Goodreads: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848 shocked Victorian society with its unflinching depiction of the effects of alcoholism and adultery. Charlotte, however, refused permission for its republication after her sister’s death, maintaining that the scenes of debauchery it contains did not reflect her sisters character. Now, however, critics are reassessing Anne’s merits and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is lauded by many as a masterpiece and as a feminist novel–one in which a woman leaves her husband and supports herself as an artist in order to preserve her son from corruption.
“You may think it all very fine, Mr. Huntingdon, to amuse yourself with rousing my jealousy; but take care you don’t rouse my hate instead. And when you have once extinguished my love, you will find it no easy matter to kindle it again.”–Helen Huntingdon
It seems almost common knowledge that Emily and Charlotte Brontë are the talented siblings and Anne only famous due to her kinship with them. (Indeed, the introduction to my copy of the book impressed readers with this very sentiment. Its insulting evaluation of Anne’s work was so strong that one wonders if the writer meant to prevent readers from reading the story at all.) However, upon finishing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I cannot help but suspect that Anne surpasses her sisters, at least in her boldness of vision. Her story presents readers with a heroine who flees her alcoholic husband to save their son from his corrupting influence. She is strong, she is independent, and she is outspoken. She is hardly a model of Victorian femininity and propriety.
Although the story is framed by the letters of Gilbert Markham, Helen receives the opportunity to tell her own version of her marriage and its disintegration through her diary entries. She begins as a naive young girl who dreams of marrying for love and imagines that her feminine influence can change her husband for the better. Slowly, however, she comes to the realization that she has no hold over her husband at all. She describes truly shocking scenes of his debasement, from the violence he and his friends inflict on guests at their home, to the adulterous affairs he carries on without feeling any scruples to hide his depravity from his friends or even his wife. Through it all, Helen repeatedly tries to save him until, at last, she informs her husband that she is his housekeeper only. And then, for her son’s sake, she finds the means to run away.
Anne is very much a realist here. She does not shy away from depicting immorality and its effects, nor does she pretend that a woman’s love can change a man or save her from his abuse. When Helen finds her life intolerable and her son’s soul in danger, Anne argues that Helen has the right to leave her husband behind. And then she depicts a woman striving towards self-sufficiency as she sells her artwork to pay her debts and her rent. Though Emily and Charlotte certainly wrote shocking works with independently-minded women, it is difficult to imagine them writing with quite the same audacity.
But, of course, there is still a moral lesson here. There is the lesson that a woman cannot be too careful whom she marries: marrying for love is only a recipe for happiness if a man’s character and financial stability are also considered. And there is the lesson for men that alcohol and other vices must be avoided if they are to maintain health, propriety, and domestic bliss. The villains of the piece are suitably rewarded with death, degeneration, poverty, and loneliness. The virtuous, even the reformed virtuous, are, in contrast, rewarded with happy homes. Anne thus carries her argument that she does not depict vice for its shock value, but because she wishes readers to understand its true ugliness, and so avoid it.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a truly masterful work, one that gripped me with its suspense and drama, but one that also impressed me with the author’s daring. I can imagine few other writers at the time daring to depict something such as an openly adulterous husband and present it to serious readers. Yet Anne did. And, when criticized for it, she replied with a spirited defense that impresses one immediately with her keen intellect, her self-assurance, and her courage. Her early death is truly a great loss for English literature.