Kathryn's Reviews > The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
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Oct 04, 12

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2012-reads, epistolary, on-my-nook, victorian-england, excellent-english
Read in August, 2012

above the fold update: everyone who likes the Brontes must read this: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php...

My book radar is just way off. I thought I would hate The Mists of Avalon and I loved it, I thought I would love Titus Groan and I...well, I didn't hate it, but I sure didn't like it either...and I've been putting off reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for about a year, because I expected it to be boring. WHAT. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING, PAST SELF. HAS ANYTHING BY A BRONTË EVER BORED YOU?

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall hits every one of my buttons - it's Victorian (actually starts out at the end of the Regency era, which makes it even better), it's epistolary, it's moral, it's suspenseful, and it's even got a happy ending*. It's the story of a young woman who, misled by love, accepts the offer of a dissipated young man who is little more than a fortune-hunter. Helen recognizes her husband's faults, but believes, like many a romantic young lady before and since, that love will make him reform. Alas, Helen learns to her sorrow that while some rakes do reform, she didn't marry one of them.

We get Helen's story in her journal entries (which are part of the story Gilbert is recounting to his buddy in letters). She bears up nobly under the tremendous strain of learning that her husband, Mr. Huntingdon (like Helen herself, I can't bear to call him Arthur, because that is the name of her son), isn't the man she thought; he leaves her for most of the Season each year, and when he's home, he amuses himself by corrupting their child, inviting his friends for further debauchery, and, in the last straw for Helen, having an affair. Helen does her best to help Mr. Huntingdon turn to better ways - she reproaches him, she treats him with loving kindness and patience, she hopes that his attachment to their son will reach his heart, she sets an example, she encourages those of his friends whom she believes may help him and discourages those who won't, and she prays. But when Helen learns that her husband is having an affair, she realizes that her husband has no love for her or their son, and that she therefore can do nothing more to reform him. Gathering their scanty resources, she and her old nurse take her son and escape.

It takes courage to take that sort of step - even more so in Victorian times, when she could expect no support from society. No matter how boorish and hateful her husband was, or how he corrupted their son or betrayed their wedding vows, society would continue to expect Helen to stay. But there are limits to what a woman can take, and when your husband has thoroughly rejected your love and is teaching your precious little boy to drink and swear and hate his mother, what else can you do?

It's interesting to look at this book as compared to the two big ones, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Both her sisters wrote Gothic novels, while Anne wrote much more realistic works. The odd thing is that she got absolutely lambasted for Tenant's display of debauchery and depravity, while Emily got a (comparative) pass for Wuthering Heights; while people remarked on the sensationalism of Wuthering Heights, most critics ended by recommending it, while Tenant was described as unfit for people, particularly young ladies, to read, and there were a number of efforts to suppress the book, including by Charlotte, Anne's own sister.

I can't help but wonder if that's precisely because Tenant was realistic. Wuthering Heights was fanciful enough that people could enjoy it as fiction and dismiss the horrendous behavior of Heathcliff as just fiction, while Tenant was all too real. Men like Heathcliff, readers might have thought, simply didn't exist outside of books, while men like Mr. Huntingdon certainly did exist and certainly did oppress their wives as Helen describes in her journal. Perhaps Tenant hit too close to home for many of the critics.

Another point of comparison I found interesting was how of the three sisters, Anne has the strongest moralistic streak. There isn't too much moralizing in Wuthering Heights; it appears only in the sense that Heathcliff does finally get his deserts. In Jane Eyre, the heroine does have a strong sense of right and wrong, and will not bow to the importunities of Mr. Rochester**. She's eventually rewarded for her virtue. Tenant is the most moralistic of the three; Helen is devout and intensely moral, to the point at which she probably seems like a prig to most modern readers (particularly when she gives a little sermon to her friend's husband, encouraging him to reform). She tries to live her life in accordance with her moral precepts, including continuing to treat her husband with love, kindness, and patience even in the face of great provocation (until she does finally snap), and she, too, is eventually rewarded, while Mr. Huntingdon receives his deserts. I personally enjoyed this moral streak.

Overall, I loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who isn't put off by "old-fashioned writing", and certainly to anyone who has read Jane Eyre and/or Wuthering Heights. Make sure you find an unabridged version, though; many of the versions out there claim to be unabridged but are based on a bad, unauthorized edition, missing words and sections and even almost whole chapters. Try here or look for the Oxford University Press's "Clarendon Edition".


*True story: when I was in high school, I became so inured to the constant stream of depressing crap we had to read (well, it wasn't crap in the sense of being bad. It was just so depressing. 1984 followed by One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich followed by Pedro Paramo followed by...) that, when reading Silas Marner, I became more and more suspicious as we approached the ending. I was honestly expecting the whole village to disappear in a massive cataclysm or something, because I hadn't read anything with a bona fide happy ending in so long.

**And this is the biggest problem with that adding-sex-to-classics project that one company has going on. If you think Lizzy and Mr. Darcy were getting it on in between writing letters to their respective aunts, you fundamentally misunderstand them. You don't understand them, their society, how they lived, how they thought, how they believed, nothing. Look at how Lizzy and Jane respond to learning about Mr. Wickham's true character. Now, that's not to say that there weren't people having premarital action in those times - take Lydia and Mr. Wickham for an obvious example. In fact, Austen has a number of characters who engage in these affairs; she doesn't pretend people don't do it. It's easy to miss if you don't know what phrases like "come upon the town" or "established herself under his protection" mean. But Lizzy herself? No, no, a thousand times no. Yeah, yeah, "everyone does it" - but 10% of people who do wait for marriage even today is still a hell of a lot of people, and I guarantee you Lizzy was one of them.

As for Jane and Mr. Rochester, you actually might be able to get me to buy that they were totally doing it - but you have to account for that conversation, when Jane has learned that Mr. Rochester's wife is living, and he tries to make her his mistress. Do you think a woman who reacts that way to the idea of being his mistress would really be sleeping with him already? Give me a break. It's easy to miss Jane's moralistic streak, but trust me, it's there.

P.S. I JUST NOW made the connection that the initials match - Acton = Anne, Currer = Charlotte, Ellis = Emily. Duh.
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