The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Penguin Classics, 1996, 536 p (including 3 p Preface to the Second Edition, 34p Notes on the Text and 2 p Select Bibliography) plus xix p Introduction by Stevie Davis. Originally published in 1848.

This novel is effectively two different stories in one. The enveloping narrative is a series of letters addressed to J Halford Esq by one Gilbert Markham of Linden-Car. Enclosed within it, but much the most substantial part, is a personal testament via diary entries of the woman he comes to love, telling her life story up till she met him. She is, of course, the tenant of Wildfell Hall of the title, Mrs Helen Graham.

The arrival of this widow at the dilapidated Hall, only part of which is now inhabitable, causes much comment in the village, as do her secretive ways. Gilbert first espies her in the local church where he is more interested in her than the sermon. He eventually sets out to the Hall and meets her via an incident involving her young son Arthur, of whom she seems overly protective but whom Markham soon befriends.

Their relationship builds slowly, mediated through Markham’s friendship with Arthur. Mrs Graham has very few dealings with the locals – she will not go anywhere without Arthur and as he cannot walk far extended trips are impractical – but does visit the Markhams’ house where in one conversation he says to her, “When a lady does consent to listen to an argument against her own opinions, she is always predetermined to withstand it – to listen only with her bodily ears, keeping the mental organs resolutely closed against the strong reasoning.”

Slowly rumour and innuendo grow in the village around Helen’s past until Markham confronts her about the tittle-tattle whereupon she gives him her diary to read so that he can learn the truth about her. She is not a widow, but still married, to an Arthur Huntingdon, to whose attractions she had succumbed against her aunt’s better judgement. Her husband is of course a very bad lot indeed and his behaviour was such that she felt forced to flee taking their son with her to avoid his father contaminating his upbringing, her only recourse since divorce was impossible for a woman and as a wife she was in effect a non-person, with no legal rights.

The novel is implicitly feminist therefore not only in that Helen is portrayed as wronged but that she is a stronger, more moral and upright human being than her husband or any of his cronies. Indeed, she is more morally upstanding than Markham since his treatment of Mr Lawrence – who unbeknown to him till later in the book, is Helen’s brother – is thoroughly reprehensible (as well as criminal.) In fact Helen is almost saintly in her forbearance and her actions towards her husband when she discovers he has fallen ill.

It would not be hard to deduce from this book that the author was a daughter of the parsonage. It is saturated with Biblical allusions and quotations. Helen derives most of her consolations from her religious beliefs.

In human affairs things don’t really change that much. Despite complaints from reviewers at the original time of publication that the upper classes no longer behaved in the debauched manner of Huntingdon’s friends as Brontë portrayed them, their activities reminded me of nothing so much as the Bullingdon Club. The book’s feminism most likely also formed the grounds for the unappreciative nature of the original reviews, though Anne’s sister Charlotte also thought the work reprehensible.

To modern eyes the novel is perhaps overwritten and overwrought but Brontë was exposing an ongoing injustice. A degree of fire and venom is understandable.

Pedant’s corner:- window’s weeds (widow’s weeds,) a missing end quote mark, “‘that he is a sensible sober respectable?’” (needs no ‘a’,) ““till the gentleman come. ‘What gentlemen?’” (it was to be a group of men therefore ‘gentlemen’, for ‘gentleman’,) “‘might seem contradict that opinion’” (might seem to contradict that opinion,) plaguy (plaguey?) “in behalf of” (is this an early nineteenth century usage? – on behalf of,) an extra open quote mark in the middle of a piece of direct speech. In the Notes; Jesus’ (x2, Jesus’s,) paeon (paean,) Dives’ (Dives’s,) Mephistophilis (said to be in Marlowe. He spelled it Mephastophilis.)

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