The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë.
Anne Brontë is such a good writer she could make you weep. She is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of the early Victorian Age, and one of the greatest writers of all time. Of all the many books I've over the years, she is the author that shines out; it's impossible to read her and be unmoved. This is the second time I've read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and the second time I've sat and read and forgot about everything, so absorbing it is, so timeless, so perfect, she took me in to that world and whilst I was reading it nothing else mattered. That is how good Anne Brontë is.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is her second novel following Agnes Grey (1847), published a year later in 1848. Sadly it is also her final novel - Anne died in 1849 (slightly less than a year after publication) at the age of twenty-nine. Like Agnes Grey, The Tenant was published under the pseudonym of Acton Bell (and as we all know Charlotte Brontë wrote under the name Currer Bell, and Emily Brontë under Ellis Bell).
It begins with a letter to a "J. Halford", the friend of the narrator Gilbert Markham, with a promise to tell him a story in return for a story told by Halford previously:
It is a soaking rainy day, the family are absent on a visit, I am alone in my library, and have been looking over certain musty old letters and papers, and musing on past times; so that I am now in a very proper frame of mind for amusing you with an old-world story; - and, having withdrawn my well-roasted feet from the hobs, wheeled round to the table, and indited the above lines to my crusty old friend, I am about to give him a sketch - no, not a sketch, - a full and faithful account of certain circumstances connected with the most important event of my life - previous to my acquaintance with Jack Halford at least; - and, when you have read it, charge me with ingratitude and unfriendly reserve if you can.
And from here to Chapter I, beginning,
You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.
The novel can be divided into three parts (which don't necessarily correspond with the divisions of the three volumes in which it was published). We begin, as promised, in the autumn of 1827 when a stranger arrives at Wildfell Hall. She is Mrs. Helen Graham, beautiful, young, and very reclusive, and she arrives with her son Arthur. Our narrator Gilbert, then a young man, is very intrigued and though he is courting Eliza Millward he quickly loses interest in her in favour of Helen. But Helen, though attracted to him, keeps him and the rest of the village at arm's length, serving only to fuel the intrigue more. As with all small communities, the lack of information from Helen leads certain folk to begin rumours, chiefly Eliza who is smarting from Gilbert's rejection. It is suggested to Gilbert that Helen is having an affair with his friend Frederick Lawrence, and indeed he sees them together, appearing to be very close. But, such is the trust that has slowly been built between Gilbert and Helen, she gives him with her diaries to read, dated from June 1821. In these Helen tells her own story of her courtship and marriage to Arthur Huntingdon, a handsome, witty and charismatic man who is all to clearly not a suitable match for Helen or any woman. He is gradually revealed to be a violent, cheating drunk, and Helen's discovery and subsequent heartbreak over this is one of the most moving pieces of writing in the whole of the Western Canon. Brontë then takes us through this awful marriage up to where she first sees Gilbert, but not beyond, and thus we learn how Helen came to be alone, but for her son Arthur and a servant, in Wildfell Hall. What remains in the final volume I won't share for fear of spoiling it for new readers.
This novel is remarkably modern for its subject matter: a bad marriage, alcoholism, and adultery, and in this Brontë highlights the unfairness to women over the property laws of the time - that once married, a woman's fortune belonged to her husband, and should they part she would remain penniless; not get half his money, nor her own back - she may not even keep her child. This is one of the main themes of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and it is perfectly highlighted in this exchange when Helen has decided she must leave Arthur. She asks,
"... will you let me take our child and what remains of my fortune, and go?"
"Anywhere, where he will be safe from your contaminating influence, and I shall be delivered from your presence, and you from mine."
"Will you let me have the child then, without the money?"
"No, nor yourself without the child. Do you think I'm going to be made the talk of the country for your fastidious caprices?"
"Then I must stay here, to be hated and despised. But henceforth we are husband and wife only in the name."
"I am your child's mother, and your housekeeper, nothing more. So you need not trouble yourself any longer to feign the love you cannot feel: I will exact no more heartless caresses from you, nor offer nor endure them either. I will not be mocked with the empty husk of conjugal endearments, when you have given the substance to another!"
"Very good, if you please. We shall see who will tire first, my lady."
Arthur is almost a hybrid and Charlotte Brontë's Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Brontë's Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights (1847), and if all characters including Huntingdon were inspired by their brother Branwell, it is Huntingdon who is possibly the closest, and, I think, certainly the most realistic. This realism was not universally appreciated, however. Charlotte wrote in 1850,
"The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer's nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid. She had, in the course of her life been called on to contemplate, near at hand, and for 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 a 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 custom, 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.
Though written after Anne's death, Anne must have been aware of Charlotte's feelings towards her novel and wrote in the preface of the second edition (July 22nd 1848),
When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts–this whispering 'Peace, peace', when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.
It is this representation of "a bad thing" "as they really are than as they would appear" that makes Anne Brontë stand out as a strong and superior writer to many of her contemporaries. Troubled and self-indulgent men appear in most of the Brontë novels, but Anne refuses to portray them sympathetically; no, her sympathies lie with the women whose lives they harm. This is one of the reasons The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is described as the first feminist novel. It is brilliantly and beautifully written; so vivid, strong, and intensely moving. Anne Brontë is one of the world's finest novelists and must not be ignored.