Anne Brontë is one of six children, and one of the three Brontë sisters who were superb writers – the other two being Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights). The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë is a tale very much about some of the kinds of things that can happen when we are strong-willed and stubborn.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë is an important work because it was written in the Victorian age, and for a woman to defend another’s right to leave a disastrous marriage was quite novel and courageous. Anne Brontë used the pen name Acton Bell, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is often considered an early feminist novel.
The story is told from the point of view of Gilbert Markham one of the central characters. And a substantial part of the story unfolds when he reads the diary of Helen Huntingdon. As the story unfolded, for me, it did not feel like I was reading someone’s diary, it just felt like someone was having a flashback. Despite that, Helen Huntingdon’s tale was not diminished in any way.
The story starts off with Helen Graham moving into Wildfell Hall with her young son Arthur. Like any small town, the gossipmongers are dead set on learning her story to prime the rumour mill. Unfortunately for them, Graham is very mysterious and not willing to assuage their curiosity. They show up unannounced at Wildfell Hall, and they also invite her over to their homes. The people in the town think it’s scandalous that a young woman would live by herself even though she had a maid with her.
Finally Graham accepts an invitation from the Markham family. They are surprised that she has a young son, because when she attended church she was alone. Graham is very protective of her son, and is very careful about what he eats, and leaving him alone, because young Arthur is her only treasure. There is a great discourse going on between Graham and Mrs Markham’s eldest child Gilbert Markham. The conversation revolves around Graham coddling and doting too much on young Arthur.
“I beg your pardon Mrs Graham – but you get on too fast. I have not yet said that a boy should be taught to rush into the snares of life, — or even wilfully to seek temptation for the sake of exercising his virtue by overcoming it…and if you were to rear an oak sapling in a hothouse, tending it carefully night and day, and shielding it from every breath of wind, you could not expect it to become a hardy tree…”
At first, Markham doesn’t really like Graham, he is taken in with the more playful Eliza Millward, the vicar’s daughter. He starts to change though, and goes out of his way to accidentally bump into Graham and even develops a friendship with Arthur. He gives the lad a puppy, which delights Arthur to no end. As Markham evolves into a more mature person, he sees for himself how childish Eliza Millward is, and spends less time with her.
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Eliza and her partners in crime start to spread horrific rumours about Graham, but Markham doesn’t believe them because of what he has seen so far, and defends her honour. But one evening, after he left Graham who is now bent on leaving the town because of the gossip, Markham goes back to get one last glimpse of her and overhears a conversation, and sees Mr. Lawrence with his arms around her waist.
Markham thinks the worst and makes all kinds of assumptions about Graham and the malicious gossip floating around. He is filled with rage and the following day he assaults Lawrence. Markham avoids Graham and young Arthur, who misses him terribly. Finally Graham and Markham talk and he tells her what he saw and heard. She is quite upset and believes that he should have come to her. Anyway, she gives him her diary to read so that he can understand her and her circumstances.
It turns out that Helen Graham is actually Helen Huntingdon and Mr Lawrence is her brother. Helen escaped from her rich husband, Arthur Huntingdon because she was trapped in a loveless marriage and her husband was corrupting their son. Huntingdon isn’t a likable character and is actually quite despicable, and often the self he projects isn’t who he really is. That’s how he deceived Helen, even though there were warning signs. There are always warning signs.
For example, while Helen and Huntingdon were horseback riding, he tells her about his friend Lord Lowborough who is addicted to gambling and has lost everything. Lowborough declares that he is going to give up gambling. What does Huntingdon do? To make Lowborough forget his sorrow, Huntingdon fills him up with alcohol and subsequently Lowborough now becomes an alcoholic – he has traded on addiction for another. When Huntingdon tells the tale, he finds it quite funny, but Helen doesn’t. She is forewarned but doesn’t heed the call.
Helen’s aunt who raised her, warned her about Huntingdon when he was wooing her, but she firmly believed that she could change him. While they were engaged, part of his true nature started emerging, but she looked the other way. As a skilled writer, Brontë takes you into Helen’s private hell and you cannot help but feel sorry for her and root for her when she tries to escape.
Helen carefully plans her escape and starts working her plan. She is selling her art and saving money to live on when she and young Arthur disappears. Unfortunately she writes everything in her diary, and one day when she is so engrossed with her diary entry, Huntingdon looks over her shoulder, grabs her diary and reads it. He searches until he finds the money she has been saving, takes it away and destroys her art and art implements.
Determined as ever, Helen never gives up hope that one day she will be able to finally leave. When the opportunity arises she takes it.
While reading her diary, Markham better understands why Helen is the way she is. Helen is still bent on leaving the town. By this time, Markham is very much in love with her. Helen leaves, and via Eliza, the gossipmonger, he learns that Helen has returned home to take care of Huntingdon who has taken a severe fall. For someone who didn’t indulge to excess, Huntingdon would have been okay, but his excessive drinking and eating made his condition far worse.
What would make a woman return to a horrible marriage?
Helen was virtuous, and felt it was her duty because there was no one else to help Huntingdon – all his friends had disappeared. She no longer loved him, and would never love him again. While nursing him back to health, Huntingdon still wasn’t nice to Helen, but she stood by his side, and it came to the point where he expected her to be there for him 24/7. He improved considerably, and was out of danger, but fell back to his old ways with indulging too much and finally succumbed.
It takes a while for Helen and Markham to finally get together, and you see how we create our own barriers in our lives by the stories we tell ourselves. Each of them are waiting for the other to make the first move, and make up stories in their heads about why the other hasn’t acted, sounds familiar? Though this book was published in the1850s the lessons are applicable today. We cannot change others, we can only change ourselves. If people have problems, marriage will not solve them, they take those problems into the marriage.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë is also about love, loss, redemption and forgiveness. I recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but it’s not a book that you can whip through quite easily, you have to think about what you are reading so you can enjoy and digest. There are lots of twists and turns so you have to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to really appreciate what it has to offer.
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