The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë, is one of the first modern feminist novels. It tells the story of a young wife during the Regency period in England (1800-1830) who runs away from her drunken, adulterous, verbally abusive husband, an act virtually unheard of at this time in history. Brontë is the youngest sister of the famous Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë and although her poetry and novels have never received the same attention, she was arguably the pioneer of her family. Brontë's use of realism—unlike the gothic romances of Charlotte and Emily—was a precursor to the literary traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a wildly popular and controversial novel when it was published in 1848. Critics then and later criticized the uneven characterization, but it was Brontë's progressive ideas about the rights of women that caused an uproar in the mid-1800s. Some considered the novel unfit for women to read. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has interest for readers in the early 2000s because of its insight into the historical roles of men and women and for the ways it illustrates how marriage has changed and how some things—such as domestic abuse—have not.
Anne Brontë was born January 17, 1820, the sixth and last child of Patrick and Maria Branwell Brontë. She was born in the village of Thornton in West Yorkshire, England, but the family moved to Haworth just a few months later so that her father could take a higher paying position as the local parson. Brontë's mother died before her youngest daughter was two years old. Their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, came to live with the family and cared for the children. She and Anne were particularly close as Aunt Branwell was effectively the only mother the girl remembered having. The two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, died when Anne was only four. Growing up, Anne was closest to her sister Emily, and together they made up stories about the imaginary land of Gondal. Charlotte and her brother Branwell similarly played together, making up stories about a fantasy land named Angria.
Anne Brontë did not attend school until she was fifteen when she took Emily's place at Roe Head School. She was acutely homesick but, unlike Emily, she endured being at school and worked hard because she believed an education would give her the means to support herself. Her first known poems were written during her two years at school. She worked as a governess for the Ingham family at Blake Hall in 1839 and then, in 1840, for the Robinson family of Thorp Green, near York, where she stayed for five years. Her poetry expresses her homesickness and unhappiness with her appointment. Brontë captured her experience as a governess in her novel Agnes Grey (1847), which depicts a young governess trying to manage spoiled children.
While at home between the two jobs, Brontë met her father's new curate, William Weightman. Her writings of this time suggest that she fell in love with him, but there is considerable scholarly debate over this point. If true, her feelings were hidden and almost certainly unrequited. Weightman and Aunt Branwell both died in 1842, and Brontë grieved through her poetry. In 1843, Brontë's brother Branwell joined her at Thorp Green to tutor the Robinson's son. Brontë resigned her post in June 1845—Branwell was dismissed soon thereafter for having an affair with Mrs. Robinson.
In 1845, with all four Brontë siblings at home and out of work, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne reached an agreement to secretly publish their poems. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell was published the following year. (The sisters used pseudonyms that preserved their initials but obscured their sex.) Agnes Grey, Brontë's first novel, was published in 1847 and her second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was published in 1848. During this time, the family's health was deteriorating. Branwell drank himself to his grave by September 1848. Many contend that Branwell, in part, inspired the character of Mr. Huntington. Emily died of tuberculosis in December 1848. Brontë was also ill and, seeing her own death coming, she asked Charlotte to take her to Scarborough, a favorite place of hers near the sea. Anne Brontë died there on May 28, 1849, at the age of twenty-nine. She is buried there, while all the other Brontës are buried in the family vault in St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth.
TO J. HALFORD, ESQ.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins with a letter from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law and friend, Jack Halford. Halford and Gilbert had a quarrel when Halford revealed a secret, and Gilbert did not return the favor. Gilbert promises to make amends and tell Halford his biggest secret although it is a long story.
In the autumn of 1827, a widowed young woman named Mrs. Graham takes up residence at the derelict Wildfell Hall. Rose Markham and her mother visit, hoping to learn more about this stranger, but she is evasive. Rose's older brother Gilbert cannot stop himself from staring at her in church and a few days later his hunting takes him near her house where he saves her son from falling out of a tree. Their first meeting is awkward because she is so suspicious of him.
Mrs. Graham pays a return visit to the Markhams where she gets into several arguments. Mrs. Markham chides her for spoiling her son because she will not let anyone else watch him. Then she and Gilbert quarrel about the strengths and weaknesses of men and women. She declines an invitation to the family's Guy Fawkes Day party on November 5th. At the party, the guests gossip endlessly about Mrs. Graham. Gilbert flirts with his sweetheart, Eliza Millward, the vicar's daughter. After the party, Mrs. Markham chastises her son for showing Eliza affection because she does not think Eliza will be a good wife for him.
At the end of November, Rose and Gilbert visit Wildfell Hall and learn that Mrs. Graham earns her living by painting landscapes—and she signs a false name to the paintings to hide her location. A mysterious man comes to visit, but Mrs. Graham sends him away before her guests see who he is. Gilbert accidentally uncovers a painting of a dashing young man, which annoys Mrs. Graham. But she apologizes to Gilbert for her temper, and they part on good terms.
Throughout winter, Gilbert and Mrs. Graham—now Helen—run into each other and have many pleasant conversations. In March, Gilbert meets Frederick Lawrence, his neighbor, on the road to Wildfell Hall. Lawrence expresses surprise because he thought Gilbert did not like Helen. Gilbert has changed his mind, but he mistakenly believes Lawrence to be in love with Helen. Lawrence laughs. In mid-May, Gilbert, Rose, Fergus, Jane, Richard, Mary, Eliza, Helen, and Arthur make the day-trip out to the seaside. Gilbert enjoys talking with Helen while they walk and even follows her when she slips away to sketch. Gilbert realizes that Eliza's chatter annoys him and that he may be falling in love with Helen.
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was first adapted to television by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1968. It was directed by Peter Sasdy with a script by Christopher Fry and starred Janet Munro as Helen Huntington. The BBC aired this miniseries in four parts from December 28, 1968, through January 18, 1969. It is three hours long and available in limited quantities on VHS from the United Kingdom.
- The BBC produced another adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1996. The script was adapted by Janet Barron, and the production stars Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Huntington. Mike Barker directed this highly rated adaptation. It is two and a half hours long and was originally aired in three parts. It is available on VHS from Twentieth-Century Fox (released 1997) and BBC Warner (released 2000). DVD availability is limited to Europe.
In June 1828, Gilbert tries to give Helen a new book, but she refuses to take it without paying because she does not want to encourage his affections. Gilbert is crushed but promises that he will not make any advances on her favor. She takes the book as a gift on those terms, and they part as friends. Not long after Gilbert's affection shifts from Eliza to Helen, scandalous gossip about Helen emerges and spreads rapidly among her neighbors. People whisper that she is involved with Lawrence and her child even looks like him. Gilbert refuses to believe the slander, but Mrs. Markham thinks there might be some kernel of truth. He visits Wildfell Hall the following week to lend Helen a book. They walk in the garden, and he asks her for a rose, which she gives him. Realizing his intentions, Helen implores him to be her friend or end their acquaintance. Gilbert reluctantly agrees and leaves, running into Lawrence on the road. They quarrel about why Lawrence is traveling to Wildfell Hall, but Reverend Millward interrupts them.
Back at home, Rose tells Gilbert to stop visiting Helen and soon thereafter Reverend Millward arrives. He has just returned from Wildfell Hall where he told Helen the gossip circulating and asked her to correct her conduct. He says she took the news badly, which causes Gilbert to immediately rush back to Wildfell Hall. He tells Helen he believes none of the rumors and that he loves her. Helen offers to explain her secrets to him the following day. Gilbert leaves reluctantly. Lingering outside, he chances to see Helen walking arm-in-arm with Lawrence. This view seems to confirm the rumor after all.
Gilbert pours himself into his work and avoids meeting Helen. He rides toward the nearby town one day and meets Mr. Lawrence along the road. Lawrence tries to talk to him, but Gilbert is so angry that he strikes him with his horsewhip, cutting open his head and knocking him to the ground. After Gilbert makes sure Lawrence is still alive, he starts to leave, then he returns to offer help. Lawrence refuses, and Gilbert goes on to town, leaving Lawrence lying on the damp ground. When Gilbert returns home, Rose tells him that Lawrence has had a terrible accident. She urges him to visit Lawrence, who may be on his deathbed, but Gilbert refuses, sending Fergus instead. Helen finally catches Gilbert and asks him why he did not meet her to hear her story. They argue, and she leaves, but Gilbert grows curious. He visits her the next day and reveals why he is angry. Helen gives him her diary by way of explanation.
The next twenty-nine chapters are told from Helen's perspective, via her diary. Her story begins June 1, 1821, seven years earlier. Helen is eighteen years old and lives at Staningley manor with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell. She reflects upon her latest visit to town, meaning London. Mrs. Maxwell has introduced Helen to some older men, but Helen is only interested in the dashing Mr. Huntington. One of the older suitors, Mr. Boarham, proposes, but Helen refuses him. The next day, she visits her uncle's friend Mr. Wilmot and Huntington is among the guests. He pays special attention to Helen, which distresses her aunt. Mrs. Maxwell tries to dissuade Helen from forming an attachment to Huntington, but Helen believes she can reform him.
A party comes to Staningley in the autumn of 1821, including Huntington, Lord Lowborough, Boarham, Wilmot, Annabella Wilmot, and Milicent Hargrave. Helen is excited to see Huntington, but he confuses her by flirting with Annabella. She is brought to tears one evening when Annabella sings a song about lost love. Helen flees to the library to cry, and Huntington follows her, declaring his love and asking her to be his wife. Mrs. Maxwell comes upon them kissing, and Helen assures her aunt that she has not yet given her assent.
Helen is very happy the next day but she tells Mr. Huntington that her aunt and uncle will only let her marry a good man. He promises her to be better than he has been. Later, Helen talks with her aunt, declaring that she will reform Huntington when she is his wife. But at church that day, Helen observes Huntington's wandering attention and boredom. Nevertheless, she tells her uncle she will marry the man, and Christmas is settled upon for the wedding day, three months hence. Milicent is surprised at this engagement while Annabella declares her intention to become Lady Lowborough. Later that day, Huntington tells Helen a long story about how he and his friends mistreated Lord Lowborough while the lord struggled with a gambling problem and alcoholism. Helen is appalled at Huntington's lack of compassion. Before the end of the day, Annabelle and Lowborough are engaged as well.
Eight weeks into her marriage, February 1822, Helen is beginning to feel a little disenchanted with her husband. Huntington hurried through their honeymoon on the continent and, once home at Grassdale Manor, implored Helen to be less religious so that she could give him more of her heart.
In April, Helen and Huntington quarrel after he tells her about an affair he had with a married woman when he was younger. Helen thinks to herself, "for the first time in my life, and I hope the last, I wished I had not married him." Restless with country life, Huntington makes plans to go to London. He and Helen make up, and she accompanies him. She returns to Grassdale Manor a month later. Huntington stays behind to finish some unspecified business. He keeps delaying his return and reports in his letters that Milicent is engaged to his friend Mr. Hattersley. Milicent writes to Helen that Hattersley tricked her into the engagement, but Milicent was too timid to speak out against him. Huntington finally returns home at the end of July, ill from too much debauchery. He recovers after a few days and plans to have their friends come and visit in September: Lord and Lady Lowborough, Mr. and Mrs. Hattersley, Mr. Grimsby, and Walter Hargrave, their neighbor. Annabella and Huntington flirt together, distressing both Lowborough and Helen. A month into the visit, Helen sees Huntington and Annabella talking at the piano with hands intimately clasped. Helen is upset, but Huntington convinces her that it means nothing.
By Christmas 1822, Helen and Huntington have a son, who is named Arthur after his father. Helen is delighted to be a mother, but Huntington is jealous of the time and affection Helen devotes to the baby. A year later, Helen is glad to see Huntington take an interest in little Arthur but fears that her son will take after his father. In the spring, Huntington says he is returning to London without Helen or the baby. He is gone from March through July during which time Helen visits with the Hargraves for company even though she finds Mr. Hargrave annoying. Huntington is more ill this time when he returns home than he was the previous summer but a trip to Scotland to hunt refreshes him.
In March 1824, Huntington sneaks off to London while Helen is visiting her ill father. Huntington returns in July and soon thereafter Helen's father dies. Huntington will not let her go to the funeral because he wants her at home with him. In September, their friends visit again. Grimsby and Hattersley encourage Huntington to drink heavily, and the three men behave riotously and rudely to the rest of the company. A week into the visit, Milicent urges Helen to talk to her younger sister Esther about being very careful in her choice of a spouse. Hattersley complains to his wife that he wishes she would be firmer with him. His concerns show him to be more introspective than Huntington. Mr.Hargrave wishes to tell Helen some terrible news about her husband, but she refuses to hear him.
One night, Helen comes upon her husband outside. At first he is delighted, then surprised, and he demands that she return to the house. His affection puts Helen in a good mood for the evening. Two nights later, Helen discovers her husband and Annabella in the shrubbery outside, kissing and exchanging endearments. Later Helen asks him if he will permit her and their son to leave, but he refuses. Helen struggles the next day to behave normally. She makes her enmity known to Annabella, who begs Helen not to tell Lowborough. Helen declares that she will tell no one but not because Annabella asks it of her. A few weeks later, Hargrave declares his affection to Helen, who is offended. He apologizes later, but their conference is observed by Grimsby and Hattersley, whose looks imply they believe something is going on between them.
After their guests leave, Helen and Huntington grow accustomed to their estrangement even as they continue to live in the same house. Helen is distressed that two-year-old Arthur seems to cling to his father more than his mother. In May, Hargrave renews his declaration of love to Helen and is again rebuffed. Esther knows they have quarreled and is concerned that they remain friends. Helen is very annoyed by Hargrave. In November, he again tries to convince her to return his affection and, angered, Helen tells him he is selfish and should leave her alone. He soon leaves for Paris, and Helen is relieved.
A year later, September 1826, Helen and Huntington's friends return for a visit joined by Mrs. Hargrave and Esther Hargrave. Two weeks into the visit, Lowborough finally catches his wife at her infidelity, and they leave the next day. During the rest of the visit, Helen is appalled to see Huntington teaching their four-year-old son how to behave like his father—drinking and swearing. She determines to leave Grassdale. Hargrave again renews his love declaration to Helen. Grimsby spies him gripping her hands and soon Huntington bursts into the room and confronts them. Helen's name is cleared by Hargrave's reluctant confession.
In January 1827, Huntington takes Helen's diary from her and reads it, discovering her plan to escape. He immediately confiscates all of her money and valuables and burns many of her painting tools. Helen's plans are dashed because she cannot afford to support herself and her son on the tiny allowance Huntington gives her. In March, Huntington leaves for London, and Helen works to break her son of the bad habits his father has taught him. Helen's brother, Frederick Lawrence, visits and agrees to aid Helen in leaving Grassdale. Helen councils Esther to be careful about whom she chooses to marry and to not marry for love alone. Milicent and her husband visit Grassdale, and Hattersley tells Helen that he is weary of Huntington and that she is better off not having him at home. Helen encourages his resolution to give up drinking and be a better husband and father.
Huntington returns to Grassdale in September and tells Helen he is hiring a governess for their son. Helen dislikes Miss Myers and soon resolves to leave Grassdale, even though she is penniless. In early October 1827, she and Rachel secretly pack a few boxes and, with Benson's help, send them ahead to the coach-office. Rising early in the morning, Helen, Rachel, and little Arthur flee Grassdale in a hired coach. Helen disguises herself as a widow and travels under an assumed name, Mrs. Graham. After a day-long journey, they arrive at Wildfell Hall, the childhood home of Helen and her brother, which Rachel also remembers. Lawrence reports to Helen that Huntington is looking for her. They get settled at Wildfell Hall although Helen finds her new neighbors to be nosy.
The story returns to the present time, summer of 1828. Gilbert hurries to Wildfell Hall the morning he finishes Helen's dairy. He and Helen reconcile, but she tells him that they can never see each other again. He implores her to change her mind, and she finally consents that he may write to her in six months time, after she has moved to a new place. Gilbert leaves and visits the ill Mr. Lawrence, who is surprised to see Gilbert, but they reconcile their differences. Gilbert cannot talk to anyone about Helen's story for fear of word getting back to Huntington. Helen moves two months later, and Gilbert visits with Lawrence to hear about her. He also warns his bachelor friend against pursuing Jane Wilson for a wife because she is cold-hearted underneath her charming veneer and hates Helen. Lawrence is offended at Gilbert's impertinence but soon cuts off his visits to Ryecote Farm.
In November 1828, Eliza visits the Markham home to tell Rose, Gilbert, and Fergus that Helen is not a widow but has actually run away from her husband. Gilbert is shocked and hurries to Woodford Hall where Lawrence tells him that Helen has returned to Grassdale Manor to attend her ill husband, who has been abandoned by everyone else. Huntington has fallen from his horse and has internal injuries. Less than a week later, Lawrence shares another letter from Helen: Huntington is no longer delirious but is still unwell. Helen fears for Esther's happiness because her mother continues to push her to marry. With Helen's permission, Gilbert tells the truth to Rose, who spreads it to their neighbors. Two weeks later, Gilbert learns from another letter that Huntington's illness has returned. Hattersley and his family come to visit when they hear that Huntington is near death. Huntington is frightened and will not let Helen leave his side. He dies on December 5, 1828.
Lawrence leaves immediately to attend the funeral. Gilbert worries that the difference in social standing between him and Helen may yet keep them apart. He resolves to wait until the six months are up at the end of February to write to Helen. But near the end of January, Helen's uncle dies. Gilbert cannot write to her because he does not know the address for Staningley, and Lawrence will not tell him. In early December 1829, Eliza tells Gilbert that Helen is getting remarried to none other than Hargrave then laughs at him as he is overwhelmed with her news. Gilbert takes off the very next day for Grassdale, arriving at the church just as the newlyweds emerge. But it is Lawrence and his bride, Esther Hargrave who have been married that day and not Helen and Hargrave.
Gilbert travels to Staningley to see Helen. Near the manor he learns from his fellow travelers that Helen has inherited her uncle's estate and is now wealthy. Standing outside the manor gates, Gilbert decides they are too different in station, and he must leave her alone. A carriage drives by and Arthur spots Gilbert. Helen invites him into the house where he meets Mrs. Maxwell. When Gilbert and Helen are alone, they renew their declarations of affection for each other and make plans to get engaged and then marry. Helen and Gilbert marry eight months later, in August 1830.
Benson is a servant at Grassdale Manor. He helps Helen, Arthur, and Rachel flee from Mr. Huntington.
Mr. Boarham is Mrs. Maxwell's friend and one of Helen's suitors, but Helen refuses his marriage proposal because he repulses her.
Master Arthur Graham
See Master Arthur Huntington
Mrs. Helen Graham
See Mrs. Helen Huntington
Mr. Grimsby is Mr. Huntington's friend. He lives for drinking, hunting, and gambling and is the only one of Huntington's friends who does not marry. He is eventually killed in a barroom brawl.
Mr. Jack Halford Esq.
Jack Halford is Rose's husband and Gilbert's friend. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is framed as a series of letters from Gilbert to Halford.
Miss Esther Hargrave
Esther, the youngest Hargrave, is a friend to Helen. She is pretty and vivacious but suffers pressure from her mother and brother to marry quickly. She listens instead to Helen's advice: "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." At the end of the novel, she marries Helen's brother, Mr. Lawrence.
Miss Milicent Hargrave
See Mrs. Milicent Hattersley
Mrs. Hargrave is mother to Walter, Milicent, and Esther. She is tightfisted and pushes her daughters to marry wealthy men while doting excessively on her son.
Mr. Walter Hargrave
Walter Hargrave is the older brother of Milicent and Esther. He is spoiled but still more of a gentleman than his friends, Huntington, Hattersley, and Grimsby. Hargrave falls in love with Helen, but his love is egocentric and he annoys Helen. He eventually marries a plain but rich woman who is disappointed in him when his charm wears off, revealing his selfish and careless nature.
Miss Helen Hattersley
Helen is the first child of Milicent and Ralph Hattersley. She is a few months younger than Helen's son Arthur.
Mrs. Milicent Hattersley
Milicent Hattersley is Annabella's cousin and Helen's friend. Her gentle, yielding nature attracts the eye of the rakish Mr. Hattersley, who claims her as his fiancée almost against her wishes. Much like Helen, she is unhappy in her marriage for the first several years. Hattersley is often physically and verbally abusive. Milicent nevertheless believes that he is a good man and will eventually come around. When he does, they are very happy together. They have several children.
Master Ralph Hattersley
Ralph is the second child of Milicent and Ralph Hattersley.
Mr. Ralph Hattersley Esq.
Mr. Hattersley is Mr. Huntington's friend. For the first few years of his marriage, Hattersley continues to live a profligate lifestyle, but as he sees Huntington's health decline, he reforms his ways. Hattersley turns to his wife and family. He no longer goes to London to party, instead keeping busy at his country manor with farming, breeding cattle and horses, and hunting. He, his wife Milicent, and their sons and daughters live very happily thereafter.
Master Arthur Huntington
The son of Helen and Arthur Huntington, Master Arthur Huntington is a cheerful little boy and innocently aids in bringing Gilbert and his mother together.
Mr. Arthur Huntington
Arthur Huntington, Helen's husband, is handsome and charming but also irresponsible and selfish. Huntington regularly overindulges in drinking and gambling and has several affairs with other women, including Annabella Lowborough and Miss Myers. Huntington tires of Helen's pressure to reform and takes to spending several months a year in London or on the continent without his wife or son. Huntington takes no interest in Arthur except to be jealous of the attention Helen gives to the baby instead of to him. Even in the face of death, at the end of the novel, Huntington is childish and fearful, unable to seek solace in piety. Brontë, in the character of Huntington, has painted the portrait of a unmanly gentleman.
Mrs. Helen Huntington
The heroine of Brontë's novel, Mrs. Helen Huntington courageously leaves her depraved husband to save her son from his father's influence. Helen is a religious and extremely moral person. As a young wife, she naively believes that she can cure Huntington of his profligate lifestyle and that he will welcome the change. When their marriage falls apart, Helen continues to stay at the house because Huntington has not given her permission to leave. She refuses the advances of Mr. Hargrave and Gilbert because she is still married. Hargrave's persistence offends her but refusing Gilbert is more difficult because she returns his loves; however, her piety makes it impossible for her to betray her marriage vows.
Helen loves literature—an interest she shares with Gilbert. She also loves to write in her diary and record events in great details, making the direct, first-person presentation of half of the novel possible. As a character, Helen has one glaring flaw: her infallibility. Brontë has made Helen too perfect. Even Gilbert, the other central character, is not entirely sympathetic because of his behavior. This excessive perfection gives one the sense that Helen is more acted upon in events than an agent in shaping them.
Mrs. Esther Lawrence
See Miss Esther Hargrave
Mr. Frederick Lawrence
Frederick Lawrence is Helen's brother and Gilbert's neighbor. He and Gilbert have an awkward relationship, even after Gilbert understands Lawrence's true relationship with Helen. Gilbert warns Lawrence not to marry Jane Wilson because he knows that Jane hates Helen and that her charm is all on the surface. Although Lawrence is offended, he takes Gilbert's advice. Lawrence does not approve of Gilbert's attachment to Helen and even goes to some effort to interfere with their acquaintance once Helen leaves Wildfell Hall. At the end of the novel, Lawrence marries Helen's pretty young neighbor, Esther Hargrave.
Lady Annabella Lowborough
Annabella is Milicent's beautiful and vivacious cousin. She marries Lord Lowborough after Mr. Huntington and Helen are engaged. Annabella and Huntington later have an affair. Despite her charm, Annabella is cold and cruel to Helen, whom she views as competition. Lowborough is devastated when he learns of the affair, and he takes their children and lives apart from his wife. Annabella eventually elopes with another man and moves to the continent whereupon her husband divorces her. Annabella's new man leaves her also. She continues to live extravagantly but eventually dies in disgrace and poverty.
Lord Lowborough is a friend of Huntington's who gives up drinking and gambling because he cannot moderate his behavior. He is quiet and morose but sincerely wants a wife to love. He marries Annabella Wilmot but learns after a few years that she is unfaithful. They separate, and he takes their son and daughter with him. Lowborough eventually divorces Annabella when she elopes to the continent with another man. He marries a steady older woman who cares for him and his children, and they live the rest of their lives very happily.
Mr. Fergus Markham
Fergus Markham is Gilbert's younger brother. He is probably a teenager during the narrative and often does and says insensitive things. Fergus grows out of this phase by the time he inherits the family farm from Gilbert and marries a vicar's daughter.
Mr. Gilbert Markham
Gilbert Markham is the narrator of this novel, relating the story by letters to his friend and brother-in-law, Halford. Gilbert is a gentleman farmer, managing his family's business in lieu of his father, who is either absent or dead. Gilbert likes to read and have intelligent conversation, which inevitably draws him to his mysterious new neighbor, the widow Helen Graham. He falls in love with her, and although he senses that she does not want a romance, he is unable to keep himself from declaring his attachment to her. He mistakes Mr. Lawrence for a suitor and becomes insanely jealous, to the extent that he strikes the man a near-deadly blow. The attack is a turning point for Gilbert, who slowly begins to temper his emotions. Helen returns his feelings but refuses to act on them, instead sharing her secret with Gilbert: she is still married. While they are separated for eighteen months, Gilbert undergoes a subtle transformation. His love for Helen both mellows and deepens. He loses his desperation although not his motivation. He cultivates a difficult friendship with Mr. Lawrence. Gilbert also becomes painfully aware of the differences in their social stations as Helen is much wealthier than he is. When they are finally united, these differences pose no barrier. Many critics have commented on Gilbert's character as problematic: He is not an entirely likable and at the least seems undeserving of Helen's love. These incongruities can be explained in terms of Brontë's realistic style.
Mrs. Markham is the mother of Gilbert, Rose, and Fergus Markham. Mrs. Markham tends to go along with neighborhood views, including when the whole community is suspicious of Helen.
Miss Rose Markham
Rose Markham is the middle Markham child. She is a typical young woman, gossiping with her neighbors. Rose marries Jack Halford, the man to whom the narrative of this novel is addressed.
Mrs. Margaret Maxwell
Mrs. Maxwell, Helen's aunt and the only woman Helen has known as a mother, tries to impress upon Helen the importance of choosing a good husband.
Mr. Maxwell, Helen's uncle, leaves his entire estate of Staningley to her when he dies, making Helen wealthy.
Miss Eliza Millward
Eliza Millward, the vicar's younger daughter, is vivacious but shallow, conspiring with Jane Wilson to spread nasty rumors about Helen after Gilbert spurns Eliza. She later marries a rich tradesman.
Miss Mary Millward
Mary Millward, the vicar's older daughter, is a quiet and reserved woman and the only one besides Gilbert who refuses to believe the rumors about Helen. Mary is secretly engaged to Richard Wilson.
Reverend Michael Millward
Reverend Millward, the local vicar, is a well-meaning busybody. When he retires, he passes on his position to his curate and son-in-law, Richard Wilson.
Miss Alice Myers
Miss Myers is a governess hired by Huntington to come between Helen and her son. Brontë also alludes to a sexual relationship between Miss Myers and Huntington. Miss Myers abandons Huntington when he becomes gravely ill.
Rachel is Helen's nurse and has taken care of her since she was a child. She chooses to accompany Helen on her flight from Grassdale Manor rather than stay behind and be tormented by Mr. Huntington.
Miss Annabella Wilmot
See Mrs. Annabella Lowborough
Mr. Wilmot, Mr. Maxwell's friend and Annabella's uncle, is one of the older men who pursue Helen. He seems oblivious to her indifference, which disgusts Helen.
Miss Jane Wilson
Jane Wilson, the only daughter of Mrs. Wilson, is pretty and accomplished at piano, but she can also be small-minded and unpleasant. Jane pursues Mr. Lawrence, hoping to marry him and his money, but Gilbert ruins her chances by warning off Mr. Lawrence. Jane never finds another rich man to marry and lives out her life as a gossipy old maid.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Brontë's novel was written and takes place during the early nineteenth century in England. Research the clothing fashions for both men and women of this time and place. What were the differences between the high and low classes? Prepare a ten-minute speech or a detailed visual aid that focuses on a particular area of fashion (such as shoes, jewelry, gowns, or work clothes). Do the clothes look strange to you? Do you see any connection with modern fashion?
- Huntington is an alcoholic who denies he has a problem. Findings from a 2005 survey in the United Kingdom show that 19 percent of men and 8 percent of women drink heavily at least once a week. Research alcoholism and learn what the danger signs of alcohol abuse are as well as the steps one can take to break the addiction. In small groups, design an ad campaign aimed toward raising awareness of teen drinking and directing people where they can get help locally. For your campaign, you can make posters, flyers, newspaper advertisements, and radio or television spots.
- In the early 2000s, domestic abuse remains a serious problem. Abuse does not need to be physical to do damage. Research domestic abuse in its various forms and read several case studies. How does Huntington fit the profile of an abuser? How do Helen and Arthur fit the profile of abused individuals? Write up the Huntington family as a case study in domestic abuse.
- Brontë's characters love to go on walks. Sometimes they stroll in the garden after dinner and sometimes they take longer hikes (for example, out to the sea). Take a walk or hike of you own in a park or other scenic place, taking particular care to observe your surroundings. What do you see that is unique to that particular setting? What do you see that is familiar and unfamiliar? Do you see anything that pleases you? Immediately after your walk (or during a break in the middle of it) sit down and write a poem or story that captures your experience.
- Britain has its own cuisine, although it may not be as famous across the world as French or Italian cuisine. Research recipes for some traditional British foods. Do you see regional differences? How has British cuisine changed? Choose a dish to prepare and bring it to class to share in potluck fashion. Try a little bit of everything and discuss with your classmates what is unusual, what is familiar, what is unpleasant, and what you would like to eat again.
Mrs. Wilson is the mother of Robert, Jane, and Richard. Her older son Robert manages her home, Ryecote Farm. They are neighbors to the Markhams and the Millwards.
Mr. Richard Wilson
Richard Wilson, Mrs. Wilson's younger son, is quiet and studious, and eventually he graduates from Cambridge. Richard is secretly engaged to Mary Millward, and they marry after he becomes curate to Reverend Millward. Richard succeeds Mr. Millward as vicar.
Mr. Robert Wilson
Robert Wilson, Mrs. Wilson's older son, manages the family's estate, Ryecote Farm.
Alcoholism is a chronic substance abuse disorder. People who suffer from alcoholism are so preoccupied with alcohol that they cannot function normally. In the United Kingdom, as of 2001, alcoholism afflicted 8 percent of the population. In Brontë's novel, Huntington and several of his friends are heavy drinkers. Lord Lowborough and Mr. Hattersley each reform their lives, unlike Mr. Huntington and Mr. Grimsby. Lord Lowborough and Mr. Huntington both particularly seem affected by traditional signs of alcoholism. They drink to excess often and are even driven to the point of drinking alcohol early in the day to help themselves feel better. Lord Lowborough sees that he has a problem and with supreme effort and willpower, overcomes his addiction. Mr. Huntington never really believes he has a problem and gradually sinks into poor health until he is overcome by an internal injury, resulting from a fall from his horse. His son, Arthur, is made ill by the very smell of alcohol, a physiological sign of his psychological abhorrence for the substance that has so altered his father.
Mr. Hattersley, although he drinks heavily with his friends, does not seem to be afflicted by alcoholism as much as by a lifestyle problem. Once he resolves to spend his time in the country with his wife and stay away from London, he becomes a happy man. Mr. Grimsby, by contrast, continues to live an intemperate life, gambling and drinking and eventually dies in a brawl. The message Brontë is sending to her readers is abundantly clear: overindulgence in alcohol leads to ruin whereas moderation or abstinence leads to happiness.
Piety is the state of being devout, in matters of religion and in matters of social or familial obligations. The daughter of a minister, Brontë was a pious woman who nonetheless struggled with her devotion several times during her short life. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, pious characters are rewarded. Despite extraordinary hardship as a young woman, Helen is firmly devoted to her religion and its moral precepts. Against all odds, she ends up a rich woman, happily married to a loving husband. After she and Mr. Huntington are estranged but still living in the same house, Mr. Hargrave declares his love to her, but Helen is not the least bit tempted from her loneliness. She dislikes Mr. Hargrave, but she is also offended that he would suggest she violate her marriage vows because those vows were made before God and are sacred. Later, at Wildfell Hall, she also rebuffs Gilbert without hesitation for much the same reason except that this time her choice is much more poignant because she does, in fact, love Gilbert.
Other characters rewarded for piety in this novel include Mary Millward and Richard Wilson, who marry after being secretly engaged. They are regarded by many of their neighbors and relations as dull and uninteresting, but Helen quickly forms a friendship with Mary, drawn to her sensibility and strong moral sense. Mary, like Gilbert, is one of the few people who refuse to believe anything scandalous about Helen without knowing her true background. They sense in her a good nature that is not easily bent to vice. Milicent Hattersley is also rewarded in the long run when her husband reforms his bachelor ways and dedicates himself to his family, his religion, and his home. Although wild as a young man, Mr. Hattersley, by his own declaration, was only waiting for someone to rein him in.
Brontë further emphasizes the importance of piety with her numerous biblical references within the story. It was more common in nineteenth-century Western literature to allude frequently to the Bible because of the central importance this text played in people's lives.
In nineteenth-century England, marriage was an extremely important institution. Many women were raised with the understanding that their job, as young women, was to secure a good husband. For some, good was defined variously, as
rich or loving or handsome or titled. Women were encouraged to marry young and to have children. Although there was pressure on men to marry also, education and business experience were important for middle-class men, so that they could maintain themselves, attract a wife, and support a family. Husbands were often considerably older than their wives.
Once married, a woman was in charge of the servants and the children. Her husband was head of the household and responsible for managing the family's income. In a high-class home, as seen at Grassdale Manor, this responsibility would entail keeping track of rents and inheritance. In a middle-class household, like that of the Markhams, the head managed the family business—in this case, a farm. In Brontë's novel, marriage is first treated by many of the characters as a stepping stone to some greater goal. Mr. Huntington loves Helen's beauty and is perhaps driven by his own reckless nature (reckless because he could have married Annabella, with whom he later has an affair). Helen is misguided by ideas of romantic love and duty into the delusion that she can repair her husband's conduct. Hattersley declares that he wants a pliant wife who will not interfere with his fun, but the truth that comes out later is that he really wants quite the opposite. Milicent is too shy and deferential to argue against the man who claims her hand. Lowborough wishes to be married to ease his loneliness; Annabella wants to be rich and have a title. Jane Wilson also seeks wealth.
What the reader learns over the course of the novel is that marriage is not an institution to be taken lightly. Helen is the guiding light on this point because although she is firmly against Huntington once they are estranged, she does not leave him until she believes their son is in danger. Also, she returns home to nurse her husband when all others have abandoned him. Her example guides Esther Hargrave toward making a more careful choice in mate, although Esther's delay in marrying angers her family. Gilbert's love for Helen is somewhat tempered by consideration for her hardship and higher status, but these differences are ultimately not an obstacle because Helen returns his love. Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not a novel written in a romantic style, it is still much about the courtship and marriage plot, about what realistically works and what does not.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1840s: According to the census, the population of England numbers nearly 15 million people. Approximately 1.5 million—or 9 percent—live in London, the largest city in the world at this time.
Today: As of 2001, the population of England is 49 million people. London is the most populous city in Europe and is inhabited by more than 7 million people or roughly 7 percent of the British population.
1840s: Personal communication is accomplished face-to-face or by letter-writing. Mass communication is achieved with newspapers, leaflets, and broadsides.
Today: Cell phones and email are popular ways to communicate. Letter-writing via the postal system is increasingly considered archaic and slow. Mass media is centered on the Internet, television, magazines, and newspapers.
1840s: The population of England is largely Anglican. Small numbers of Jews and Roman Catholics also live in Britain. Alternate religions such as Unitarianism and various other forms of Protestantism are on the rise.
Today: According to the 2001 census in the United Kingdom, the British population is comprised of 71.6 percent Christians, 2.7 percent Muslim, 1 percent Hindu, 0.4 percent Sikh, 0.3 percent Jewish, 0.3 percent Buddhist, and 0.3 percent other religions. Approximately 15.5 percent of respondents declared no religion, and 7.3 percent declined to answer.
An epistolary novel presents itself as a letter or collection of letters. The form allows the author to write in the first person of the letter writer and to address a particular reader to whom the letter is addressed. This setup provides certain advantages and allows for greater intimacy in tone. This form gives the novel the semblance of fact; the text is a document and not made up or fiction. The use of letters in a novel is a way around the omniscient narrator, as well, because it permits the narrator to show other characters' points of view. The epistolary form was not unique to Brontë. Letter writing was the most important means of communication in nineteenth-century Britain, after face-to-face contact. This form was used by many authors of fiction from the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The third-person limited omniscient narrator technique became more popular later in the nineteenth century.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is narrated in a series of letters between Gilbert Markham and his brother-in-law and friend, Jack Halford. The events of the story take place between 1821 and 1830 while the letters conclude in 1847, seventeen to twenty-six years later. Other documents appear in the novel: Helen's diary is the prime example. Her story as reported in the diary spans Chapters XVI through XLIV. The heart of the novel is told to Gilbert (who is telling it to Halford) through her private diary. Also, at the end of the novel, the author continues to present Helen's experience directly through her letters to her brother, Mr. Lawrence, who shares them and often gives them to Gilbert. This format allows the author to jump back and forth in time and to jump from one narrator to another.
An allusion is an indirect reference to something external to the text, which economically adds another layer of meaning to the text for the reader who recognizes the reference. Brontë's novel is rich with allusion, particularly allusions to the Bible and occasionally to other literature. Her use of biblical allusions enhances her theme of piety by drawing an explicit connection between scripture and its relevance to the story of these characters. For example, in Chapter XX, Helen's aunt tries to impress upon Helen the disparity in virtue between Helen and Mr. Huntington: "how will it be in the end, when you see yourselves parted for ever; you, perhaps, taken into eternal bliss, and he cast into the lake that burneth with unquenchable fire." The burning lake is an allusion to Revelations 20:10 and 21:8. Helen, along with Brontë's contemporary readers would understand this reference and the weight that it carries—Mr. Huntington is, in Mrs. Maxwell's view, beyond Paradise, even if he loves Helen well.
An example of another allusion from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall occurs in Chapter XXX when Mr. Huntington is declaring to Helen that he will do what he pleases just as his friend Hattersley does: "he might come home at any hour of the night or morning, or not come home at all; be sullen sober, or glorious drunk; and play the fool or the madman to his own heart's desire without any fear or botheration." The phrase, "play the fool or the madman" is a reference to William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (the fool) and King Lear (the madman). Readers who understand this allusion would then grasp the foreshadowing of Mr. Huntington's downfall, like that of the tragic King Lear. If readers know the texts to which an author alludes, then the text at hand gains in meaning by its connection to those other works.
King George IV and the Regency Era
The Regency is the name for that period from 1811 to 1820 when the Prince of Wales served as prince regent in place of his father the ill King George III. King George IV reigned from 1820, when his father died, until his own death in 1830 at age sixty-seven. The prince regent was best known for his extravagant lifestyle—hallmark of the Regency era—which angered his father, King George III, who was known to be thrifty and plain. Prince George further upset his parents and Parliament by carrying on a romance with the Roman Catholic Maria Anne Fitzherbert, whom he married in 1785, even though several laws prohibited the union. The couple kept their marriage secret. In 1787, friends of the profligate prince sought and were given a parliamentary grant to pay off George's debts. The prince was forced by his father to marry Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, but after conceiving a child, George and Caroline permanently separated. Fitzherbert remained a part of George's life throughout this period, but their relationship was over by 1811.
George IV was interested in fashion and is known for popularizing seaside spas. He founded King's College London as well as the National Portrait Gallery. He enjoyed food and drink, like Mr. Huntington, and this indulgence eventually took its toll on his health. Late in life, he suffered from mental illness, gout, and mild porphyria (an inherited blood disease). History has come to regard King George IV as a pathetic, bloated, irresponsible figure, not unlike Brontë's villain, Mr. Huntington.
Regency era styles, from fashion to architecture, are marked by elegance. Greek Revival architecture became very popular and women's fashion turned to fabrics that were lighter in weight and color with the French-inspired empire waist. This era was also marked by war—the Revolutionary War in North America and the Napoleonic Wars on the continent.
Queen Victoria and the Victorian Era
Following the brief seven-year reign of George's brother, King William IV, Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837 when she was only eighteen years old. Three years later she married her first cousin, Prince Albert. There are rumors that Albert did not really want to marry Victoria but agreed to it because of her status and pressure from his family. Ultimately theirs was a very happy marriage. Over the course of her long life, there were seven attempts to assassinate or frighten Victoria, all involving guns, but these incidents were generally believed to be attempts at fame rather than due to conspiracy.
Albert died in 1861, devastating Victoria who wore black for the rest of her life. Victoria celebrated her golden jubilee in 1887 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of her accession. Ten years later, she celebrated her diamond jubilee, which included recognition that she was then the longest reigning monarch in British history. Victoria died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1901, aged eighty-one. She was queen for sixty-three years.
The Victorian era was marked by technological and scientific advances such as the Industrial Revolution and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Railways were built across the United Kingdom, making cities more accessible to rural populations. Women gained the right to divorce and own property. The clean lines of Regency fashion for women bloomed into larger skirts, more frills, and bustles. The Victorian era is remembered for the strong sense of morality espoused by the queen—probably a reaction to the flagrancy of King George IV. The first world fair—the Great Exhibition of 1851—was held in London. Photography was displayed for the first time there and the glass and steel architecture of the Crystal Palace was a herald of modern architecture. The Great Exhibition was an enormous success, and these massive fairs became a popular attraction in the Western world for the next one hundred years.
Brontë's writing talent has long been overshadowed by that of her older sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Although their work was romantic, even gothic,Brontë favored realism in her novels, anticipating the shift in taste that occurred during the nineteenth century. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a bestseller in its time, famous for its controversial depictions of oppressive and unhappy marriages as well as the heroine's courageous effort to free herself. Brontë's sisters did not approve of her stories, especially Charlotte, who survived all of her siblings and was executor of Brontë's literary estate. This alone may be the reason The Tenant of Wildfell Hall went out of print and faded from the minds of the reading public.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in 1848, just one year before Brontë died. She published her works under the pseudonym Acton Bell, and many assumed she was a man. An anonymous critic for the Spectator, in 1848, describes Brontë's subject as "offensive" and her writing as rough: "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall … suggests the idea of considerable abilities ill applied." The following month, a reviewer for the Literary World writes more favorably of Brontë's novel, although this person mistakenly attributes Wuthering Heights to Acton Bell. The critic describes the two novels as "crude though powerful productions" and goes on to criticize Brontë's depiction of Huntington, Markham, and other characters as unrealistic. Nonetheless, the review affirms Brontë's talent: "[i]t is the writer's genius which makes his incongruities appear natural." Interestingly, the reviewer also comments on the favorable reception these two novels have received, despite critical condemnation. The reviewer suspects the author to be a "gifted" woman.
Brontë responded to her critics in the second edition preface of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:
My object in writing the following pages, was not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.
She also deflects the question about her sex, stating, "I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be." This opinion was fairly radical in a time when works produced by women were more leniently judged than those produced by men. The likelihood of not being taken seriously was a reason for adopting a sexually ambiguous pen name.
Just over fifty years later, critics of the twentieth century also gave The Tenant of Wildfell Hall mixed reviews. A reviewer for the New York Times considers it "far from unattractive as a story, and full of moral energy and strong ethical purpose." But Walter Frewen Lord, writing for the Nineteenth Century in 1903 is disturbed by the casual manner with which the characters dismiss their own brutality toward each other. For instance, Gilbert Markham strikes Mr. Lawrence with a riding crop, nearly killing him, and Mr. Hattersley brutally beats Lord Lowborough. Lord also criticizes Helen Huntington as entirely too "blameless," which makes her too perfect as a heroine. May Sinclair also complains about Helen's perfection in her introduction to the 1914 Everyman's Library edition of the novel. Sinclair describes the novel as "unspeakably and lamentably dull" but still significant because it is "the first attempt in the mid-Victorian novel to handle the relations of a revolting wife to a most revolting husband with anything approaching to a bold sincerity." It is, in fact, Sinclair declares in conclusion, "the first presentment of that Feminist novel which we all know." Naomi Lewis gives the novel a lukewarm reception in her 1946 review for the New Statesman & Nation. She writes, "Virtue, not passion, is the powerful motive of the book," and "The characters have a kind of reality, but they are observed, not felt as the surroundings inevitably are." "But for all the force of its detail, the book is not great," Lewis concludes. In 1970, Louis Auchincloss compares Wuthering Heights to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, noting their similar structures (a story within a story) and sometimes strained methods of imparting information (extensive eavesdropping and diary-keeping), and concludes that although they are not very different, the former succeeded and the latter failed. When the form works, it is praised, and, he concludes, when the form does not work, it "is given more than a fair share of the blame." In all, critics have continued to have their reservations about this novel.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Agnes Grey (1847) was Anne Brontë's first novel and was probably inspired by her experience working as a governess. In this novel, the title character struggles to control and teach the undisciplined children of her wealthy employers.
- Jane Eyre (1847), by Charlotte Brontë, is a famous English novel about a plain governess who captures the interest of her employer, Edward Rochester. But Rochester has a terrible secret.
- Wuthering Heights (1847), by Emily Brontë, is a famous romantic story about Catherine Earnshaw and the interloper Heathcliff. They passionately love each other but differences in their social station prevent them from being together.
- Pride and Prejudice (1813), by Jane Austen, is about the love and misunderstandings between Elizabeth Bennett and the wealthy Mr. Darcy. Austen was popular in her time and was a literary influence on the Brontës.
- Oliver Twist (1837-1839), by Charles Dickens, tells the poignant tale of an orphaned boy who stumbles upon misfortune after misfortune before finally coming into happiness. Dickens focused his writing on the underprivileged, in contrast to many writers of his day.
- The Awakening (1899), by Kate Chopin, is a slim novel about a smothered young wife and mother who casts off the constraints of her position as a southern socialite.
- Best Poems of the Brontë Sisters (1997), edited by Candace Ward, is a Dover Thrift collection of ten poems by Charlotte, twenty-three poems by Emily, and fourteen poems by Anne. Emily is arguably the best—and most prolific—poet of the three. Anne was also a skilled poet, whereas Charlotte's strength lay more in fiction writing.
- A History of English Literature (2000), by Michael Alexander, is a lively and comprehensive examination of a rich literary tradition. Alexander includes a discussion of the ever-changing idea of which works are classics, including what the term classic means.
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses the dichotomy of country life and city life in Brontë's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Anne Brontë, in her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, highlights the distinctions between city life and country life. The contrasts between London, known as Town, and everywhere else in England, which was largely the rural countryside, were important to nineteenth-century lifestyle. People of the upper class visited London during the Season, which was spring, when weather was mild and people were eager to get out of the house after being cooped up all winter. The Season is when Huntington makes his annual trip into London, although he often stays late into the summer as well. Being in London during the Season provided an important opportunity for socializing. During these visits, young ladies had the opportunity to exhibit themselves and attract potential suitors. These were periods also for distant friends and relations to visit, for people to meet new friends and go shopping to see recent fashions and trends. Men did business and looked for wives for themselves or their daughters. Various social events, such as balls and concerts, were hosted to bring people together. During a ball in London, Helen first meets Huntington. They meet again at a private dinner party at Mr. Wilmot's residence in town, another common social function among the upper class.
London began to grow considerably in the 1830s when the first railways were built, making it more easily accessible to those who lived far away. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, London was the most populous city in the world and the largest city in Europe. Although New York City had the distinction to be the world's most populous city a century later, London was still Europe's largest city at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Although London is central to Britain's commerce and identity in the early nineteenth century, the gentry regarded it as "dusty, smoky, noisy, toiling, striving." Once summer began in mid-June, many would retire to country estates for "invigorating relaxation and social retirement." There they would pass their time leisurely, enjoying their homes, tending to their families, corresponding with friends, reading, hunting, and visiting each other. It was common for guests to stay several weeks or even a number of months because of the great effort it took to pack and travel to a distant friend or relation. Thus, for several autumns, the Huntingtons entertain a group of their friends at Grassdale Manor for upwards of two months. Country life is considered to be peaceful, quiet, safe, and wholesome. When Helen returns to Staningley in West Yorkshire after meeting Huntington in London, she writes in her diary, "I am quite ashamed of my new-sprung distaste for country life … I cannot enjoy my music, because there is no one to hear it. I cannot enjoy my walks, because there is no one to meet."
Helen and Milicent, like all upper-class women of their time, go to London to meet eligible bachelors so that they might get married and settled in life as soon as reasonably possible. Unfortunately for both women, they find themselves unhappily married. Until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, which permitted divorce by courts of law rather than by an act of Parliament, divorce was difficult and expensive. Helen and Milicent had no hope of reversing their situation and could only try to change their husbands or find a way to live with them. Much of Huntington's debauchery occurs when he is away in London or on the continent, underscoring the idea that the countryside is healthful and the cities are corrupt. Mr. Huntington's hunting trip to Scotland is the one time he returns home healthier than when he left. His health slowly but steadily suffers from his drinking, which is inextricably tied to the fast life he leads in London. Huntington occasionally brings his debauched lifestyle home to Grassdale Manor in the form of his friends Hattersley and Grimsby. Hattersley, who is also given to physical violence toward his friends and wife, is following a similar path of ruin but saves himself when he sees the irreparable damage Huntington has done to himself. Hattersley breaks from his life in London and retires to the countryside with his family and thereafter the Hattersley family is very happy.
Those who are also brought to ruin by a city lifestyle or mentality are Annabella Lowborough and Jane Wilson. Annabella's death illustrates. She lives a fast and lavish life, estranged from her husband and flirting endlessly with other men. She ultimately finds herself abandoned and impoverished and dies a lonely woman. Jane moves to a country town after her mother's death and settles into a life of gossip and scandal. She never marries because her expectations are higher than her possibility of attainment. Once Jane leaves Ryecote Farm, she does not talk about her childhood home or her older brother Robert, who now runs the farm. She only mentions her younger brother, the vicar. In this way, Jane completely eschews any association with life in the countryside and thus any association with peace, beauty, and true happiness.
Into the early 2000s, British people love their countryside in all of its varieties, from the rocky seacoast to the wooded hills to the wild moorlands and beyond. The government maintains right of way public footpaths that crisscross the island despite the occasional inconvenience these trails may impose on private property. Bicycles and horses are not permitted on footpaths, although wheelchairs and leashed dogs are allowed. These footpaths are important to the British sense of belonging to their landscape. In the region of Yorkshire where the Brontë family lived there is a forty-three mile footpath called the Brontë Way, which runs from Oakwell Hall near the town of Bradford to Gawthorpe Hall near the town of Burnley. This footpath goes by important sites such as Brontë's birthplace in the village of Thornton, Ponden Hall (a gloomy Elizabethan manor that inspired the three sisters), and the village of Haworth where the Brontës lived for most of their brief lives. The north of England is famous for its rough beauty. The heather moors of West Yorkshire, where Haworth is located, are more rustic and wild than many other places in Yorkshire. The Brontës loved their home in Yorkshire and almost never left it. Anne Brontë became quite fond of Scarborough and the seaside in northeast Yorkshire during her five-year tenure as governess with the Robinson family. This region was likely the inspiration for the setting of Wildfell Hall, which was only four miles inland from the seacoast.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Brontë celebrates the virtues of county life over the corruption of life in the city. Country life is quiet, safe, religious, clean, beautiful, and family-oriented. City life is crowded, dirty, smelly, noisy, secular, and full of vice and distraction. Brontë does not just treat London as having a potential for evil but as the source of evil because everything that emerges from or willingly enters into London is tainted. Helen ultimately finds happiness with Gilbert Markham, a farmer who helps to cleanse Helen of her former woes. Markham's profession puts him in intimate connection with the land. He and Helen deepen their admiration of each other through a quiet portion of the novel where they find each other out on the moors and take long rambles together.
Brontë links as positive the inside and urban as bad and the outside and rural as good. After all, Helen catches Huntington at his infidelity outside. But at Wildfell Hall, Helen supports herself with paintings of the landscape that surrounds her (although the income comes from London). The roses grow outside that Helen gives to Gilbert, twice. The one activity with which Huntington restores his health (other than rest) is hunting. Huntington, to his credit, wants only to be outdoors hunting and sporting when he is at Grassdale. All of the indoor parties, which Helen attends, come to no good.
Brontë uses the names of the different homes in this book to add character to the various locations. Wildfell is the most remote manor in the novel and, as it says in the name, the surrounding countryside is wild and rough. Fell is a Middle English word that means hill. Grassdale is the opposite of Wildfell. Grass gives the impression of civilization and cultivation; dale is another world for a valley. Gilbert and his neighbors live in the district of Lindenhope. Linden is a type of deciduous tree with heart shaped leaves and in mythology it is a symbol of peace for Freyja, goddess of love and fortune. Hope is a word for valley in the northern English dialect. These meanings reflect the roles each landscape plays in the story. Grassdale Manor is Helen's gilded prison and when she escapes, she hides out at Wildfell Hall, beyond the reach of civilization and all the norms that she once knew. Lindenhope is a valley of peace and the place where Helen not only heals but also has the good fortune to fall in love again.
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2008.
In the following essay, O'Toole responds to common criticisms of this novel by suggesting that its structure of epistolary account and diary account work to instruct about the claustrophobic experience of an abusive marriage. O'Toole suggests that "The architecture of Brontë's narrative calls attention to alternative forms of domestic containment," and these forms are imposed by the "natal family" and by "courtship and marriage."
Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been singled out most frequently for two elements: (1) its unusually complicated framing device (Gilbert Markham's epistolary account of his relationship with Helen Huntingdon surrounds her much lengthier diary account of her first marriage and flight from her husband) and (2) its strikingly frank and detailed description of a woman's experience in an abusive marriage. These two features of the text, one formal and one thematic, are intertwined in the experience of reading the novel. For, in proceeding through the multilayered narrative and remaining for a surprisingly protracted time in Helen's painful account of her nightmarish marriage, the reader experiences a sensation that might be labeled narrative claustrophobia. The text thus produces an effect on the reader that mimics the entrapment Helen experiences in her marriage.
"The book is painful," Charles Kingsley declared in his unsigned review in Fraser's Magazine, sounding a note that would be echoed by many contemporary critics. A notice in the North American Review complained that the reader "is confined to a narrow space of life, and held down, as it were, by main force, to witness the wolfish side of [Huntingdon's] nature literally and logically set forth." This language invokes the claustrophobic sensation that I have suggested is exacerbated by the narrative from. The reader's discomfort is likely to extend beyondHelen's diary account of her hellish first marriage, however. The events recounted in the framing narrative—Helen's courtship by and eventual marriage to Gilbert Markham—purportedly provide a happy ending for Helen, released from her disastrous first marriage and free to choose a better mate. But Gilbert is an oddly unsuitable partner for Helen. Though it may be tempting to read the events in the framing narrative as representing a recovery from the events recounted in the embedded one, such a meliorist view is challenged by the fact that the framing narrative finds Helen remarried to a man who, while not the rake that Arthur Huntingdon was, is capable, like Arthur, of violence and cowardice (as evidenced by his vicious attack on Frederick Lawrence, which he does not publicly acknowledge). Gilbert, like Arthur, has been spoiled by his mother and has an inflated ego, and he subscribes to all the standard Victorian stereotypes about female nature and female merit (as evidenced by his behavior toward and descriptions of both the "demon" Eliza Millward, his first flame, and the "angel" Helen).
Gilbert's shortcomings become less critical, however, when attention is shifted from the relationship he describes in his letters to Halford to the one whose forging Helen narrates in her diary—the relationship with her brother Frederick, whom Gilbert perceives as his antagonist and who is his opposite in character. The formal displacement that occurs when Helen's narrative undermines Gilbert's, exceeding it in both length and power, is thus echoed in a displacement of the exogamous romantic plot articulated in his account by the endogamous brother-sister plot contained within hers. The architecture of Brontë's narrative calls attention to alternate forms of domestic containment, one deriving from courtship and marriage, the other from the natal family. Rather than representing these two forms of domesticity as continuous or overlapping, as nineteenth-century novels of family life commonly do, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall stresses their disjunctions, an approach that is complemented by the narrative format.
Treatments of Tenant as domestic fiction have tended to focus on marital relationships, and hence, when examining the relationship of the framing to the framed narrative, to focus on the differences between Gilbert and Arthur as spouses. The critics I will discuss below, for instance, have suggested that the agenda Helen pursues unsuccessfully in her first marriage, an agenda consistent with prevailing domestic ideology, is realized in her second. It must be acknowledged, however, that the novel's relationship to domestic ideology is an unusually vexed one. In presenting Helen's attraction to her first husband, Brontë daringly implies that her heroine's culturally sanctioned role as the would-be reformer of a sinful man serves as a cover for her sexual attraction to him, but a hellish marriage punishes Helen for succumbing to her desire for Arthur. The novel makes a heroine out of a woman who runs away from her husband; but this transgressive act is sanctioned by a conservative motive: Helen wants to save her son from his father's corrupting influence. The more subversive kind of rebellion enacted by Arthur's mistress, Annabella—a rebellion that does not have a selfless motivation—is severely punished by her society and by the text: "she [sinks], at length, in difficulty and debt, disgrace and misery; and die[s] at last … in penury, neglect and utter wretchedness." But if Annabella's fate suggests that the novel's critique of domestic ideology has its limits, her role in Brontë's treatment of domestic reform also indicates the limited efficacy of that ideology.
Helen displays the ironic naïveté of a young woman who, subscribing to the ideas about woman's moral influence articulated by Sarah Ellis and others, ardently believes that as her husband's "angel monitress" she can redeem him. While Helen's surveillance of her home and husband accords with the function of the domestic woman posited by Nancy Armstrong in Desire and Domestic Fiction, Helen is not nearly so effective as that powerful creature. The futility of her efforts are underscored by Annabella; while Arthur finds his wife's moralizing tedious, he can be kept in line by his mistress's strategy, which depends on his physical desire for her. Annabella's brand of sexual management, ironically, has more pragmatic reach than domestic authority. In this way, Brontë's novel exposes rather than reproduces the myth of power embedded in cultural constructions of the domestic woman. Helen's friend Millicent may be criticized for failing to provide the sort of moral management her husband needs, but the example of Helen and Arthur suggests that there is a problem with the entire notion of the wife as agent of reform.
The authorial preface to the second edition reiterates on a figural level Helen's frustrated efforts at domestic purification. Just before asserting, "if I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsence," Brontë compares herself to a cleaning woman who, "undertak[ing] the cleansing of a careless bachelor's apartment will be liable to more abuse for the dust she raises, than commendation for the clearance she effects." If her commitment to acknowledging unpleasant truths links her to Helen, so too does this indication of the limits of her own success, since Helen's wifely attempts at cleaning up Arthur's act are met with obdurate resistance.
This essay stresses the novel's ambivalent relationship to domestic ideology because some of the best readings of this novel become entwined with it when treating the relationship between Helen's and Gilbert's narratives. Inspired by Brontë's eloquent and compelling defense of a wronged woman, and her invention of a heroine who heroically fights back, N.M. Jacobs, Linda Shires, and Elizabeth Langland have all provided insightful readings of Tenant as a protofeminist text. Each of these critics, however, credits Brontë's heroine with the successful moral education of her second husband, maintaining that Gilbert is reformed by his exposure to Helen's text and that their union redeems Helen's disastrous first marriage; in so doing, they risk reinscribing the domestic ideology that it is a part of the novel's accomplishment to problematize. Moreover, each has at some point to ignore, minimize, or recast elements in Gilbert's narrative that qualify a positive account of Helen's second marriage. It is my contention that these elements are linked to a narrative strategy that contrasts Gilbert the suitor, would-be hero of the framing narrative, and Frederick the brother, hero of the framed narrative. The strategy behind the narrative layering is not to show Gilbert's reform and to celebrate a restored conjugal ideal, but to juxtapose siblings and suitors, to poise natal domesticity against nuptial domesticity.
In "Gender and Layered Narrative in Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," Jacobs initially seems set to view Gilbert's framing narrative as part of a continuing critique of the domestic, rather than as the site of its recuperation. She notes that the enclosure of Helen's diary narrative within Gilbert's epistolary one mimics not just the division of male and female into separate spheres but also the law of couverture. The fact that Helen's diary has become her husband's possession and that he has the power to bargain with it in a bid to recover his friend's favor reinforces this point, but Jacobs does not pursue that tack. Instead, she sees the relationship between Helen's story and Gilbert's as one that works not to contain her but to educate him. According to Jacobs, the "effect on Gilbert of reading this document—of being admitted into the reality hidden within and behind the conventional consciousness in which he participates—is revolutionary, and absolutely instrumental to the partnership of equals their marriage will become. Its revelations force him outside the restricted boundaries of an ego that defines itself through its difference from and superiority to someone else."
If this were the case, however, then the access to Helen's consciousness which Gilbert's reading of her diary gives him should have altered his behavior and assumptions. Jacobs, however, provides no evidence in support of Gilbert's moral growth. And far from demonstrating any such alteration, Brontë's novel shows us that in the events following upon his reading of the diary, Gilbert is as egotistical and as sexist as he appears in the opening chapters. His immediate response when he has concluded the account of Helen's harrowing domestic drama is pique that the pages detailing her initial impressions of him have been ripped out. While the diary might have restored Helen to his good graces, rendering her once again "all I wished to think her … her character shone bright, and clear, and stainless as that sun I could not bear to look on", it has not touched his tendency to demonize all attractive women who are not the exalted Helen, as his continued shabby treatment and vilification of Eliza make clear. His unreasonable resentment of Frederick continues, and his egotism is still intact; his pride almost leads him to lose Helen, as he refuses to make himself vulnerable to learn whether she still loves him. Most disturbing, the violence he exhibited in his attack on Frederick is still manifest in his behavior toward Eliza, the former object of his sexual interest; when she says something that angers him, he responds: "I seized her arm and gave it, I think, a pretty severe squeeze, for she shrank into herself with a faint cry of pain or terror." Thus, there does not seem to be any significant revision in Gilbert's character that would encourage us to disagree with Helen's aunt when she says, "Could [Helen] have been contented to remain single, I own I should have been better satisfied." The absence of growth on Gilbert's part was commented upon by Kingsley, who questioned Brontë's agenda: "If the author had intended to work the noble old Cymon and Iphigenia myths, she ought to have let us see the gradual growth of the clown's mind under the influence of the accomplished woman, and this is just what she has not done." Precisely. We can only assume that Brontë knew what she was about when she chose to include details suggesting Gilbert's persistent limitations.
While Shires concedes those limitations, she maintains that Gilbert and his correspondent Jack Halford are both educated by their reading of Helen's diary: "[The novel] counsels an inscribed male friend that what he may perceive as overly independent female behavior is a strong woman's only way to maintain integrity in a world where aristocratic male dominance can easily slip into abusiveness. It is important that the text addresses a man, for the counter-hegemonic project of the text is not merely to expose a bad marriage but to teach patriarchy the value of female rebellion." Like Shires, Langland views the framing male narrative as one that serves a feminist agenda, though in different terms. Writing in part in response to Jacobs's description of the relationship between Gilbert's narrative and Helen's as one of enclosure, Langland argues in "The Voicing of Female Desire in … The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" that "[a] traditional analysis that speaks of nested narratives is already contaminated by the patriarchal ideology of prior and latter and so cannot effectively question what I wish to question … the transgressive nature of narrative exchange." Thus she proposes viewing the "narrative within a narrative not as hierarchical or detachable parts, but as interacting functions within a transgressive economy that allows for the paradoxic voicing of feminine desire." Central to her argument is the fact that the text as a whole is structured around an exchange of letters, and that the epistolary exchange is the prelude for an exchange of visits (Halford and Rose to Gilbert and Helen). She argues that an exchange structure is inherently destabilizing and thus can serve a feminist agenda. She does not allow the gender implications built into this particular exchange to give her pause. However, it is surely not irrelevant that the exchange of letters is an exchange between two men, nor that the material exchanged is a woman's story, though this is a point Langland's reading must ignore. It strikes the reader as curious at best that Gilbert would transcribe for another man the contents of his wife's intimate diary, and disturbing at worst that Helen's hellish experience is used for a homosocial end.
The transaction between Gilbert and Halford accords with the model outlined by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men, which describes how women are used as instruments with which those economic and affective bonds between men that structure society are forged. Gilbert's revelation of Helen's story to Halford is an act of debt paying. He has fallen out of Halford's favor because he did not respond to his friend's sharing of confidences with equal candor; the story he is telling him now, which is actually his wife's story, will acquit his debt. He instructs Halford: "If the coin suits you, tell me so, and I'll send you the rest at my leisure: if you would rather remain my creditor than stuff your purse with such ungainly heavy pieces,—tell me still, and I'll pardon your bad taste, and willingly keep the treasure to myself." The exchange between Gilbert and Halford is not only an economic one, it is also an emotional one, geared toward a restoration of affection. It is clear that Halford has replaced the women in Gilbert's life for the top spot in his affections. Halford is Gilbert's brother-in-law, and he has taken his sister's place in his affections. When in Gilbert's account he first refers to his sister Rose, he pauses to comment: "Nothing told me then, that she, a few years hence, would be the wife of one—entirely unknown to me as yet, but destined hereafter to become a closer friend than even herself." More intriguingly, Markham refers to his marriage to Helen Huntingdon as "the most important event of my life—previous to my acquaintance with Jack Halford at least." The story wins Gilbert his friend's love again, renewing the affective bond between the two men that was in danger of dissolving: "I perceive, with joy, my most valued friend, that the cloud of your displeasure has past away; the light of your countenance blesses me once more."
At one point Gilbert contrasts his warm friendship with Halford to his inability to feel that same kind of bond with Frederick Lawrence, Helen's brother: "[U]pon the whole, our intimacy was rather a mutual predilection than a deep and solid friendship, such as since has arisen between myself and you, Halford." His jealousy of Frederick, whom he mistakenly assumes to be Helen's lover, leads to Gilbert's resentment of him and to his violent attack on him. But even after he learns of Frederick's kinship with Helen and of how instrumental he has been in Helen's escape from Huntingdon, Gilbert is unable to forge a connection with him or even to appreciate his merit. The antipathy between the two, much more virulent on Gilbert's side, is significant, for Frederick is a man who will not engage in the sort of transactions over women that Gilbert wishes him to conduct. Frederick, while placing no impediments between Gilbert and his sister, is not willing to play the active role of go-between that Gilbert expects him to play. Gilbert resents Frederick and even considers him morally culpable for not intervening with his sister on his behalf: "[H]e had wronged us … He had not attempted to check the course of our love by actually damming up the streams in their passage, but he had passively watched the two currents wandering through life's arid wilderness, declining to clear away the obstructions that divided them, and secretly hoping that both would lose themselves in the sand before they could be joined in one." Though Helen sees her relationship to her brother as an end in itself, Gilbert wants the brother to serve as their mediator, to channel the passion whose object and destination is himself.
Such a structure of channeling and mediation is embodied in the novel by gossip, whose central and suspect role in this novel has been elucidated by Jan Gordon: "[G]ossip always appears as a threat to value: it either ‘speculates’ or exaggerates by ‘inflating’ … In short gossip devalues because it has nothing standing behind it. Lacking the authenticity of a definable source, it is simultaneously financially, theologically, and narratively unredeemable." (It is in fact gossip, with Frederick as its unwitting subject, that brings Gilbert and Helen together; gossip's misconstrual of Frederick's wedding as Helen's causes Gilbert to rush to the scene, a trip which ends in his engagement to Helen.) Gilbert implicitly links Frederick's refusal to play go-between with his refusal to gossip when he complains to Halford that "[h]e provoked me at times … by his evident reluctance to talk to me about his sister." When Helen, on the verge of rejoining her husband, had suggested to Gilbert that he might know of her through her brother, she had specified: "I did not mean that Frederick should be the means of transmitting messages between us, only that each might know, through him, of the other's welfare." In her formulation of the triangle, Frederick is less a mediating term than an apex. Gilbert's contrasting expectation that Frederick will serve as an intermediary is thwarted by the literalism and lack of expansiveness with which Frederick imparts news of Helen: "I would still pursue my habitual enquiries after his sister—if he had lately heard from her, and how she was, but nothing more. I did so, and the answers I received were always provokingly limited to the letter of the enquiry." Significantly, Frederick is a character who resists transmitting gossip. He does not, for example, let the community know it was Gilbert who attacked him. He is most reluctant to gossip about women, a reluctance that baffles and aggravates Gilbert.
Gilbert's conversation with Frederick about Jane Wilson is especially revealing in this regard. His narrative has painted Jane as a social climber who wished to ensnare Frederick. Gilbert takes it upon himself to warn Frederick of the danger Gilbert believes he faces from this predatory woman. Frederick checks Gilbert's desire to gossip about the woman and to slander her: "‘I never told you, Markham, that I intended to marry Miss Wilson’ … ‘No, but whether you do or not, she intends to marry you.’ ‘Did she tell you so?’ ‘No, but—’ ‘Then you have no right to make such an assertion respecting her.’" As Gilbert continues to press his point, Frederick, who is not interested in Jane, responds with gentle sarcasm to Gilbert's diatribe. While Gilbert is miffed by Frederick's refusal to join him in maligning Jane's character, to engage in this particular kind of male bonding, he comforts himself by reflecting: "I believe … that he soon learned to contemplate with secret amazement his former predilection, and to congratulate himself on the lucky escape he had made; but he never confessed it to me … As for Jane Wilson … [h]ad I done wrong to blight her cherished hopes? I think not; and certainly my conscience has never accused me, from that day to this." The assumption of his own correct insight into Frederick's attitude, steadfastly maintained in the face of a lack of evidence, and the callous indifference toward the unhappy Jane Wilson are both powerful indicators of Gilbert's self-satisfied nature and the limits of his imagination and his empathy. Significantly, this smug reflection is made by the older Gilbert who has been married to Helen for many years; it thus cautions us not to assume too much about Gilbert's improvement under Helen's tutelage.
Frederick's refusal to gossip about women is in contrast not only to Gilbert's eagerness to gossip about Jane Wilson, but also to Gilbert's sharing of his wife's intimate diary with his male friend. As we have seen, attempts to read Helen's second marriage as an event which redeems the domestic ideal compromised by her first marriage must ignore evidence about Gilbert's shortcomings and the troubling implications of his transfer of the contents of her diary to his friend. It is significant that many of Gilbert's flaws are made visible through interactions with Helen's brother Frederick; this fact should encourage us to think further about the latter's role. For all the famous violence of the domestic scenes in this novel, the most violent moment in the novel is the one in which Gilbert attacks Frederick:
I had seized my whip by the small end, and—swift and sudden as a flash of lightning—brought the other down upon his head. It was not without a feeling of strange satisfaction that I beheld the instant, deadly pallor that overspread his face, and the few red drops that trickled down his forehead, while he reeled a moment in his saddle, and then fell backward to the ground … Had I killed him? … [N]o; he moved his eyelids and uttered a slight groan. I breathed again—he was only stunned by the fall. It served him right—it would teach him better manners in future. Should I help him to his horse? No. For any other combination of offenses I would; but his were too unpardonable.
Gilbert's physical attack on Frederick makes particularly vivid and concrete an opposition between Helen's suitor and her brother that is visible throughout the novel, yet Frederick's importance has been largely overlooked by critics.
Frederick plays an instrumental role in the recuperation of Helen's unhappy history; it is he, not Gilbert, who redeems Helen's faith in humanity after her disillusioning experience with Arthur. She writes in her diary: "I was beginning insensibly to cherish very unamiable feelings against my fellow mortals—the male part of them especially; but it is a comfort to see that there is at least one among them worthy to be trusted and esteemed." Curiously, Frederick is exactly the sort of man the reader who wants a happier, more appropriate second marriage for Helen would expect her to marry. He, not Gilbert, is the gentle, sensitive, and supportive male that Helen has sought. If we are to look for an optimistic, meliorist plot in the novel, it is more likely to be found in the brother-sister relationship than in the husband-wife one. The opportunity for revision and recuperation lies not in the undeniably disappointing Gilbert, so curiously less mature than his bride, but in the brother. Improvement is effected not so much by Gilbert as a replacement for Helen's first husband as it is by her brother as a replacement for her father. Juliet McMaster notes a pattern of generational improvement in the novel's juxtaposition of characters who embody Regency values with those who embody Victorian values. She discusses this distinction primarily with reference to the replacement of the dissolute Arthur, with his aristocratic associations, by the gentlemen farmer Gilbert (elevated to the squirearchy by his marriage to the newly propertied Helen). But that pattern is most marked in the contrast between Helen's irresponsible father and his virtuous son. The framing story is the wrong place to look for a positive alternative to Helen's marriage with Arthur; we must look instead to her diary, to the account of her relationship with Frederick. By shifting attention from the suitor to the brother, we can account for the dissatisfactions of the courtship narrative while revealing Brontë's display of alternate forms of domestic containment. It is Helen's growing relationship with her brother, rather than the burgeoning relationship with Gilbert, that receives the privileged place in her diary after she leaves her husband. The containment of the brother-sister plot within the embedded narrative reflects the turn inward, toward the natal family. The claustrophobic narrative structure, originally linked to an imprisoning marriage, finds an alternate thematic corollary in a potentially incestuous relationship.
Poised between Helen's first marriage and her second is the relationship she forges with her brother during her exile. As the person to whom Helen turns for help when she makes her escape, Frederick serves as a buffer between her and the world during her period of disguise. Helen and Frederick's relationship is peculiar for a brother-sister one because they have been raised having only minimal contact with each other. Helen's father, an alcoholic with no interest in daughters, abnegated his responsibility toward her, turning her over to relatives after the death of his wife, while keeping charge of his son. Helen's flight from her husband provides the occasion for building a relationship with her brother that they have thus far not enjoyed. Becoming better acquainted as adults, their relationship is in some ways structurally closer to a courtship relationship than to a brother-sister one. The townspeople, ignorant of Helen's true identity, construe their relationship as a sexual one, and Gilbert sees him as a romantic rival, suggesting, perhaps, the novel's own flirtation with an incest motif. Helen, after all, is fixated on her son's resemblance to the brother she loves. She reconceives her son as the progeny not of her husband Arthur but of her brother Frederick; she says to him: "He is like you, Frederick … in some of his moods: I sometimes think he resembles you more than his father; and I am glad of it." Helen's flight from her husband's to her brother's house is followed, then, by the realignment of her son's lineage in relation to her natal family. Previously, the son's physical likeness to his father was stressed, and Helen has kept Arthur senior's portrait (which had symbolized her physical desire for him) in order to compare the child to it as he grows. In raising her son, she seeks to instill the character she would create into the body she desired. Finding the embodiment of manly virtue in her brother, she redesignates her son's person as "like Frederick's."
Rather than exploring sexual overtones in the sibling relationship, however, Brontë's novel foregrounds its relationship to domestic reform; Frederick's virtue compensates for their father's neglectful treatment of Helen, and their comfortable relationship, defined by mutual respect, contrasts with Helen's problematic relationships with her husband and her suitor. The implication that the brother-sister relationship has the potential to redeem a compromised domestic sphere bears some resemblance to Jane Austen's employment of the sibling model of relationships as described by Glenda A. Hudson in Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen's Fiction. Emphasizing the nonsalacious nature of Austen's treatment of incestuous relationships—"In her novels, the in-family marriages between the cousins and in-laws are successful because they do not grow out of sexual longing but are rooted in a deeper, more abiding domestic love which merges spiritual, intellectual and physical affinities"—Hudson argues that for Austen, "the incestuous marriages of Fanny and Edmund, Emma and Knightley, and Elinor and Edward Ferrars are therapeutic and restorative; the endogamous unions safeguard the family circle and its values … Incest in Austen's novels creates a loving and enclosed family circle." The idea of closing family ranks for protective and restorative purposes can be applied to Helen's turn to her brother. Unlike what we would find in an Austen novel, however, no warm relationship is effected between Frederick and Gilbert through the latter's marriage to Frederick's sister. The brother-in-law whose visit Gilbert eagerly anticipates at the end of the novel is Jack Halford, not Frederick Lawrence. The alternate domestic relationships of siblings and spouses remain quite distinct in Helen's experience, rather than the former fostering marital exchange.
The endogamous quality of the brother-sister relationship is exaggerated in the case of Helenand Frederick: formed during her time in hiding, it is necessarily an insular one which cannot incorporate outsiders. And it coexists with a regressive project in which Helen engages upon her flight from her marital home, for Helen's retreat from her husband is followed by a return to her natal family origins, symbolized by her adoption of her mother's maiden name as her alias and her return to the home in which her mother died. Wildfell Hall, though "no[t] yet quite sunk into decay," is a previous family home that has been exchanged for a more up-to-date one, so she is not only symbolically returning to her family, but returning to a prior stage in the family history.
Together, Helen and Frederick revise their family history. Enjoying frequent contact with her brother, helen reconstructs the family life she was denied as a child. Frederick's supportive and responsible fraternal behavior compensates for the poor behavior of Helen's father. The contrast between Helen's relationship with her father and the relationship she enjoys with her brother bears out claims made by Joseph P. Boone and Deborah E. Nord about Victorian brother-sister plots. They argue that the "[sister's] investment in the brother figure … originates as a means to combat her own devaluation within the family and society," frequently making up for paternal neglect in particular. They also note that the brother-sister relationship might be used to circumvent problems inherent in a conjugal relationship: "[I]n some cases, the sibling ideal becomes a utopian basis for figuring heterosexual relationships not based on traditional conceptions of gender polarity as the basis of romantic attraction. Theoretically, at least, the idealized union of brother and sister rests on a more egalitarian, less threatening mode of male-female relationship, precisely because the bond is one in which gender difference is rendered secondary to the tie of blood-likeness, familiarity and friendship." While one might question the assumption that there is something more inherently benign about brother-sister relations than other male-female ones, Helen and Frederick's relationship does seem intended to provide an alternative to the violence and power plays that contaminate the conjugal relationship. Frederick gives her both emotional and practical support and appears to be the only male in the novel who embodies the virtues she seeks in a mate.
Contrary to the case of the brothers and sisters Boone and Nord describe, however, the intimacy of Frederick and Helen is not born and nurtured in the nursery; it is not itself, therefore, cultivated by domestic arrangements. It is, we must suspect, precisely because Frederick and Helen have not been raised together that their sibling relationship presents a strong contrast to the others in the novel, such as that between Gilbert and his sister Rose, who complains of the favoritism with which the sons of the family are treated, and that of Esther Hargrave and her brother, who attempts to pressure her into an unsuitable match. The problem of triangulation within the nuclear family is called to our attention from the first page, when Gilbert commences his account of himself with reference to the competing agendas his mother and father had regarding their son; this is swiftly followed by an exposure to the sibling rivalry between Gilbert and his younger brother as well as that between Rose and her brothers. (The fact that Helen's son is conceived alternately as an improved version of her husband and a younger version of her brother suggests that her family will not be exempt from the kind of triangulation that plagues the Markham family.) Because Helen and Frederick come together as adults, there is no parental mediation to promote rivalry or jealousy. Moreover, due to the early death of his mother, Frederick has not been spoiled by maternal indulgence in the way that both Arthur and Gilbert are said to have been. Thus, their exemplary sibling relationship is also exceptional. While Helen and Frederick's relationship seems to present a model for domestic relations, it is a somewhat utopian one, and its strength, paradoxically, derives from the absence of domestic structures in its formation. Therefore, that model is unable to provide the basis for its own reproduction.
In this respect, Brontë's treatment of the brother-sister motif differs from that of many other nineteenth-century novelists who privilege sibling bonds. Austen and Charles Dickens, for example, both use the sibling relationship as a model for the marital one by having the spouse metonymically connected to the brother (either by being him, as in Mansfield Park, or by having a special connection to him, as in Dombey and Son). In Tenant, this approach is visible only on the margins of the central plot, as, for example, when Helen arranges for Frederick's marriage to Esther Hargrave, the young woman whom she has called her "sister in heart and affection." The marriage of Arthur Jr. and Helen Hattersly, a second "Helen and Arthur" marriage, is also a sort of fraternal/sororal match, since their mothers' closeness has caused them often to play and take lessons together from childhood, as siblings would do. Gilbert and Helen's marriage, however, does not adhere to the sibling paradigm. In the central plot, Brontë keeps the suitor and the brother steadfastly segregated: they are antithetical types and are, consequently, antipathetic to each other. Moreover, Gilbert is rendered analogous not to Helen's brother, but to her son. Using his friendship with little Arthur as a way of accessing the mother, the petulant and immature Gilbert is, as Shires describes him, the "boy child who wants to take possession of the mother." It is Frederick, not Gilbert, whom Helen perceives as Arthur's ideal imaginary parent. This fact reinforces the extent to which Frederick appears to be Helen's only male equal in the novel as well as the only exemplar of manly domestic virtue. Though it is incest that is traditionally associated with the disruption of normal generational sequence, Brontë reverses this association by figuring generational imbalance in the exogamous relationship.
Brontë's treatment of the sibling motif contrasts not only with Dickens's and Austen's, but, closer to home, with her own sister's. Numerous critics have traced the lines of kinship between Tenant and Wuthering Heights, which contains the more famous representation of sibling love. Paradoxically, while the incest motif appears less transgressive in Tenant than in Wuthering Heights—it is where family values are housed—it is less translatable into the social sphere. In Emily Brontë's novel (as in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre), the notion of kinship is used to figure the romantic love whose promise is a cornerstone of the domestic ideal. In Desire and Domestic Fiction, Armstrong alludes to the strategy behind the kind of romantic identification often associated with incest in the novels of the other Brontë sisters: "In the face of the essential incompatibility of the social roles they attempt to couple [Emily and Charlotte Brontë] endow their lovers with absolute identity on an entirely different ontological plane." Working against a critical tradition that "has turned the Brontës' novels into sublimating strategies that conceal forbidden desires, including incest," Armstrong associates Emily and Charlotte Brontë's fiction with a development whereby "sexuality … become[s] the instrument of, and not the resistance to, conventional morality." It is not surprising that Armstrong's account does not include Anne Brontë, for, unlike Emily and Charlotte, Anne seems to juxtapose rather than to collapse kinship relations and sexual ones in Tenant. This makes Tenant a most unusual example of nineteenth-century domestic fiction, a fact that may account for the relative marginalization of Anne's masterpiece within the Brontë corpus.
Helen's relationship to her brother Frederick cannot ultimately solve the problems of contradictions that cluster around the concept of the domestic, for it apparently cannot be brought to bear on other familial relationships, or on anything outside its own circuit. While in Wuthering Heights the incestuous longing of Cathy and Heathcliff is replaced by the more socially acceptable (but, as William Goetz points out, sanguinally more affined) marriage of Catherine and Hareton, in Tenant, the sibling relationship seems to exist as an end in itself. The sense of narrative claustrophobia described above is the formal corollary of this self-containment. Helen and Frederick's relationship remains insular, and it remains locked within the field of Helen's diary.
Helen's narrative itself is "locked," for, once her diary is turned over to Gilbert, she never again narrates. This means that we have only his word for the success of their marriage. That he is satisfied is clear, but the reader has no firsthand access to Helen's subsequent experience. It also means that in Helen's diary the strongest affective relationship with a man that she describes after leaving Arthur is with her brother, in keeping with Brontë's use of the brother-sister plot to cast a dubious light on Gilbert and his courtship. It is no doubt because the novel privileges Helen's relationship to her brother, the record of which is confined to the embedded narrative, that Gilbert's framing narrative strikes many readers as perfunctory.
But it is more than perfunctory; it is part of a sustained critique of marital domesticity and part of an oppositional structure that segregates the nuptial and the natal forms of domestic containment. Tenant is distinctive in its brilliant use of compartmentalized narratives to reflect this thematic opposition. It is even more distinctive in its refusal to reconcile sexual and kinship relations, and in its willingness to sustain the resulting note of unease.
Source: Tess O'Toole, "Siblings and Suitors in the Narrative Architecture of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 39, No. 4, Autumn 1999, pp. 715-31.
Auchincloss, Louis, "Speaking of Books: The Trick of Author as Character," in New York Times Book Review, February 1, 1970, pp. 2, 38.
Brontë, Anne, "Preface to the Second Edition," in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 3, 5.
———, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Lewis, Naomi, "Books in General," in New Statesman & Nation, Vol. 32, No. 808, August 17, 1946, p. 119.
Lord, Walter Frewen, "The Brontë Novels," in Nineteenth Century, Vol. 3, No. 313, March 1903, p. 489.
Review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in Literary World, Vol. 3, No. 80, August 12, 1848, pp. 544, 546.
Review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1900, p. 324.
Review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in Spectator, No. 1045, July 8, 1848, pp. 662, 663.
Sinclair, May, "An Introduction," in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë, Everyman's Library Series No. 685, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1922, pp. v-viii.
Alexander, Christine, and Margaret Smith, The Oxford Companion to the Brontës, Oxford University Press, 2004.
This book is organized like an encyclopedia, with entries on topics, including names of characters, titles of works, places the Brontës visited, books they read, and more. Alexander and Smith have included the Brontë sisters' father, Patrick, and brother, Branwell, as well.
Barker, Juliet, The Brontë's: A Life in Letters, Overlook Press, 1998.
Barker's book collects the correspondence of the Brontë family: father Patrick, son Branwell, and three daughters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—some of which was not previously published. These letters provide insight into the personalities of a very literary family.
David, Saul, Prince of Pleasure: The Prince of Wales and the Making of the Regency, Grove/Atlantic, 2000.
David's biography is an engaging and detailed examination of the life and times of profligate King George IV, who died in 1830. George was known in his day not only as a patron of the arts but also as a drunk and a lecher.
Hawkes, Jason, Yorkshire from the Air, Ebury Press, 2001.
This book of aerial photographs captures the beauty of the Yorkshire countryside in the north of England. The Brontë family lived in Yorkshire and were very attached to this landscape of wild moors, rolling hills, grand old manors, historic towns, and seaside villages.