The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë [A Review]

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are frequently included amongst reader’s favourite novels including myself. Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ought to be read and considered among that family for the simple reason that it is a clear reaction to them. Further, it has more of a social conscience in its intention.

Cover image of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

In rural Yorkshire, in the early nineteenth century, lives a community that might be exactly what you would expect to find there. Long established family estates run by gentleman farmers, some with titles. Young men who busy themselves with running their estates, motivated to provide for their mothers and sisters and one day for their own wives and children. Young women occupying themselves with drawing and reading, singing and sewing while they await the single man of good fortune in want of a wife to show up. And gossip. There is a small parish church where the families can see each other once a week to pray and judge. Change comes slowly and the young wait for life to come to them.

Typical of this set are the Markhams. Twenty-four-year-old Gilbert Markham is a gentleman farmer, who dreamed of a different life but is instead following in the footsteps of a father who warned him against ambition and change. He lives on his land with his mother, sister and seventeen-year-old younger brother. Gilbert is diligent in his duties and patient towards his sister who teases him of his apparent feelings for a local girl.

And then, snapping the monotony, comes the news that a local mansion – Wildfell Hall – has been let!

Near the top of this hill, about two miles from Linden-car, stood Wildfell Hall, a superannuated mansion of the Elizabethan era built of dark grey stone – venerable and picturesque to look at, but, doubtless, cold and gloomy enough to inhabit, with its thick stone mullions and little latticed panes, its time- eaten air-holes, and its too lonely, too unsheltered situation – only shielded from the war of wind and weather by a group of Scotch firs, themselves half blighted with storms, and looking as stern and gloomy as the Hall itself. Behind it lay a few desolate fields, and then, the brown, heath- clad summit of the hill before it (enclosed by stone walls, and entered by an iron gate with large balls of grey granite – similar to those which decorated the roof and gables – surmounting the gateposts), was a garden – once, stocked with such hardy plants and flowers as could best brook the soil and climate, and such trees and shrubs as could best endure the gardener’s torturing shears, and most readily assume the shapes he chose to give them – now, having been left so many years, untilled and untrimmed, abandoned to the weeds and the grass, to the frost and the wind, the rain and the drought, it presented a very singular appearance indeed. The close green walls of privet, that had boarded the principal walk, were two-thirds withered away, and the rest grown beyond all reasonable bounds; the old boxwood swan, that sat beside the scraper, had lost its neck and half its body; the castellated towers of laurel in the middle of the garden, the gigantic warrior that stood on one side of the gateway, and the lion that guarded the other, were sprouted into such fantastic shapes as resembled nothing either in heaven or earth, or in the waters under the earth; But, to my young imagination, they presented all of them a goblinish appearance, that harmonised well with the ghostly legends and dark traditions our old nurse had told us respecting the haunted hall and its departed occupants.

For fifteen years it had laid vacant but now makes an unlikely home for a new tenant.

The new tenant of Wildfell Hall is Helen Graham, a widow, who has arrived with her young son, Arthur. The other women of the community make her acquaintance but find Helen a little odd. For example, she explains she will not attend church regularly because she will not leave her son in the care of others and it is too difficult for her to make the long trip with him. To more surprise and alarm, she will not allow her five-year-old son to drink wine at dinner. When Gilbert and his sister visit her at Wildfell Hall they are surprised to find Helen has converted a room into a studio. Here she produces the paintings with which she supports herself.

Helen, though, seems to be holding secrets. She sometimes catches herself in conversation. Her paintings are sold under a pseudonym with titles that conceal their true subjects. Some she will not allow to be seen. And she is far from sociable. If anything she seems to wish to be left alone.

Almost against his will, Gilbert finds himself irresistibly drawn to Helen by a confluence of factors. There is her acknowledged beauty for one. There is the intrigue of the mystery around her, the injustice he feels on her behalf at the slanderous way other women talk of her. And there is also the genuine affection he feels for her son. What seems to tip Gilbert over the edge is the rumour that Helen’s landlord, the owner of Wildfell Hall, Frederick Lawrence, has his own romantic designs on Helen. It leads to a violent confrontation between Gilbert and Frederick.

Seeing things are getting out of hand but unwilling to explain herself or admit that she cares what he thinks, Helen gives Gilbert a section of her diaries and asks him to make of them what he will. Gilbert takes them and through them learns of Helen’s past, her failed marriage to Arthur Huntingdon and how she has found herself hiding in a gloomy mansion, wanting to shut the world out.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was Anne Brontë’s second published novel after Agnes Grey. It is fair to say that the reception was mixed as far as the merits of the story was concerned. But when it comes to the themes and implications of the story, the reaction seems to be one of shock, disapproval and strong criticism.

The first reason for this is the overt challenge the novel makes to the social conventions of the time. The idea that a wife would leave her husband – even an alcoholic, psychologically abusive, unfaithful one – was shocking to some at the time. Watching her plot to leave would have struck some as an equivalent crime and betrayal. While the steps her husband takes to prevent her leaving, which modern readers would find to be extreme violations of her rights and privacy, would have been seen as within his rights at the time. Married women at the time had no right to own or control property.

As Kathryn White, Assistant Curator/Librarian of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, puts it in the Introduction to this Wordsworth Classics edition, the novel is a cry on behalf of women; a strong defence of their rights in the face of the psychological abuse of their husbands.

A second reason is that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is also a religious novel. The aspect that particularly raised eyebrows is Helen’s espousal of universal salvation, which was not part of Anglican teaching but something the author was known to believe in. This edition contains a Preface by Anne Brontë in which she defends her novel from its critics.

As far as the merits of the story go, my perception is that what people had the greatest difficulty with was its structure. It is written as a series of letters by an older Gilbert to a friend telling the story of his young life. The backstory, which the reader obtains from Helen providing Gilbert with her diary to read, makes up the bulk of the novel and is unbroken without giving the reader an insight into how Markham is reacting to what he is reading. A modern writer would probably do things very differently.

For me, another issue was a sort of information-asymmetry that keeps occurring in the novel to Gilbert Markham’s disadvantage. It is not just that he is in the dark about Helen’s past and her connection to Frederick Lawrence. Markham is also deliberately left out of the loop on smaller matters as well. He is fed hints and suggestions while the full story, true or not, is withheld from him. It seems to me to be a device to add tension and drama before the truth is revealed and matters can be settled but seems to me to be a little contrived and unrealistic. If the reader put themselves in Markham’s shoes, I am not sure they would tolerate being teased like that.

A key theme in the novel is redemption. Almost all the characters have personality faults. The story is one of showing how these faults manifest into moral failings and the difficulties of reflection, growth and change that could lead to redemption. The novel contains several minor characters both in the Markham’s community and social circle and in the backstory of Helen and her husband. The flaws of the minor characters are made plain to see. They all live in danger of suffering fates their faults have set them on the road to unless they can summon the will to change. In this sense The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has a Romantic aspect in that the less virtuous will get what is coming to them and the more virtuous will get their happy ending.

As for the main characters, Helen’s husband Arthur Huntingdon clearly has several faults. He indulges in a depraved hedonistic lifestyle and in this he is not alone. His friends accompany him even as they can see the damage it is doing to themselves and their chances of happiness. It reminded me of other subcultures which are bound by their own code of ethics, which see self-improvement as self-interest and take narrow views of transgressors, compromisers and evacuees.

But what of our other two main characters? Gilbert is immature, a grudge-holder, insincere about his true feelings and jealous to the point of violence. Helen, though mature, sensible and morally assured – even when young as we read in her diary – is quick to overrule her better judgement, quick to forgive serious transgressions against her. Transgression swhich we can see are not caused by understandable mistakes but by more irremediable faults of personality and character. She can seem contradictory, selective in her reasoning, wilfully blind, even foolish.

It is a problem because the question of why she married Huntingdon in the first place is never satisfactorily resolved. By giving Markham and the reader her diary to read she has answered our questions about her past but provoked more about her personality.

I am married now, and settled down as Mrs Huntingdon of Grassdale Manor. I have had eight weeks experience of matrimony. And do I regret the step I have taken? – No – though I must confess, in my secret heart, that Arthur is not what I thought him at first, and if I had known him in the beginning, as thoroughly as I do now, I probably never should have loved him, and if I had loved him first, and then made the discovery, I fear I should have thought it my duty not to have married him. To be sure, I might have known him, for everyone was willing to tell me about him, and he himself was no accomplished hypocrite, but I was wilfully blind, and now, instead of regretting that I did not discern his full character before I was indissolubly bound to him, I am glad; for it has saved me a great deal of battling with my conscience, and a great deal of consequent trouble and pain; And, whatever I ought to have done, my duty, now, is plainly to love him and to cleave to him; And this just tallies with my inclination.

Complex and flawed characters and plots that put their features into play are essential in literature. But the biggest problem I had with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was the difficulty in liking any of the characters or wanting to see them succeed. Even Helen leaving her husband has already happened when we begin the novel. It is not really emphasised that Helen and Markham are in any need of reform despite what we witness of them. The question of whether Helen and Markham can find love, with or without each other, is a difficult one to feel engagement with.

Alternatively, we could argue that Helen is not so hypocritical, irrational or contradictory but instead that she is conflicted and evolves in the course of the novel. Sometimes she defends the decisions she made against her better judgement and at other times she rationalises them. Sometimes she accepts her miserable fate and at others she is determined to find better. She also advises others against making the same choices she has made. The novel offers plenty of evidence for this kinder interpretation of her character. The key battle within her is to love the sinner but hate the sin as she believes she should do in principle but struggles to in practice.

And indeed, I know not whether at the time, it was not for him rather than myself that I blushed; for, since he and I are one, I so identify myself with him, that I feel his degradation, his failings, and transgressions as my own; I blushed for him, I fear for him; I repent for him, weep, pray, and feel for him as for myself; but I cannot act for him; and hence, I must be and I am debased, contaminated by the union, both in my own eyes, and in the actual truth. I am so determined to love him – so intensely anxious to excuse his errors, that I am continually dwelling upon them, and labouring to extenuate the loosest of his principles and the worst of his practices, till I am familiarised with vice and almost a partaker in his sins. Things that formerly shocked and disgusted me, now seem only natural. I know them to be wrong, because reason and God’s word declared them to be so; but I am gradually losing that instinctive horror and repulsion which was given me by nature, or instilled into me by the precepts and example of my aunt. Perhaps, then, I was too severe in my judgments, for I abhorred the sinner as well as the sin; now, I flatter myself I am more charitable and considerate; but am I not becoming more indifferent and insensate to? Fool that I was to dream that I had strength and purity enough to save myself and him! Such vain presumption would be rightly served, if I should perish with him in the gulf from which I sought to save him! Yet, God preserve me from it! – and him too. Yes, poor Arthur, I will still hope and pray for you; And though I write as if you were some abandoned wretch, past hope and past reprieve, it is only my anxious fears – my strong desires that make me do so; one who loved you less would be less bitter – less dissatisfied.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall certainly contains some dark elements of society and individual behaviour. The question of where Anne Brontë found inspiration and source material is an interesting one. I am not going to dive into it here. The Introduction to this edition contains some interesting suggestions such as the life of Anne’s brother Branwell, her experiences working as a Governess as well as stories of people fringing her social circles.

There is a prevalent perception, not unwarranted, that Anne and her novels live in the shadow of her sisters and their novels. Charlotte Brontë was the first of the sisters to be published; her Jane Eyre (1847) was a success (an earlier novel of hers was rejected). Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were published together (1848) but Wuthering Heights was much better received.

But it is possible Anne’s works suffered not just in comparison to the best of her sisters’ but from other factors as well. Charlotte was not a fan of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and considered the novel a “mistake”. When Anne died, Charlotte held the rights to Anne’s work and prevented any new editions of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. No new edition was produced until after Charlotte’s death. Did appreciation for Anne’s work suffer as a result?

It may seem a little unfair to compare The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to other works except that, if you are familiar with the others, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall feels clearly reflective if not reactionary, containing several similarities to the others. In particular, in addition to her sisters’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, there is also Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

The opening of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the sudden letting of a local mansion is clearly reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice. The early chapters contain the pitfalls of making poor first impressions. An incident the young Helen describes in her diary is also reminiscent of a similar one in Pride and Prejudice. Though it was published around the same time, Wuthering Heights was written earlier and some interpret The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a response and critique of Wuthering Heights. The description of Wildfell Hall does remind you of the location of Wuthering Heights. And of course, like Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has the spectre of the ‘secret’ spouse.

A few months before reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I read another Wordsworth Classics edition of a novel – Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I said in my review of that novel that I found the Wordsworth Classics edition to be poor in comparison to what I would expect from a competitor like Penguin Classics. Unfortunately, that view was only reinforced by this copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Although, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has more notes and a better Introduction than Northanger Abbey, it still suffered from several faults. The notes contained spoilers. There were spelling mistakes in the text. In one instance an entire paragraph was printed twice. In one section the notes were misnumbered. My wife says she bought these editions when she was a student and they were cheap. I can only say if you want to read these works, find a better edition if you can.

So, unfortunately, I have to conclude that I did not enjoy The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I did not find the story engaging. I didn’t like the characters nor could I get invested in their pursuit of a happy ending. Because of its references to other works it is fair to make comparisons. Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice are two of my favourite novels. Wuthering Heights is not, but I still enjoyed it more than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

It is unfortunate because the book does have important things to say. It is an unmistakable attack on patriarchal values, the social and legal institutions that enforce them and is a demand for greater independence, autonomy and rights for women. It is just a shame such a message could not find accompaniment with an engaging story in this instance.

Important as that message is and as radical as it may have been for its time, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is also trapped in its period from our perspective. That is because our attitudes to its second main theme – redemption – have changed somewhat since then. Whether they have changed for the better is arguable but our concept of our responsibilities towards others who have wronged us, our willingness to martyr ourselves for them, have probably shifted since Helen’s time.

I have such confidence in him, and, notwithstanding all you say, that I would willingly risk my happiness for the chance of securing his. I will leave better men to those who only consider their own advantage. If he has done amiss, I shall consider my life well spent in saving him from the consequences of his early errors, and striving to recall him to the path of virtue – God grant me success!

Helen’s moral certainties and religious faith guides her selfless willingness to sacrifice so much of her life and happiness. The virtues of this, again, are arguable. Viewed from our far more secular time some readers, even those who agree with the virtues of Helen’s actions, will see her as belonging to a period where she has only just begun to question the patriarchal institutions that have held her back. But she has yet to identify all of them.

‘There is another life both for you and for me,’ said I. ‘If it be the will of God that we should sow in tears, now, it is only that we may reap in joy, hereafter. It is his will that we should not injure others by the gratification of our own earthly passions; and you have a mother, and sisters, and friends, who would be seriously injured by your disgrace; and I too have friends, whose peace of mind shall never be sacrificed to my enjoyment – or yours either, with my consent – and if I were alone in the world, I have still my God and my religion, and I would sooner die than disgrace my calling and break my faith with heaven to obtain a few brief years of false and fleeting happiness – happiness sure to end in misery, even here – for myself or any other!’


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