Sunday, November 28, 2010
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
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.