'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' - Anne Brontë
Genre: Epistolary Novel No. Pages: 480
(Skip to the end of the post for an A Level summary)
I’ve read a few of the Brontë sisters’ novels, including arguably their most notable ones – Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ and Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, and thought that I would try one of Anne’s too. Anne Brontë is often overlooked and referred to as the lesser known sibling, perhaps due to Charlotte preventing publication of the novel after Anne’s death. However, she too challenged societal conventions within her work and thus should too be noted for her contribution to feminism and the social and moral evolution of English society.
The novel begins with Gilbert Markham writing to his friend about a mysterious new tenant at Wildfell Hall. We soon discover that the tenant is Helen Graham who lives with her son, Arthur, and her loyal servant, Rachel. As Gilbert slowly gains Helen’s trust, she gives him her diary, which provides the troubles, trials, and secrets that have led for her to seek residence at Wildfell Hall.
When it was published in 1848, Anne submitted her work under the pseudonym Acton Bell. Anne uses the novel to bring many issues into the light, and for that I admire her. In her preface to the second edition, Anne admits that she wrote the novel not to ‘simply amuse the Reader’ but to ‘tell the truth’ as she ‘feel[s] it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth… I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure’ with the aim to ‘reform the errors and abuses of society’.
‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ covers topics such as alcoholism, adultery, women’s rights and challenges social conventions. Anne differs from her sisters, in that she uses Realism, over Charlotte and Emily’s choice of the Gothic and Romantic styles. Anne chooses to portray realistic characters, for example, while her sisters romanticised their Byronic heroes through Charlotte’s Rochester and Emily’s Heathcliff, Anne portrays Helen’s husband Arthur Huntingdon through a more plausible viewpoint, to which Charlotte believed Anne’s depiction of alcoholism and adultery were overly graphic and disturbing. Alcoholism is a clear theme within The Tenant, as Anne depicts each of her male characters to have different attitudes regarding alcohol to highlight the catastrophic effects it can cause for individuals. It has been thought that Anne’s honest depiction of Arthur’s alcoholism was inspired by her brother Branwell’s decline which may have contributed to his early death. During Victorian England, it was known for men to drink excessively and women were expected to never question her husband’s choices or actions. Anne may use Helen to take a stand against this, as Helen later admits attempting to make her son, also named Arthur, detest alcohol through adding wine to a small amount of tartar emetic to produce ‘inevitable nausea’.
Anne’s portrayal of adultery would have been shocking to readers of the time, with her work referred as ‘coarse even for men, coarse in language and coarse in conception’ by critic G.H. Lewes. Helen’s act of attempting to leave her husband would have been extremely shocking to readers too, with even Huntingdon claiming ‘you thought to disgrace me, did you, by running away and turning artist’. Also, Helen’s actions defied English law as it wasn’t until 1870 that women could own property or take custody of their children and so Helen defied the expectations and conventions of the Victorian woman. It could be argued that Anne does this to show young women the importance of choosing a good husband, one who loves their wife and she writes in the preface ‘if I have warned… or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, this book has not been written in vain’. As such, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ can easily be identified as a feminist novel, Anne evidently aims to empower women and highlight the issues surrounding them, such as a lack of power, voice and freedom. Helen values her morals and advises her young friend, Esther, ‘When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone: there are many, many other things to be considered.’, and equally so Helen’s aunt encouraged ‘not to suffer your heart be stolen from you by the first foolish or unprincipled person that covets the possession of it’. Yet ultimately, despite Helen’s strength in fleeing from Huntingdon, she still required her brother’s help in acquiring somewhere to live, therefore highlighting that women could do very little without the assistance of a man. Equally so, Anne had to publish her novel under a male pseudonym to use it as an advantage of getting her views across as male authors were taken much more seriously than female authors at the time.
Overall, I really enjoyed 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' due to the portrayal of Helen as a powerful and inspiring heroine, Anne’s message of empowerment to young women, and her honest depictions of alcoholism and adultery which many authors of the time would downplay and romanticise. Although at times, I was tempted to put the book down at times as Helen’s narration can be a little long-winded (strongly recommended too, unless you can read 480 pages in one go!), I did enjoy the novel and would rate it 7/10.
I hope you enjoyed my review! Feel free to comment below if you liked/disliked it. Sophie x
Summary for A Level Students
This section of my review is for students studying English Literature who need a quick summary of the quotes and main themes mentioned within the novel. It may be particularly helpful to those studying AQA Love Through The Ages, although feel free to request any novel, play or poem for me to review and summarise for you through my social media or my ‘Contact Me’ page.
‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ was published in 1848, during the Victoria Era (1832-1900).
Themes and Quotes -
Familial Love – Helen is talking to Mr Markham about her son, Arthur, and due to her disapproval of her husband’s excessive drinking, Helen attempts to teach her son morals from a young age.‘I will lead him by the hand… till he has strength to go alone; and I will clear as many stones from his path as I can, and teach him to avoid the rest,'.
Love and Death – Helen goes back to care for Arthur as he dies‘I am come back to nurse you. You need not fear to trust me tell me all your wants, and I will try to satisfy them. There is no one else to care for you; and I shall not upbraid you now.'. Also, she stays by his side as he dies ‘I took his hand again, and held it till he was no more’.
Adultery/Betrayal - Arthur's lover Annabella asks him 'But tell me, don't you love her still - a little?' when talking about Helen, to which he answers 'Not one bit, by all that's sacred!'. Helen later writes in her diary about the recent betrayal ‘how shall I get through the months or years of my future life, in company with that man -- my greatest enemy -- for none could injure me as he has done? Oh! When I think how fondly, how foolishly I have loved him, how madly I have trusted him,’ and also ‘it is not enough to say that I no longer love my husband -- I HATE him! The word stares me in the face like a guilty confession, but it is true: I hate him -- I hate him!’.
Strong Characters – Helen asks Arthur if she can leave him (this would have been strongly looked down upon by society at the time) ‘will you let me take our child and what remains of my fortune, and go?', to which Arthur responds 'Do you think I'm going to be made the talk of the country for your fastidious caprices?'. Also, Helen compares herself to a rose and uses it to accept Gilbert as her partner 'This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear: the cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it, or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it. Look, Gilbert, it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals. - Will you have it?' as she is taking control over her next marriage.
Similar Texts That Could Be Linked Through Themes
Familial Love – Play - Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ (King Lear’s love for his daughter Cordelia) Novel – Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ (Father’s love for his son) Poem – Ben Jonson ‘On My First Daughter’ (Father’s love for his daughter)
Love and Death – Play – Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ (both Othello and Desdemona die) Novel – Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ (Gatsby’s death) Poem – Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam A.H.H’ (for his friend and arguably secret lover Arthur Henry Hallam)
Adultery/Betrayal – Play – Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ (Othello accuses Desdemona of adultery) Novel – Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ (Rochester is already married to Bertha) Poem – Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Adultery (Could be about a former lover of hers, Note: Contains swearing)
Strong characters – Play – Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest (Arguably Gwendolen due to the subversion of societal norms through proposal) Novel – Charlotte’s Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ (Jane Eyre is the strong character) Poem – Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Pygmalion’s Bride’ (Written to empower women, Note: Graphic and includes sexual themes)