Anne Bronte often seems like the “other” Bronte sister. Not as prolific as Charlotte, not as sweepingly Romantic as Emily. But while we chew our nails and involve ourselves in the swirling stories of Jane and Cathy and Rochester and Heathcliff, Anne takes a different tack in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She tells the story of Helen and Gilbert and Arthur “straight” and it’s subject matter was all the more shocking to Victorian England for that reason.
In short, their story is one that seems entirely contemporary: a young man meets a mysterious new neighbor – a widowed woman and her little boy – and grows to love her but comes to learn that she is in hiding from an abusive husband. For us, this is a story for the newsfeeds but for Victorians it was more like rudely airing one’s dirty laundry. Women’s rights, spousal abuse, and alcoholism are all brought forth over the course of the novel. Helen refused to have sex with her husband, an act that a husband was entitled to whenever and wherever he chose
The novel sold out its first printing in six weeks, selling better than Wuthering Heights, even though the critical opinions were mixed. Several magazines, though, warned women to avoid reading the book because of its fixation on coarse language and scenes of debauchery. Anne wrote a Preface to the second edition – one in which she states she did not write to amuse but to tell the truth – but Charlotte suppressed further printings after Anne’s death. The precise reasons are unknown but in a letter she though Anne’s subject matter poorly chosen. (I did a great deal of research on the Brontes for a Victorian poetry course, so know most of this first-hand, but the Wikipedia article on the book sums it all up nicely, with references).
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall doesn’t flow nearly as well as Jane Eyre or Shirley or Villette having a somewhat convoluted storyline like Wuthering Heights. The book starts with a letter from Gilbert to his brother-in-law explaining how Gilbert met his wife (the “frame” of the letter gets a bit long in the tooth and we have to assume it is supposed to be multiple letters). Gilbert’s “letter” recounts his life from the time “Mrs. Graham”/Helen moved into the old Wildfell Hall until the point she gives Gilbert her old diary to explain why she can’t marry him. The “letter” proceeds to recount word-for-word the diary of a young woman swept off her feet by a dashing rake she thinks just needs a good wife to reform him. Bollocks to that. The diary section of the novel is quite long. It does get a bit far-fetched when Helen’s entries are pages long and contain many conversations but there aren’t very many ways to give such a large backstory to the reader. At the end of the diary pages, the letter reverts back to Gilbert’s point-of-view and he finishes out his tale.
Helen is a remarkable character and for her creation during an era when married women were treated more as objects by law it says a great deal about Anne’s thoughts on the matter. Gilbert is a somewhat annoying character. His pursuit of Helen begins to border on the obsessive. Arthur, as Helen’s drunken rake of a husband, is the kind of dastardly character for whom comeuppance doesn’t come nearly soon enough. I quite liked the book and found it very readable. Not as moving as Jane Eyre with respect to the actual writing nor as wildly imaginative as Wuthering Heights but an excellent realist Victorian novel.
After I finished the book I watched the 1996 BBC miniseries with Tara FitzGerald (Helen), Toby Stephens (Gilbert), and the always-yummy Rupert Graves as the reprobate Arthur. A very good adaptation of the book, well-acted and costumed, a good costume-drama as expected from the BBC.