“But romantic notions will not do: I want her to have true notions.”
Anne Bronte did not follow a romantic style of writing in her two novels, unlike Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte. Anne Bronte opted for realism. Anne Bronte was an extremely brave writer to depict alcoholism and adultery without window dressing it.
‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ sketches the reality behind the good-looking wealthy couple in Victorian England.
Anne Bronte wrote, “When we have to do with the vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction…
‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ can be deemed as one of the earliest feminist writings. This book unlike Anne’s previous one – ‘Agnes Grey’ was a huge success with the readers despite touching upon the crude realities and deviation from Victorian romance. Sadly, Anne Bronte only lived a year post the publication of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ to see the popularity of her work. She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine in 1849.
‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ is divided into three parts. The book begins with Gilbert Markham’s letter to a friend about the arrival of a mysterious woman clad in mourning clothes with her five-year-old son and a servant. This newcomer, Helen Graham is the tenant of the Wildfell Hall, an isolated mansion that had remained empty for many years.
A woman’s presence in this secluded part of the country stirs intrigue and fodders gossip in the neighbourhood.
Helen, on her part, is a recluse and sells her paintings for a living. Gilbert Markham, the young eligible bachelor of the village falls in love with Helen. A platonic friendship from Helen’s end is the only reciprocation for Gilbert’s affections.
The second part of the book is Helen’s diary read by Gilbert. This diary dispels the suspicion from Gilbert’s mind of Helen’s affair with Lawrence. Through this diary, we get to know of Helen’s romance and her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. The disastrous relationship with her husband has led Helen to take the drastic step of taking shelter at Wildfell Hall.
The third part is the culmination after the dissipation of suspicions about Helen and Gilbert’s attempt at winning over her heart. But as life would have it, Helen must return to Grassdale Manor to tend to her injured husband.
Arthur Huntingdon: Helen’s romantic notion
Anne Bronte caricatures two polar opposite characters in her male protagonists – Gilbert Markham and Arthur Huntingdon.
Frankly, the grim and gloomy portrayal of the book took me to ‘Wuthering Heights’, the acclaimed book by Anne’s sister Emily Bronte. It also made me see glimpses of Heathcliff in villainous Arthur Huntingdon. Unlike Emily, Anne does not romanticize Arthur Huntingdon. This character may have the attributes of physical attractiveness but his inner qualities only call for abhorrence.
Huntingdon is a man for whom friends are more important than family. He is a man-child who wants to be entertained at all times by his wife. He is jealous of his wife’s attention to their young child and her sincerity in devotion to God.
Helen’s blind love and reverence for Huntingdon is etched in the diary jottings that take us through the build-up to their marriage. In her diary entry after two months of being married, she wrote she didn’t regret marrying Huntingdon but surely he isn’t the man as she expected.
Though it may seem that Helen’s initial hopes of converting Arthur of his over-indulgent ways of living were naïve and Anne Bronte shows the futility in this attempt.
On reaching Wildfell Hall, amongst other things, Helen sees the portrait of Arthur Huntingdon that she had painted in the first year of their marriage. To Helen, this picture now shows the mocking mirth in the eyes, exulting a power to control her fate.
An Honest Depiction of the failed marriage
When Anne Bronte wrote this book, wives were considered their husband’s property under English law. So, we see Helen, otherwise an extremely independent and strong woman, trying to accept her fate and change herself for her husband.
Helen quits her hobby of painting or reading much, after marrying Huntingdon. Later when she attempts to hold her painting palette, it is at the mercy of her husband’s likeability.
Helen’s diary reveals the toxic environment in which she lived with her husband. Initially, she had tried to change herself to bring peace in the relationship; from her love of dressing up soberly, she decked herself in jewels and emerged ‘like a painted butterfly’. She accepted her husband’s way of life which included parties and alcoholism.
However, the breaking point in the relationship comes when Helen begins to witness the corrupting impact of her husband’s parenting on their little child. As a mother, Helen takes upon herself the hardships of life to protect her son from the bad influence.
It isn’t easy for Helen to leave Huntingdon at once. He refuses to separate. She can flee but even that plan is thwarted.
Themes that continue from ‘Agnes Grey’ to ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’
Anne Bronte’s previous work – ‘Agnes Grey’ was heavily founded on moral precepts. Agnes Grey, a governess – the protagonist of the book – was witness to the morally corrupt lifestyle of the rich.
Hunting is a pleasurable activity for the wealthy men in both books and Agnes as well as Helen have a complete dislike for it. They are kind and loving towards animals.
Reading books and walks in nature are held close to their hearts while books are deemed boring for the rich and morally corrupt.
The moral values upheld by Helen are at times quite incomprehensible. When Gilbert professes his love for her, Helen says that as long as Arthur lives she is a married woman. According to Helen, the solace for her and Gilbert is to wait for death to unite them as soulmates in heaven. I suppose Anne Bronte brought her inclination towards morality and religion unhindered in her writings.
‘The Tenant of the Wildfell Hall’ portrays one of the strongest female characters in Victorian literature. Helen is an independent woman who readily owns the responsibility of her doomed marriage. She takes upon herself the religious morality of correcting her husband but breaks free when she sees the futility of the effort.
Helen finds love and marries the man who loves her truthfully, respects her, and provides her the independence. Gilbert is drawn in contrast to Arthur Huntingdon, the one who respects women. He values Helen for her qualities and endeavours to provide an equal environment in their relationship.
Helen is a mother to a young child, dealing with financial constraints and hiding from an abusive man, and yet wins against all odds. The positive outcome for a woman who went beyond the regressive societal norms is definitely an empowering read, even in our times.