The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Action Bell [Anne Brontë], had likewise an unfavourable reception. I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writers nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this were pure, but, I think, lightly morbid. She had, in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand and or a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind, it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course with fictitious characters, incidents, and situations) as a warning to others. She hated her work, but would pursue it. When reasoned with on the subject, she regarded such reasonings as at temptation to self-indulgence. She must be honest; she must not varnish, soften or conceal. This well-meant resolution brought on her misconstruction and some abuse, which she bore, as it was her costume to bear whatever was unpleasant, with mild, steady patience. She was a very sincere and practical Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy communicated a sad shade to her brief, blameless life. – Currer Bell [Charlotte Brontë]
I have to wonder how Charlotte Brontë, a woman who allegedly had to be held back so she wouldn’t write to people judging her for being a FEMALE writer, could feel this towards a book who stirred up so much controversy by highlighting the lack of women’s rights. Maybe she felt her sister was too delicate to understand things. Maybe Charlotte thought these things too commonplace that there was no reason to mention or fight against it. Maybe she thought her sister too pious and preachy. The last one is a common criticism of Anne Brontë. No matter the reason, when Anne and Emily died shorty after their books were published Charlotte inherited the rights to them; and while she agreed for Wuthering Heights to be reprinted, she wouldn’t let them reprint Anne’s books. Personally, I think this is the reason that Anne isn’t as well known as her sisters.
I just noticed that on the US print of the book Anne is also credited with writing Wuthering Heights. I guess false press is still good press.
But does The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have relevance of a modern reader? I think so. Both due to it being a well written story, but also the questions that is raises.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is about a farmer, Mr. Markham, who lives “next door” (their lands are next to one another. As a city kid it’s strange thinking of that as next door because it is a fear walk from door to door, but oh well,) to Wildefell Hall. One day a woman, Helen Graham, in mourning clothes, and her son moves in there. She is distant and doesn’t try to make new friends with the other people in the village, thought she is never rude or cruel to anyone. This results in a lot of gossip while Mr. Markham falls more and more in love with her. One day after a fight she lets him read her diary, where he learns about her past and how she became the occupant of Wildfell Hall.
(You thought I was going to say tenant, didn’t you? Yeah, I know.
To me the story is clearly divided into two parts. The story leading up to him reading the diary, and the story in the diary itself. To highlight the differences between the two parts, I want to compare it to two other writers Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen. The first part is very similar to the political discussions that you find in Gaskell, with a heavy focus on dialogue. When it switches to the diary, it becomes much more political observation akin to Austen. Both parts uses their distinct stiles to highlight the many problems with how women were being raised, and in some contexts still are.
I [Helen Graham] would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power of the will to watch and guard herself (Chapter III)
Well, then, it must be that you [Mr. Markham] think they are both weak and prone to err, and the slightest error, the merest shadow of pollution, will ruin the one, while the character of the other will be strengthened and embellished – his education properly finished by a little practical acquaintance with forbidden things. (Chapter III)
I also love that Anne Brontë also points out how men are also limited and judged by the strict gender-roles of the time. This is represented both in characters in the story, but also in the judgement the main character Helen Graham gets from other people in how she is raising her son.
Well, but you will treat him like a girl – you’ll spoil his spirit and make a mere Miss Nancy of him – you will, indeed (Chapter III)
Yes; it is spoiling the child. Even at his age, he ought no to be always tied to his mother’s apron-string; he should learn to be ashamed of it. (Chapter III)
One of the characters who don’t “act like a man” is constantly belittled by his wife, which is another great aspect of this book. It’s a true feminist book by not setting up one gender against another, but highlighting behaviour in both genders that are continuing the system that upholds the systematic discrimination. Being a part of a system that discriminates, and especially when you are benefiting from it, you are often taught not to see that the system is wrong. You see individual behaviour, but not behaviour as a part of a system. To me, this is the best aspect of the book. Yes, you have antagonist, but you also see that they are a victim of the system more than pure evil beings.
There is also a case for reading this book as how it is to live with an alcoholic. Someone both trying and not trying and the consequences that kind of life leads to for the people they are in a relationship with.
Lastly, while I did enjoy the book immensely, I do have one complaint. Anne Brontë has been criticised for being preachy, and yes Helen Graham can be a bit preachy at times. She is also quite naive and foolish and makes stupid mistakes, and in that sense becomes a three dimensional character, and doesn’t end up in the holier-than-thou spot where she could have ended up. No, my complaint is with Mr. Markham.
I loath him.
He has no growth, which doesn’t bother me because despite the story mostly being told from his point of view (even the diary, it is him reading the diary), he is not the main character, Helen Graham is. I also have no problem with his mistakes, people make mistakes. I loath him because he isn’t really any better than all the other men in the book who view women as property. He reminds me of the men who label them selves “nice guys” and think that makes them entitled to sex. Men who say “I love women”, the same way I would say “I love books”. Treating an object nicely, doesn’t change that you are still looking at them as an object. It was a bit sad, since the rest of the book is so wonderful in dealing with this subject in such a balanced way, but I guess a book written in a time when women were considered lower than dogs in the eyes of the law (read my Agnes Grey review if you didn’t get it) you had to take one step at the time. (And it didn’t take that much away from the overall reading, it was just a bit disappointing).
All in all Anne Brontë, you deserve to be read more.
Gutenberg project: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/969