The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte 1848
Anne’s mother, Maria Branwell Bronte, dies at 38, followed by the deaths of two of Anne’s sisters- 10 year old Elizabeth and 11 year old Maria. Later, the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne all came within a year of each other, leaving Charlotte, 33, the only surviving sibling.
Although this may seem like a tragedy to us now, it is actually a success story of the Victorian time. As Beth Torgerson points out in ‘Reading the Bronte Body: Death, desire, and the Constraints of Culture’, from a statistical standpoint, it is surprising that all the Bronte sisters survived infancy, let alone the average age of death, which was a low 25 years of age. Torgerson observes that it is ‘remarkable that they were not victims of even earlier deaths, contributing to Babbage’s [mortality]statistics rather than our literary heritage’.
Anne’s brother, Branwell, was indulged as the only boy in a family of 6. He was temperamental, and would ‘drive his fist through the panel of a door’ to deal with his emotion. He drifted into debauchery, drinking himself to his death. Anne’s Arthur Huntingdon does so too, and this serves as a warning message- not to the men who were heading down the same track, but to the wives, sisters and mothers who had to deal with them. Alcohol reinforced gender roles that placed the burden of keeping the family clement on the wife, aligning femininity with self-sacrifice, and masculinity with excessive alcohol consumption.
From a historical perspective, the Brontë family’s tragedy was normal, in a time when disease, illness and death were all a part of everyday life. The focus on illness in many of the Brontë sisters’ novels represents a historical reality that shaped the experience of nineteenth-century life and culture. Illness was thought to be a reflection of the whole constitution, and the body was affected by the condition of the mind, and external factors such as the weather. Cures for diseases were diet, hygiene, and moderation, suggesting that self-discipline was all that was necessary to maintaining ones health.
In 1846, women were marginalized and thought far below their male counterparts. Brontë challenges this gender system by providing readers with a strong female heroine who blatantly defies the laws of the day by leaving her atrocious husband for an independent existence, which came as a shock to the social conventions of the day. In 1846, the wife and children were under the husband’s control, and it was impossible to leave a husband without causing legal problems and social scandal. Still, Brontë’s protagonist bravely walks out on Mr. Huntingdon, taking their young son with her.
A few years after Wildfell Hall was published, the case of Mrs. Norton highlighted the deep injustice of the marriage laws. Her husband bought legal action against her on the grounds of adultery. When she was proven innocent, he deprive d her of her children, refused her maintenance, and claimed what she had earned for herself, all of which he could legitimately do, because a married woman had no legal existence in her own right, and no right to own property (being, ultimately, property herself). The popular summary was ‘husband and wife are one person under the law, and that person is the husband’. In ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, Helen cannot obtain a divorce from Arthur when she finds out about his adultery with Annabella, than later the governess. She has no legal rights to the diary she writes in, her paints and canvases, her pictures, or the earnings from those paintings. She literally has to steal her son from her husband’s house.
Her exceptional strength and stability as a person makes her far more unwavering than the male narrator, plodding through his fields, through whose eyes we first meet her. Helen lives alone, earns her own living, and keeps her own council. She is shown as a free-earning young woman verging on the domain of the masculine- female artists dabbled in watercolour, or sketched decoratively in pencil or ink, whereas Helen paints full portraits and landscapes. ‘Ladies’ did not engage in trade, yet Helen sells her paintings. Worse, her tools in this trade count as stolen. It is made clear in chapter 40 that the tools are not her own when Huntingdon burns her materials- ‘the oil and turpentine sent hissing and roaring up the chimney’ and has the easels, canvas, stretcher, and half-finished picture carted off for conflagration. He then laughs in her face, for what is hers is his, but what is his is not necessarily hers.
Sharp’s London Magazine was shocked by the portrayal of women, who appear as ‘superior in every quality, moral and intellectual, to all the men’ who ‘appear at once coarse, brutal, and contemptibly weak, at once disgusting and ridiculous’- unsigned review, 7 August 1848.
Men come across exceptionally badly in this novel. They are often portrayed as stuck in a state of permanent childhood, or as drunken slobs. This is shown mostly through the character of Arthur Huntingdon.
Anne analysedthe lack of sense and reason amongstmales as a consequence of a value system that was based on the worship of the macho ideal ‘”By God, he drinks like a man!”’ was a compliment Lord Byron proudly boasted of himself. To hold your liquor was a sign of virility. However, in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, while drinking, the men are the equivalent of hooligan children. They run amok, fight, throw things, curse for effect, and act without shame. Huntingdon becomes hardly literate and abusive. When Benson, a house servant, trips over his master’s chair, ‘Arthur turned furiously upon him, and swore at him with savage coarseness’. Grimsby, who prides himself on his ability to ‘”Take three times as much as they have tonight”’, cannot tell a saucer from a cup and mistakes the sugar basin for a slop bowl. They all taunt Lord Lowborough for not drinking. These ‘elite’ males are degenerated into addicts and libertines.
Even the ‘good guy’ in the novel is not exempt from criticism. Markham is often shown as sulky, irritating Helen as she tries to paint at the seaside. He hovers around restlessly as she ‘plied away at her solitary task’, grumbling, wheedling, and sulking. His strange behaviourand odd thoughts show that Anne felt that men did not really make sense. The men of Wildfell Hall are unstable; ironically what men have conventionally called women.
‘Spoiled’ men are central to the novel. Huntingdon is so totally spoiled that he can never grow up, expressing the infantile state of men who have been conditioned by the male psyche. This is humorouslyexplored through Huntingdon’s jealousy of his own child as a competitor for his mother’s attentions ‘That’s more, in one minute, lavished on that senseless, thankless oyster, than you have given me in three weeks passed’. He criticizes his son for being ‘a little selfish, senseless sensualist’, which is hugely hypocritical- for infants, it is essential to rely on their mother, for they are mentally and physically unable to care for themselves. Mr. Huntingdon, however, is perfectly capable of doing things for himself, but refuses to as it is his wife’s job. The men are petted and privileged from birth, and are completely ignorant of the woman’s plight. ‘”Do you think I have nothing to do but sit around and take care of myself like a woman?”’
Huntingdon also invades what little privacy Helen has by going through her diary, then riding her drawer- ‘you’ll find nothing gone but your money, and the jewels- and just a few trifles I thought it advisable to keep lest your mercantile spirit be tempted to turn them into gold’. He believes it is his right to be able to do as he pleases, as that is the way he, and many men before him, had been bought up.
Near the end of the novel, Arthur becomes very sick. Helen uproots her family yet again to go and look after her dying husband. She does everything she possibly can for him, looking after him with the gentlest of care, even though she believes Huntingdon’s illness is ‘entirely the result of his own infatuation in persisting in the indulgence of his appetite for stimulating drink. Huntingdon, however, has different ideas- ‘but, as usual, he throws the blame upon me. If I had reasoned with him like a rational creature, he says, it never would have happened’. Huntingdon can never take responsibility for his own actions, as he has always been allowed to lay the blame on others.
‘Now I am a wife: my bliss is sobered.. My hopes diminished.. My fears increased’.
Arthur Huntingdon believes (as was a common belief of men at the time) that no matter how badly he behaved, his wife was expected to obey and entertain him without complaint. However, Helen does complain, asking her degenerate husband ‘Are the marriage vows a jest: and is it nothing to make it your sport to break them?’ after she encounters him flirting with his friends wife. Huntingdon sulks ‘”You are breaking the marriage vows yourself” said he, indignantly rising and pacing to and fro. “You promised to honourand obey me, and now you attempt to hector over me, and threaten and accuse me and call me worse than a highway man.. I won’t be dictated to by a woman, though she may be my wife”’. Yet Helen persists in telling him the injustices of his behaviour, and asks him to imagine himself in her place- would he then honourand trust her under such circumstances? Again, Huntingdon’s answer is full of double-standards ‘”The cases are different,” he replied, “it is a woman’s nature to be constant- to love one and one only, blindly, tenderly, forever”’. This is the reality of the double-standards Helen faces on a daily basis in her marriage, just as many other woman had to endure.
Helen’s marriage to Huntingdon causes her to become disillusioned, hurt, enraged and bitter. Her temper sours and her tongue lashes out ‘for I am no angel’. She can only be accounted technically married to her washed-up husband, for ‘my higher and better self is unmarried’. She has been handed around for anyone who will have her by her sleazy husband, who says ‘I value her so highly, that any one among you, that can fancy her, may have her and welcome’.
When Lowborough finds out about the affair between Huntingdon and his wife, Annabella, he asks Helen how long she has suffered with the news, to which she replies ‘two years ago; and two years hence you will be as calm as I am now,- and far, far happier, I trust, for you are a man and free to act as you please’. This tells us that a divorce would be available for Lord Lowborough, as an injured husband, to obtain. That right was not available for women at the time- the Marriage and Divorce Law did not pass until 1857, and before then divorce was only possible by Act of Parliament. However, even after that date, it was unlikely a woman could obtain a divorce from her husband, as it was still very much a man’s world.
When Arthur goes through Helen’s things and reads her diary, he is not upset about the fact that he may be losing his wife, or that she is immeasurably unhappy because of him, but that he would be shamed ‘So you thought to disgrace me, did you, by running away and turning artist, and supporting yourself by the labourof your hands, forsooth? And you thought to rob me of my son too, and bring him up as a Yankee tradesman, or a low, beggarly painter?’ to which the brave Helen replies ‘Yes, to obviate his becoming such a gentleman as his father’. He does not care that he is losing Helen, but that society will mock him because of it, and that his son is also being taken away. Not because he loves his son, but because he needs him to carry on his name and be his heir, to take over Grassdale and carry on his legacy.
‘Thank heaven, I am a mother.. God has sent me a soul to educate for heaven, and given me a new and calmer bliss, and stronger hopes to comfort me.. when I clasp my little darling to my breast, or hang over his slumbers with unutterable delight, and a world of hope within my heart’.
The men want little Arthur to become like his father, to ‘make a man of him’ by teaching him to ‘tipple wine like papa, to swear like Mr. Hattersley, and to have his own way like a man’. Helen, however, has different ideas for her ‘sweet little Arthur’. Her life is centered around her child, and much of her effort goes in to preventing him from becoming ‘such a man as his father’. We see after she runs away that she is succeeding’ ‘it was Arthur that roused me, with his gentle kisses:- he was here, then- safely clasped in my arms, and many, many leagues away from his unworthy father!’
Empowerment Through Escape
Helen feels absolutely liberated after leaving the dreaded mansion she shared with her horrible husband. ‘Thank heaven, I am safe at last!- Early we rose, swiftly and quietly dressed, slowly and stealthily descended down the hall, where Benson stood ready with a light to open the door and fasten it after us… what trembling joy it was when the little wicket closed behind us, as we issued from the park!.. as I bade farewell for ever to that place, the scene of so much guilt and misery, I felt glad that I had not left before, for now there was no doubt about the propriety of such a step- no shadow of remorse I left for him behind: there was nothing to disturb my joy but the fear of detection; and every step removed us farther from the chance of that’.
Helen is extremely excited to have removed herself from the house where she has suffered so much pain and agony at the hand of her husband. She escapes her adulterous, abusive relationship by running away with her son.
Interesting to note..
- The notion Helen has of ‘saving’ her husband was a favouritefemale myth of the mid-nineteenth century, and is exposed as rash ignorance and a tragic flaw of pride.
- Most of the nineteenth century female writers used women as the subject of their novels, or expressed female experience in their rebellion against their deliberate marginalization both as woman and as writers. The male authoritive communication was the centralized object of power.
- ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ examines the abuse of language in the small-talk of women, the big talk of men, in prattle, insult, gossip, curses, and the bearing of false witness through both lies and self-delusion. It searches for communication that will bring unity ‘the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathizing hearts and souls’.
- The novel is set in 1820, yet Helen demonstrates a belief in her husband’s ability to reform through abstinence, which reflects the later approach of the temperance movement in the time that Anne was writing (1846-7). This highlights the way in which contemporary social issues are inserted into the fictional text, allowing it to speak historically and critically.
- Anne Brontë wrote ‘Sick of mankind and it’s disgusting ways’ on the back of a prayer book.
- The characters staring with ‘H’ are the men who behave badly- Huntingdon, Hargrave and Hattersley. These men drink, gamble, abuse their wives, servants and dogs, squander away their fortunes, commit adultery, and recklessly mark their way to hell, in a system that licenses the soulless pleasures of ‘gentlemen’.
- Anne herself wrote of having undergone ‘unpleasant and undreamt of experiences of human nature’ in her 1845 diary while working as a governess.
- Helen seeks sanctuary in her new community, but only exists on their radar as a focus of rumour, gossip, speculation and suspicion.
- When Helen runs away, she uses her mother’s maiden name. she will not use her husband’s name, for fear that he may find her, and because she is so disgusted by him, and does not wish to be associated to him by name or any other means.
- Neither her name nor her home is her own.