What is it about books I enjoy about which I find it so difficult to write? I have not updated this blog for nearly a month. Granted, I have been traveling, but I have found it difficult to get the words right about my thoughts on Anne Brontë‘s powerful novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. My respect for this book has pushed me to ensure that I give it a good post. There are minor spoilers in the post and major spoilers in a separate section at the end.
Roughly this time last year, I sat reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in the same chair I sat a few weeks ago reading this book. Both times, I had similar experiences. I sat caught up in the books’ visceral power and beautiful language.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not your average Victorian novel, as it depicts a woman fleeing her alcoholic and emotionally abusive husband. It opens with the farmer Mr Markham wondering about the mysterious new tenants at Wildfell Hall – the young “widow” Helen Graham and her five-year-old son – before segueing into the diary of the woman, revealing her tragic story.
At the time of its publication, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall caused such a stir that Brontë felt compelled to write her own preface for its second edition, addressing several of the criticisms leveled against it and explaining her reasoning for writing it. Particularly telling is the following:
I would not be understood to suppose that the proceedings of the unhappy scapegrace with his few profligate companions I have here introduced, are a specimen of the common practices of society: the case is a extreme one, as I trusted none would fail to perceive, but I know that such characters do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.
Anne Brontë thus meant for her work to be a cautionary tale, and, through the book, she shows how an intelligent young woman can fall for a man who will only cause her misery.
And, at least from my perspective, the real tragedy of Helen Graham is that she had the power to avoid her misfortune. In the early segments of her diary, we as readers can see all the red flags about this guy – and Helen herself sees them, too. But her infatuation with him so blinds her that she thinks she can salvage him from his vices.
I have such confidence in him, aunt, 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!
And thus, Helen seals her fate.
The greatest part of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I found, is how Anne Brontë endeavored to realistically portray what it would have been like for a woman in Helen’s situation. The opening parts of the novel with the townspeople gossiping about her status reveal the dangers of prejudging others. Helen’s trials during her marriage are a startling portrait of the dissolution of a relationship, for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall deals with the philandering husband and his actions’ effect on his wife with extraordinary directness.
The novel’s power to shock made it quite a commercial success upon publication, though critics were less kind. But after Anne’s death, her sister Charlotte Brontë blocked publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, condemning the novel to relative obscurity for the next century.
And thus, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still not well-known outside literary circles. I was among extended family while reading it, and not one of them had even heard of Anne Brontë, much less the book itself. When I saw the rock musical satire Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue Presents “The Brontës” (more on that in a future post), I was the sole person who cheered for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall when the “sisters” tried to engage the audience in a cheering competition.
If you’re like my family or the other audience members, give Anne Brontë a try. And if you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, make sure you get a copy that contains her Preface to the Second Edition; I didn’t even quote the best parts of it in this post.
A brief long spoilery question for those who’ve read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall…
I love the structure of the book – seeing Gilbert Markham’s first impression of the mysterious tenant before learning her exact circumstances – but I have one qualm. Does anyone else find it strange that Gilbert would share Helen’s diary with his brother-in-law solely for the purpose of sharing a personal story with him?
While reading the book, I wondered at how Gilbert would have had Helen’s permission to share her diary. I figured that she must have died during the course of the story, for otherwise, his sharing would seem like a betrayal of confidence.
And yet, at the end of the book, they are “happily” married. I say “happily” because I’m not sure if Helen knows that Gilbert has shared her diary – and if she would approve of it if she knew. For someone who professes to love Helen so profusely, would Gilbert really be so willing to share a record of her innermost emotions?
And so, I have to wonder at Anne Brontë’s motives for this structure. Did she mean for it to take on this somewhat unsettling touch? Or is it more of an oversight on her part, merely a convenient plot device in order to have the dual narrator structure? I’m inclined to lean towards the former, but I would love to hear your thoughts on it.
This was Book #13 off my Classics Club list.