The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte

Anne Bronte is often an afterthought in books & articles about the Bronte family. The youngest, quietest & most reticent of the siblings, Anne was also, I think, the most resilient. She hated to be away from Haworth as much as Emily & Charlotte, but she held down a job with the Robinson family for nearly five years. She faced her early death from tuberculosis with courage. Most importantly from the viewpoint of literary history, she wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a novel of great power.

Our view of the Brontes is very often Charlotte’s view. Charlotte lived the longest, was famous in her lifetime & became the keeper of the flame of her sisters’ reputations. She wrote a Biographical Notice of Emily & Anne that portrayed them as simple, innocent women who, spending all their lives in seclusion on the moors, had no idea of the consequences of their writing. Innocent in the ways of the world, they had no idea that their novels were so shocking. This is clearly untrue. Emily spent short periods working as a teacher & a longer period with Charlotte as a student in Brussels & Anne worked as a governess for some years. Charlotte wasn’t very impressed by The Tenant or Wuthering Heights. She refused to have The Tenant reprinted in her lifetime as she considered it a mistake. Both novels had shocked readers & critics & were partly responsible for the image of the Bell brothers (the pseudonyms used by the Brontes when they were first published) as coarse savages.

I’ve read The Tenant several times but this latest read was with my online reading group. We read it in easy instalments, about 50pp a week &, although I did read two instalments in one day because I was stuck on a train, I managed to restrain myself until this last week where I read the final two instalments in a great rush. It’s the story of Helen, a young woman who is very sure of herself & has very decided views on many subjects, including marriage. She’s been brought up quite strictly by an uncle & aunt who have instilled strong religious views, although Helen, of course, thinks she knows better. When she falls in love with Arthur Huntingdon, young, handsome, rich, flippant & a bit of a devil, her aunt counsels caution. Helen, however, is confident that she can change his bad habits & instil some serious purpose in Arthur’s life.

Their marriage is a terrible mistake. Huntingdon is a gambler, he drinks to excess, has no interests at all apart from hunting & encouraging his friends to drink, gamble & run up debts. Helen has a son, Arthur, but Huntingdon is jealous of her love for him & the amount of time she spends in the nursery. Later, as Arthur grows up, Huntingdon delights in teaching him to swear & misbehave. Helen’s life at Grassdale Manor is either lonely when her husband is in London with his cronies or unbearable when Huntingdon brings his friends home to drink, gamble & hunt. Helen’s efforts to restrain Huntingdon’s excesses finally alienate him altogether & he begins an affair with Annabella, the wife of his friend, Lord Lowborough. Helen plans to leave Grassdale, taking young Arthur with her, and, with the help of her faithful maid, Rachel, she does this. She moves to a remote part of Yorkshire & rents Wildfell Hall, a lonely house where she earns her living painting landscapes. Her efforts to remain secluded are defeated by well-meaning but nosy neighbours.

The structure of the novel is reminiscent of Wuthering Heights. One narrative is surrounded by another. The novel begins in the neighbourhood of Wildfell Hall. Gilbert Markham, a farmer, is writing to his brother-in-law, Halford, about the circumstances of his early life & marriage. So we first meet Helen as Mrs Graham, a young widow renting the Hall. She arouses intense curiosity among the local families. Her reluctance to leave her son for any length of time, even to attend church, causes whisperings. When it is discovered that young Arthur has been taught to hate alcohol & be disgusted by the very smell of it, the vicar is horrified. Gilbert is initially repelled by Helen’s cold manner but he gradually befriends Helen & falls in love. He reacts jealously to her relationship with her landlord, Mr Lawrence & she hands him her Diary to explain how she came to Wildfell Hall & why she is so secretive about her past. Helen’s first person narrative through her Diary is the central section of the book. Then, after her escape to the Hall, Gilbert’s letter to Halford resumes with the story of what happens when Helen returns to her husband.

I’ve always had a problem with Gilbert. He’s sulky, petulant & very ready to take offence at any perceived slight. When the novel opens, he’s courting the vicar’s daughter, Eliza, an empty-headed, spiteful girl. I have never understood what Helen sees in him. She’s so much more mature & intelligent than he is. Maybe the attraction is that he’s the complete opposite to Huntingdon? I think the structure of the book was a mistake. The male first-person narration never seems right to me. Helen’s Diary is so compelling, it would have been a more convincing novel if the whole book had been in Helen’s voice. She’s such a wonderful character. Self-righteous, over-confident at times but passionate, loving & strong.

Anne must have been a remarkable woman. The time she spent working for the Robinson family exposed her to the highs & lows of living in Society. As she puts it in her Diary Paper of 1845, she had had “some very unpleasant and undreamt of experience of human nature.” This was partly because of the relationship between Mrs Robinson & Anne’s brother, Branwell, who also worked for the Robinsons as a tutor. Exactly what their relationship was is a bit of a mystery but Branwell believed that Mrs Robinson was in love with him & would marry him after her husband’s death. Branwell’s addiction to alcohol & drugs also influenced Anne in her realistic portrayal of Huntingdon & his friends. Anne wrote The Tenant to explore the consequences of the indulgence of boys & the sheltering of girls from reality. Helen’s realisation of her husband’s true nature is all the more horrifying because she has been sheltered from the world. Huntingdon (& Branwell by implication) were spoilt & cosseted from childhood. They had no mental resources to cope with temptation & were ruined by it. Their physical & spiritual wellbeing are placed in jeopardy.

The scenes of drunkenness, blasphemy & adultery in the novel shocked the critics & led to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall being undervalued for many years. Some readers were more shocked by Helen’s audacity in leaving her husband than at Huntingdon’s cruel behaviour. If the book had been written by anyone other than a Bronte, it might have disappeared altogether. Fortunately Anne’s work has been re-evaluated in recent years & The Tenant can be seen as a powerful novel with serious themes. A masterpiece of Victorian literature.

12 thoughts on “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte

  1. I read this years ago after a friend told me it was something of a romance, so I didn't have a problem with Gilbert and Toby Stephens playing him in the miniseries doesn't hurt either! 😉 I'd like to reread it at some point, since knowing more about Anne's life and how she was less melodramatic than her sisters makes me admire her more, how she addressed real social ills that women faced in her books. Tenant of Wildfell Hall is about what happens when a marriage goes wrong and Agnes Grey is about what a woman has to do if she's not married and out working as a governess for spoiled rich kids. There again, as you say so well, it explores “the consequences of the indulgence of boys & the sheltering of girls from reality.” You can see the theme in Jane Eyre too, with John Reed's bullying and eventual disintegration.

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  2. I quite liked this book. It wasn't anything like I expected — somehow I expected a cross between Wuthering Heights (which I hated) and Jane Eyre (which I loved). I still haven't started Agnes Grey which has been sitting unread on my shelf for years now, along with Villette, which I've heard good things about. Must read more Brontes!

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  3. Very much enjoyed reading your review. Although I prefer Agnes Grey, I think TTOWH is an excellent novel. I'd love to know more about the life of Branwell. I believe he was a genius like his sisters but something went drastically wrong.

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  4. Carolyn, I think the Brontes knew only too well about spoilt children. John Reed comes to a bad end, as you say. Karen, I read Agnes grey a long time ago & probably should reread one day. Villette is wonderful. Not a book to love as I love jane Eyre but a great achievement. Vintage Reading, Daphne Du maurier's Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is an excellent biography of Branwell although it was written in 1960. Virago reprinted it recently so it may be in print. Juliet Barker's The Brontes is the best modern biography on the whole family but it's huge! Screenwriting Software, I love the Brontes so I hope you enjoy TTOWH when you get to it.

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  5. I wrote my university dissertation on Anne Bronte and believe her to be horrendously underrated and unfairly compared to her sisters. I love TTOWH despite its faults (I also adore Jane Eyre but that too is a very flawed novel) and think it should be read far more widely than it is. Agnes Grey is also very good. Personally I think Anne was a far better writer than Emily and her daring in tackling such unsavoury social issues deserves to be applauded.

    Glad you are an Anne fan!

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  6. What an interesting post! I haven't read any Anne Bronte, though I've read Jane Eyre (of course!), Villette (which still haunts me, after several decades, with its loneliness) and Wuthering Heights. I must give this one a try, though it sounds rather depressing. Maybe as an antidote after I've read something really light and trivial! 🙂

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  7. I read Romancing Miss. Bronte and it gave an overall view of the Bronte's again with emphasis on Charlotte mainly because she was the survivor. The book was intriguing and fascinating and I could recommend it very much. Thanks for this review as well – let me see whether I could get it.

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  8. Wonderful review! Although it has been sitting on my shelf for a decade at least, I have not read Tenant yet. (A few weeks ago I watched the Toby Stephens version and was blown away. The book is definitely coming with me during my travels this holiday season.) What I love about Jane Eyre is her driving desire to do the right thing, even when it seems to work against her immediate happiness. Seems like that theme gets explored a bit here, too.

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  9. Thank you for all these interesting comments. I do think that Anne is finally starting to emerge from Charlotte & Emily's shadow from a critical viewpoint. I did enjoy the TV series (I'm halfway through watching it again) but don't be fooled by lovely Toby Stephens! Gilbert is much more petulent in the book. I think it's a sign of movie realities or maybe just a reflection of the ages of Victorian heroes that Tara Fitzgerald & Rupert Graves are the romantic leads in TTOWH & just 15 years later, Rupert is still playing heroes as Rochester in the latest TV Jane Eyre & Tara is playing Mrs Reed! Still, Mrs Reed was probably only in her 40s in the book & Rochester is certainly mid to late 30s. I just found it amusing!

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  10. I was stunned by this book when I read it for the first time a few years ago, not only for its portrayal of domestic violence but I wondered whether it gives the clue to more of Branwell's misdemeanours chez Robinson…when Arthur is given alcohol it seemed like something Anne could have plucked from real life.

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  11. I've only read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre–loved them both in different ways. I really need to read more of the Brontes and more about them. I've collected a little pile of books, but you know how it goes. My reading this year has been all over the place, but I hope to get more serious next year–your post and these comments very much pique my curiosity about Anne!

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