and necrophilia. At university, I established myself firmly within Team Charlotte, preferring the plain-speaking good sense of Jane Eyre and her battle of wits with Mr Rochester to the violent histrionics of Cathy and Heathcliff. Like many readers, I was more intrigued by the myth of the Brontës – their isolation and feverish activity, the dark spell cast by Branwell (who famously erased himself from the family portrait) and the tragedy of their early deaths.
Anne’s work I hadn’t read at all, until a planned trip to the Brontë Museum in Haworth a few weeks ago. (We didn’t make it due to train strikes, but that’s another story). The Tenant of Wildfell Hall landed as a very pleasant shock and one of the most engrossing and entertaining reads I’ve had in quite a while, full almost to overflowing with ideas about marriage, domestic violence, sexual equality, education and individual responsibility.
It would be perverse not to acknowledge The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a feminist novel, even though this ideological framework doesn’t quite do justice to the book’s complex appeal. Helen Worthington is a feminist heroine for the ages: intelligent, ferociously committed to her independence, and hugely courageous in her decision to leave her husband and assume control of her son’s education. Anne set the novel in the 1820s, long before the passage of laws to give women control over their own money or custody rights of their children. By leaving Huntingdon and taking their son with her, Helen was effectively breaking the law and becoming a fugitive. We see in horrible detail how easily Huntington exerts control over every aspect of Helen’s life: preventing access to her money, restricting her freedom of movement, hiring a rival governess for Arthur and even burning her painting tools to stymie her plans to support herself. The novel tracks, thrillingly, Helen’s descent from lovestruck teenager to domestic prisoner, until she finds the courage to pull off a remarkable escape, something Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary try and infamously fail to do.
What’s especially intriguing about the marital is that Huntingdon isn’t a stock villain, but a fully drawn character with whom we sense Helen is deeply in love. I know of few other novels that essay so expertly the psychological warfare of domestic abuse. An adept manipulator, Huntingdon turns up his charm and charisma to seduce Helen and keep her devoted, as well as being cruelly abusive and vindictive. Anne paints him and most of the other aristocratic characters as spoiled children, solely interested their own pleasure, intellectually torpid and unable to empathise with others. Yet for all his vileness, he remains fascinating, and we understand why Helen feels unable to leave him.
Helen’s abuse occurs within a dissolute aristocratic class in which casual violence and what we now call toxic masculinity is normalised. When Huntingdon throws a book at his dog which grazes Helen’s hand, he remarks “I see you’ve got a taste of it“. The vile Ralph Hattersley openly mistreats his wife Millicent, she cries “Do let me alone, Ralph! Remember, we are not at home” – a chilling hint as to what happens when they are alone together. In an age before divorce, women
In response, Helen takes charge of Arthur’s education with a fervour that borders on the extreme, including feeding him emetics so that he will resist the taste of wine, and removing him from the contaminating influence of Huntingdon. “If I thought he would grow up to be what you call a man of the world,” she says to Gilbert, “one that has “seen life” and glories in his experience… I would rather that he died tomorrow“. In the same breath, she condemns the practice of raising girls “like a hothouse plant – taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil“.
As grim as this sounds, there’s a golden thread of optimism in the book, as most of the characters learn from their mistakes and endeavour to change. “[I]t is never too late to reform, as long as you have the sense to desire it, and the strength to execute your purpose,” Helen says, somewhat pompously, to Huntingdon. Over the course of the story, Helen also learns to reform – casting aside her romantic ideals and her smug sense of virtue, and faces the ugly truth of her life, choosing a new identity as an outcast rather than continue to live as an unhappy wife. Hattersley, we are told, also changes his tune and becomes a more loving husband. Only Huntingdon remains unrepentant, and dies as selfishly as he lived, even asking Helen to come with him and plead for the repose of his soul.
What’s most impressive about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is how Anne balances a sensationally readable action-packed plot without sacrificing her characters’ psychological plausibility. Helen, Huntington, Gilbert and even the wretched Hattersleys feel like real people, and we understand their insecurities and obsessions. Anne has a good ear for dialogue, and knows how to use a well-placed metaphor without over-labouring things. The chess game between Helen and Walter becomes a thrilling tug-of-war as Helen wavers between giving into him and hanging onto her own principles.
That said, some characters burn more brightly than others. The major weakness of the book is that we spend so much time in Helen’s backstory, observing the psychological war between her and Huntingdon, that her romance with Gilbert feels rather wan in comparison. For Anne’s readers, Gilbert was presumably the steady responsible counterpart to Huntingdon, and a reward for Helen after all she endured. These days, we’re more comfortable with bad behaviour – our own and other people’s – and Huntingdon reads as a more interesting character, in spite of and because of his many vices. “His heart was like a sensitive plant,” Helen writes, “that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind.” Though Gilbert will undoubtedly be a better husband, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall reminds us of the enduring appeal of bad boys like Huntingdon, and the importance of “[k]eeping a guard over your eyes and ears as the inlets of your heart, and over your lips as the outlet, lest they betray you in a moment of unwariness.”
For all its merits, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall still feels like a forgotten classic, and is clearly in need of rediscovery for a newly politicised post-#MeToo generation. There’s a steely courage at the heart of Anne’s writing that makes this story feel bracingly modern, and it’s both encouraging and deeply depressing to realise that human nature hasn’t changed that much in 174 years. Highly recommended.
Quotable Quote: “It is nonsense to talk about injuring no one but yourself … Without injuring hundreds, if not thousands, besides, in a greater or less degree, either by the evil you do or the good you leave undone.”