The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë

I’m starting my blog with the Brontë sisters, as I’m a romantic first and foremost when I browse through books.

But which sister?  I decided on Anne Brontë (aka Acton Bell) as she is the least well-known of her sisters and her books aren’t mentioned a lot in mainstream. I searched for Agnes Grey (as it was Anne’s first book) through my public library database and got zilch, but I did find The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which is more well-known than the former.

 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall synopsis: Mr. Gilbert Markham and his neighbours welcome a mysterious new tenant as she settles into the desolate mansion, Wildfell Hall. Mrs. Helen Graham guards herself closely and yet, has become the object of gossip among the society. Gilbert discovers her past as he gets to know Helen and falls in love.

Chapters one to sixteen comprise of “part one” and are letters from Mr. Markham to Mr. Halford, a brother-in-law. Chapters seventeen to forty-four are Helen’s private diary entries, which are “part two.” Chapters forty-five to fifty-three go back to Mr. Markham and are “part three.”

Not bothering to read the summary and the title the only clue, I came to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with no expectations of the plot. I will admit, I felt a little dread because I thought it was going to be dull and dark but by chapter two, it became apparent I was going to love this book.

And I do LOVE this book!

I loved the main leads, Gilbert Markham and Helen Graham. They were great characters with a mutual respect and genuine love for each other. Gilbert’s flaws made him less bland (he’s such a good guy!); he has his bouts of jealousy and moodiness. He, however, always remembers his manners, acknowledges and apologizes when he has done something wrong. Gilbert is a perfect gentlemen as befits his rather untroubled life, but he isn’t spoiled or selfless as a result:

[Rose quotes their mother] ” ‘…in all household matters, we only have two things to consider, first, what’s proper to be done, and, secondly, what’s most agreeable to the gentlemen of the house — anything will do for the ladies’ “

[Gilbert] ” Very convenient doctrine for us, at all events…I might sink into the grossest condition of self-indulgence and carelessness about the wants of others…having all my wants anticipated or immediately supplied, while left in total ignorance of what is done for me, — if Rose did not enlighten me now and then; and I should receive all your kindness as a matter of course, and never know how much I owe you.” (Chapter 6)

Minor SPOILERS below! You’ve been WARNED! (there is an end)

As for Helen, she is a true feminist character. While she fell victim to being blindsided by the notion of romantic love and that it will fix any errors in a man, as many young women would dream of, her strong, and intelligent characteristics, however, soon lifted the spell. Even so, she took what she had and tried to make the best of her marriage with her first and unmoral husband. She never took leave of her piety and morals even when her husband frequently did. Sometimes her conviction made her seem cold to others. She never condescended to a lower moral level. She demanded respect as a person and as an equal partner in a marriage. When Helen discovers her husband is having an affair, she doesn’t seek revenge and sink to his level. Even when an opportunity arises when a certain neighbour confesses his love in light of this ordeal and suggests an affair. She rebuffs him, unyielding:

“If you have — never mention this subject [love affair] again. You cannot recur to it in any way, without doubling the weight of those sufferings you so feelingly deplore. I have nothing left me but the solace of a good conscience and a hopeful trust in Heaven, and you labour continually to rob me of these. If you persist, I must regard you as my deadliest foe.” (Chapter 37)

There are some Christian undertones to Helen but her conviction to those values strengthen her resolve. I’m not Christian but I didn’t find these aspects of her to be obtrusive or preachy (although I might’ve rolled my eyes when a character quoted the bible though).

      The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been noted as a feminist novel which I very much agree because of Helen and how Anne developed her character. By the way, feminism is about the EQUALITY of women to men; lawfully, intellectually, economically and socially.

On another note; DAMN, they got some nosy neighbours. Seems a common occurrence as the neighbours in Pride and Prejudice were just as nosy. None so vexing and scandalmongering as idle women, it seems! I would’ve turned around and snapped “Mind your own business!” But decorum back then had Mrs. Graham just endure it.

Part two switches to Helen’s point-of-view as the readers get access to her diary. Part one was romantic and light. Part two precedes to a darker tone. I’ll admit it was a bit jarring to switch to a darker less romantic story but I got over it quick when Mr. Huntingdon is introduced, Helen’s first husband.

Arthur Huntingdon is the antagonist. Initially, Helen thought she could help fix Arthur’s (what she saw were minor and few) flaws but she soon realized it wasn’t up to her to fix him, it had to be his own decision to change himself as Mr. Lowborough and eventually Mr. Hattersley did. When you are first introduced to Mr.Huntingdon, he’s a handsome and charismatic man. In actuality, he’s a first-rate jerk who torments his wife with jealousy till tears (which she constantly calls him out for and he doesn’t try to understand her feelings) to amuse himself, encourages his friend’s vices instead of against them, mocks the church, childish when bored and gave his son alcohol! He ignores his wife for months while on bromance-influenced debauchery in London. He is character we’re meant to hate and was inspired by Anne’s own alcoholic brother, Branwell.

Spoiler ENDS here.

The plot unfolds nicely. I’ve read reviews (after reading the book of course) on goodreads and part two seems to be contentious among the unfavourable (besides Helen). They seemed to just rate down the book because of their personal taste which would rather have some fluff than deal with a darker story. But it adds more depth to Helen and the overall plot. Information is paced through as not everything is revealed at once (I was surprised to learn who Mr. Lawrence was really to Mrs. Helen Graham) of who’s really who or certain plot details.

I strongly recommend this book. It’s written well with strong messages (ie. a social critique on marriage and alcoholism) and a variety of characters to love and hate, even a character that redeemed himself. I’m a romantic at heart but it’s not so fluffy that it’d embarrass either sex. Both men and women could & should read this book (Anne Brontë mentions in her preface that novels should be written for the male and female audience; I’ll quote it another day).

“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 the truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.” (Preface to the Second Edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë)

One Comment to “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë”

  1. I’d agree with all you said of Huntingdon, but Gilbert Markham was certainly no prize: he got into a snit, beat up Helen’s brother, and excused it by disparaging her brother as nervous and cowardly. At no point does he admit that he was just plain wrong or apologize without reservation or even indicate awareness that if Helen’s brother hadn’t been concerned about keeping her identity secret, he might have found himself in prison. And he seemed remarkably clueless about the law as it pertained to women who left their husbands. As in that her brother, if he’d been known to know Helen’s whereabouts, would have been under a legal obligation to inform her husband, especially since Helen had ‘kidnapped’ said husband’s child.

    Helen seems so thoroughly determined to make everyone understand that compared to her, they’re morally corrupt, ignorant, stupid, or spineless that before long I’m rolling my eyes every time she starts one of her self-congratulatory flights. All I can think of is the prayer of the Pharisee: “Thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like that man over there…” (or words to that effect).

    In all fairness, I suspect the Bronte sisters knew as much about ordinary men as Hardy knew about the idle rich. (Neither their father nor their brother even remotely qualified, if their biographers are accurate in their depictions.)

    I think Miss Anne genuinely meant well — she has Helen comment quite humanly about Huntingdon’s fear of death and her hope for mercy for him — but there are some people who can make a desire to be good a marvelous thing, and she simply wasn’t one of them — at least not for me. No matter how often I read the book, I always end by preferring Huntingdon with all his faults to Helen and all her perfections.

    I also think that Helen’s character suffers for the modern reader because of Anne’s limited depiction of Huntingdon’s ‘illness’ and what it would have meant for Helen to be his full-time nurse. It was all that was necessary for her original audience, and in some cases was held to be revoltingly detailed, but I’ve found many modern readers have no idea why her nursing him says anything at all about her character.

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