The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, originally published: 1848, 394 pages, Wordsworth Classics.
I tore through the first 80 pages online during a tedious uni conference and straight after I went out and bought myself a paperback copy of it. At first I thought it was a Pride and Prejudice type story, you know, two people fall in love, but they’re too stubborn to admit it and other things get in the way until they get each other in the end. For a long while I stuck to that theory, so much in the text supported it, but then again… So many things pointed towards something else entirely. There was the mystery of Helen’s past, her son, her willing seclusion from society. Whatever I expected her secret to be it wasn’t what I got.
You start with Gilbert Markham as narrator. He promises a friend to tell his story, and so he does through a series of letters, but then there’s a change. It shifts from his perspective to the perspective of Helen Graham. Gilbert provides his friend with entries from her diary, and as such is nearly the rest of the novel told.
We hear of her falling in love and her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon, we watch the slow unveiling of his true self: abusive, selfish and cruel. Helen, to start with, bears it, she hopes to fix him, to make him a better man through the force of her love and devotion. It doesn’t work, as we well know, but then she’s pregnant and for the child’s sake she stays – and for the child’s sake, she eventually leaves.
It’s staggeringly brave. Not just what Helen does, but that she’s allowed to do it. It’s brave that this book even exists. What went on between husband and wife back then – in fiction as well as in reality – and in many ways now as well, was not the business of anyone else. Women were supposed to bear the abuse, and keep the family together, as ridiculous and impossible as it may have been. And then Anne Brönte writes a book about it, not from an outside perspective, but by giving voice to such a woman and telling us her story? That’s cold as hell and brave. She writes a book about a woman in an abusive marriage, who bears that abuse, but not in the way she’s supposed to, and then suddenly she doesn’t bear it any more. She manages to stay with him on her own terms in a lot of ways. She bears mockery, humiliation, fear and cruelty, but she doesn’t break and she doesn’t bend. Over the course of her narrative, we see her going from young and naïve, to the headstrong, willful and determined woman we met alongside Gilbert to begin with.
She learns to accept her own mistakes and shape her own future, regardless of what the law or religion say about marriage, she never falters in her belief that she is worthy of something better. She refuses to stick to the norm, to keep her head down, to endanger herself and her son, to live in constant fear and shame. Her narrative is by far the more interesting, it’s filled with intrigue, drama and tension, near constant nail-biting tension, will she get away? Will she be okay? What will happen? All the while hoping there’s a happy ending in there somewhere, for Helen who stays so strong and so unflinchingly her own.
Thank you, Anne Brönte, for that. For not wavering, for not making excuses. For giving Helen a narrative that is so full of power, that makes Helen not just a strong female character, but a complex character, with doubts, flaws and fears. It would’ve been so easy to make her a saint, or a perfect example of ‘the strong woman’, but she’s not, she’s her own person. That was perhaps the most remarkable thing about this novel.
I regret that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is somewhat forgotten in the shadow of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I love Jane Eyre with all my heart, but in many ways this is a more important book. If only because it is, sadly, still relevant today. To be in a situation like Helen’s – however much it may differ today from 150 years ago – and then read this story? To understand that it’s possible to rebel against it? That you are not a lesser person in this scenario? It’s important.
If you’ve ever enjoyed any book from the Brontë sisters, you’ll love this too. And if you’ve never read anything by any of them? Please don’t skip this one.