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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

February 23, 2023

My copy of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall came from the bookshop at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth.

It was the only Bronte novel I wanted to read that I hadn’t already read, and it took me a while to get through it because there’s so much about religious dictates for how women should live and the importance of presenting a proper appearance to the world.

Wondering who the tenant is and how she came to Wildfell Hall takes a reader a good way into the novel. The first time I picked it up I got to chapter 15 before putting it down for a long while, wearied with the back and forth about what could be proper between the mysterious Helen Graham and her neighbor Gilbert Markham.

The second time I tried the novel was on audiobook and I didn’t get weary until chapter 30, when Helen’s confounded devotion, as both her husband Arthur and I would call it, started to seem stilted and repetitive. She goes on and on about how she hoped to change her husband into what she could call a good man but how continually he falls short of her exacting standards: “things that formerly shocked and disgusted me, now seem only natural. I know them to be wrong, because reason and God’s word declare them to be so; but I am gradually losing that instinctive horror and repulsion which was given me by nature, or instilled into me by the precepts and example of my aunt….fool that I was to dream that I had strength and purity enough to save myself and him!”

I kept going with the audiobook, however, because the story of how Helen tried to change Arthur is part of a journal that she has given Gilbert Markham to read, promising that it will explain her standoffishness to him; it does. A reader finally has to have some sympathy for a woman who has to fight to keep her reputation from becoming anything the neighbors can whisper about and who doesn’t want her son to grow up to have no interests except drinking and carousing, like his father.

Eventually (by chapter 39), Arthur has turned into a full-fledged villain, openly cheating on his wife with one of their houseguests and telling his male friends that he doesn’t care about Helen anymore, that in fact “anyone among you, that can fancy her, may have her and welcome.”

That livens things up for a while. Helen is plotting ways to get away from her husband with her child, as we know she does, because we have already been introduced to her as the tenant of Wildfell Hall, which turns out to be a house belonging to her brother. Her journal comes to an end, and then the last part of the novel is about Gilbert Markham’s efforts to stay away from her because he loves her and doesn’t want to ruin her reputation. So at least she’s gotten through to someone.

Helen nurses her husband Arthur through a last illness which seems to have been caused by—or at least irritated by—excessive drinking. She does this with another burst of devotional thoughts, saying stuff like “I am exerting my utmost endeavours to promote the recovery and reformation of my husband.” He dies, though, and after worrying about the destination of his soul, she finds herself free and wealthy, with her son as the beneficiary of his father’s will.

After a decent interval, Gilbert comes to visit and establishes himself as the upright man Arthur could never be, the kind of man Helen deserves. The novel leaves them at one of Helen’s country estates, where Gilbert says they are raising “promising young scions.”

Like the struggles of Agnes Grey as a governess, Helen’s attempts to have some say over her own life and that of her son turns out to be the focus for the novel’s events, and how many times she has to repeat what she wants and why is part of the point.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2023 3:01 am

    I found this an interesting review. I don’t like the Brontës’ writing. The only novel I’ve read and enjoyed is Villette. All of the others wearied me in the way you describe here – so much moralising and back and forth, whingeing about the ways of others – I hadn’t considered that this might be the point of the Brontës’ narratives. Thank you for that different perspective, Jeanne.

    • February 23, 2023 9:06 am

      It’s nice of you to consider the point and say so!
      I read most of the Bronte novels as an adolescent, and then read Villette fairly recently, after I’d started blogging. I wonder if I would have felt differently if I’d come to it younger?

      • February 26, 2023 4:35 am

        Thanks for pointing me to your review – it reminded me why I liked Villette when I read it a quarter century ago!

  2. February 23, 2023 6:58 am

    I’ve still never read this, or Agnes Grey, though I admit I am Basic and have never loved a Bronte novel apart from Jane Eyre, which is the apple of my eye. Which do you think would be a better introduction to Anne, this or Agnes Grey? I want to give my Anne Bronte fandom its best shot. 😛

    • February 23, 2023 8:57 am

      Definitely you should read Agnes Grey because it’s another governess novel and a precursor to Jane Eyre–it was written first, but Jane Eyre was published first.

  3. February 23, 2023 8:16 am

    I enjoyed Agnes Grey though I found it a little uneven and Agnes’ love interest a tad wet. I’m delaying the Wildfell Hall read till after Villette but I know I will eventually get to it.

    Incidentally you talk at length about your initial reactions, but did you find it a worthwhile read when you got to the end? Just curious! 🙂

    • February 23, 2023 8:54 am

      Yes, I did find it worthwhile at the end because I realized that it’s a novel about a woman who has to repeat what she wants ad infinitum until she gets it. A reader finally has to have some sympathy for her adamant refusal to give in!

  4. rohanmaitzen permalink
    February 23, 2023 1:32 pm

    I think Tenant is such a brilliant novel, but I do hate the whole section where she goes back to nurse Arthur. In case you’re interested, I wrote about it once for Open Letter:

    • February 23, 2023 1:48 pm

      Brilliant! As a Victorianist (and a person who has read the novel more than once) you explain how Helen’s perseverance is the point of the novel, something I realized by the time I got to the journal, although you’re so right that Gilbert’s letter presents all the clues.

  5. February 23, 2023 2:12 pm

    Yes, going back to nurse Awful Arthur is just too much. I also found the Gilbert narrative unconvincing. I could wish for a different construction without the awkward framing device. It was extremely daring for a woman to express criticism of a husband, no matter how terrible. Even if the harping gets on our modern nerves!

    Was your edition the one censored by Charlotte, or the original? I think the public domain version I’ve read was the former and I’m curious to read the latter and see if it makes any difference.

    • February 24, 2023 8:59 am

      My edition (the one sold at Haworth) is the 1848 second edition, published before Anne’s death, although attributed to “Acton Bell.”

  6. February 24, 2023 4:09 pm

    I’m glad you found it worthwhile, as it’s in my Classics Club list still. I skimmed your review because I want to go in relatively fresh.

    • February 25, 2023 12:01 pm

      I “went in fresh” because I wanted to see what that was like, at my age and education level. If I were teaching the novel, I would have looked up the historical period and themes others have identified to make my first reading count. It was interesting to read without any of that–not necessarily better, although I think I’ll persist with the uninformed reading as I finish Moby Dick.

  7. February 28, 2023 12:56 pm

    I read it a long time ago, in college, I think. But I can’t remember a thing about it. That probably means that I read it only once and didn’t like it enough to reread it.

    • February 28, 2023 1:01 pm

      It’s more interesting in the historical moment. Once I read a bit about it, I saw why Helen is continually referencing her faith and her child–it’s to show how unfair it is that she can’t have any control over her life while she’s married (not unless she trains up some better men, which she does with Gilbert and her son).

  8. February 28, 2023 3:58 pm

    Read this one a long time ago and found it kind of interesting but didn’t love it. Very cool though that your copy came from the shop at the Parsonage Museum!

    • February 28, 2023 4:50 pm

      I thought it was a good souvenir! It’s been a while since that trip, though.

  9. March 10, 2023 6:58 pm

    I consider myself a big fan of Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I read it decades ago when I was reading lots of Victorian era stuff for my thesis so I was not bothered by the moral questions. They really were very common in novels of the times. Basically, I was shocked by how close Anne Bronte got to having her heroine just flat out leave her husband in favor of another man. Not even close to an acceptable option in fiction at the time. I think Anne Bronte is under-rated overall.

    Enjoyed reading this review and seeing so many commentors interested in her.

    • March 10, 2023 10:32 pm

      It was very close to shocking; I’m sure that’s why there was so much emphasis on her duty as a mother, because that’s the best way to show Victorians how unfair it was that her bad husband had so much control over their lives.

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