Blog 47: On ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Brontë

July 12, 2017

Anne Brontë was born on the 17th January 1820 and was one of five daughters and one son to Patrick and Maria Brontë. Patrick Brontë, originally Patrick Brunty, changed the spelling of the family’s surname at some point, there are many theories as to why he chose to do this but no one knows for certain. Sadly, Maria passed away shortly after the birth of her sixth child (Anne) due to developing cancer, and the two eldest daughters (Maria and Elizabeth) passed away in their late childhood due to TB (Tuberculosis/Consumption). Charlotte, Emily and Anne also passed away due to TB at the ages of 38, 30 and 29 respectively, although the cause of Charlotte’s death may have actually been due to severe morning sickness. The sole son, Branwell Brontë, passed away at the age of 31 due to TB, alcoholism and other addictions. Patrick Brontë outlived his wife and all of their children and passed away at the age of 84.

Anne Brontë wrote under the pseudonym Acton Bell, a name that is masculine according to online baby name forums. Acton means ‘village with oak trees’ and the surname Bell has many origins but is probably an occupational name for a bell ringer or bell maker, or a topographical name for someone living at or near to a bell. During the 19th century many female authors chose either masculine or unisex pseudonyms as it was often frowned upon for a female to be an author. It was deemed more acceptable only if the husband had agreed and given his consent, in which case the wife would have to write under his name or as a Mrs [husband’s surname]. For example, another female 19th century author, Mary Ann Evans who married T.S. Eliot, wrote under the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’.

Anne Brontë published a volume of poetry with her two sisters (Charlotte and Emily) in 1846 and she wrote two novels, Agnes Grey published in 1847 and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall published in 1848, for this blog I will be focussing on the latter.

I cannot comment on Charlotte Brontë yet as I haven’t read any of her novels, and if I had to choose my favourite between Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I would have to go with popular opinion and choose Wuthering Heights. That’s not to say that Anne is in any way a lesser writer or that her novel is bad, but her writing style and thoughts are unsurprisingly different from Emily’s. Whereas Emily’s Wuthering Heights is shorter in comparison, more dramatic, less preachy and packs a powerful punch relatively quickly. Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considerably longer, less dramatic, more preachy, and its powerful punch is somewhat lessened due to its dispersal over many more pages and being overshadowed by Emily’s Wuthering Heights. For this reason, I think it is best to read both of these novels with a good gap between them in order to fully appreciate both author’s prowess. I read Wuthering Heights in 2014 and only just recently started and finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall now in 2017.  

Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was shocking and challenging to Victorian morals and society at the time of its publication. Anne touches on subjects such as alcoholism, privilege, debauchery, dishonesty, religion and marriage breakdown.

So why was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall controversial?

Before the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1870, a married woman and any children they had, were legally the property of the husband. This meant that a married woman could not own property, sue for divorce or control custody of her children. If she attempted to leave her husband then her husband could ‘reclaim’ her as his property. If she left with her child then she was effectively kidnapping and stealing her husband’s property. Not to mention that she could only get a divorce if the husband allowed it. Any income a married woman made through her own means was also deemed her husband’s property.

Due to being set before 1870, and since the main heroine Helen, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall runs away from her abusive, alcoholic husband in an attempt to remove their child from his father’s bad influence, and she lives alone in secret, living off of her own income which she makes by selling paintings. Helen’s actions, no matter how virtuous, at the time meant she was breaking the law. This was absolutely scandalous and unthinkable to many in Victorian society.

So what did I really think about this novel? Well I shall get the bad stuff out of the way first…

It’s slow, painfully slow at times. I had to force myself to keep reading even though I did enjoy the story overall. My problem with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was that Anne often insinuated or spoke about certain events before then going into much greater detail or showing the event itself at a later date. I felt that this was unnecessary in a lot of places. Most readers I feel would get the idea from the first mention and wouldn’t need their suspicions or thoughts confirmed twice, thrice, or quadruple times.

My second issue was the main male protagonist, Gilbert Markham. He was overall quite likeable but there were certain places where aspects of his character seemed a little off. In a couple of cases he came across too hot-headed and a bit violent, although most of the time he restrained his anger. He also sometimes seemed to be a little bit too obsessed with Helen, which again led to outbursts of anger even at the mere mention of her name. In these moments he didn’t seem like the sort of man Helen would or should be interested in, given the fact she had already run away from her alcoholic and abusive husband.

My impression is that Anne was a deeply religious person, as there are many religious metaphors, sentences and outright statements throughout. Helen, the main protagonist, is also a deeply religious person, but here is where I had my third issue, the ending of this novel is a little too preachy. There are often paragraphs towards the end that are more like religious sermons and rants, and since Helen’s thoughts and deep connection to religion is made obvious early on in the story, this again, felt a bit unnecessary. Which leads on to my final issue, the word count.

Unlike Wuthering Heights which felt a lot shorter, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall seemed way too long. I couldn’t help but notice and think that many sections were just simply unnecessary. This could have been a really great novel like Wuthering Heights if it had been condensed a little bit and if Anne hadn’t been so overzealous with making her points. Instead this novel has to lose it’s ‘really’ and is just a great novel instead.

The good stuff outshines the bad stuff massively if you have the determination to persevere with the story, so onto the good stuff…

This first good thing is Helen, she is a great female protagonist. Helen shows strength, determination and resolve even when the odds are greatly stacked against her. She doesn’t leave her husband immediately when things start to get tough, rather she sticks to her morals and her decision to marry him and is determined to stay and be his wife in order to uphold both of their statuses, honour and societal appearances, even if it means that they lead separate lives in reality. However, when Mr Huntingdon pushes her to her final straw she barely hesitates in her decision to leave, even though it goes against all of her religious principles and morals, she will do anything in order to protect her child. It is heart breaking really, because Helen initially really wants to stay with her husband and is never unreasonable. She just wants him to not over indulge, not drink himself into a drunken state on a regular basis, and attend Church with her and their child on Sundays. In the end it is Mr Huntingdon’s alcoholism and over indulgence which kills him.

The second good thing is Mr Huntingdon; he is a great male antagonist. Mr Huntingdon is truly despicable, even in the last moment when he is lying on his death bed he manages to draw out feelings of disgust even if there is a little pity for him too. His blatant dishonesty, lies and extravagant overindulgences are everything that a person like Helen would hope to always avoid, yet his initial charm and good looks are what ultimately catch her attention in the first place. If ever there was a warning for a person you should avoid and to always carry a healthy dose of scepticism, Mr Huntingdon’s character is it. Perhaps a bit cynical of me, but the cynical side of my brain loves it.

The third good thing and probably the most important, is the depiction of women and a woman’s position with regards to society and marriage. It is such an important topic, and such a controversial topic for Anne to write about. I have to commend Anne’s boldness here for speaking out against the injustice and inequality that women faced. It is wonderful to have a female protagonist like Helen in an early 19th century novel. I doubt Helen was the first fictional character to disobey the law in this manner but The Tentant of Wildfell Hall would have certainly left an impact on Victorian society. It seems unfortunate in some ways that Wuthering Heights outshined this novel at the time, because although WH covered some issues and societal prejudices, it didn’t really cover the harsh realities that women had to face like The Tentant of Wildfell Hall did. I can certainly imagine The Tentant of Wildfell Hall being part of discussions where women started to question the idea of being their husband’s property.

The final good thing that I will mention is the fact that this novel does have a happy ending for Helen. Despite losing her husband to circumstances out of her control and very much Mr Huntingdon’s own doing anyways, Helen ends up with full control of her life, her wealth and custody of her child. Everyone likes a happy ending, and I have to admit after reading Helen’s story, which was pretty bleak at times, I was hoping that she would have a happier ending.

And I shall leave it there for now. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog, if you have anything you would like to add with regards to Anne Brontë and her novel, The Tentant of Wildfell Hall, then please leave a comment below! Thanks for reading.