This novel will make one at least toy with the idea that Anne Bronte may have been the most talented of the Brontë sisters…
When I wrote about Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey for the 2013 reading list, I mentioned her magnum opus, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. As I said then, in adding Agnes Grey to my reading list I was aiming to complete the “Brontë trifecta”: by reading that book I’d have read novels by all the sisters. Of course Emily wrote only Wuthering Heights, a masterpiece, to be sure, but, well, there’s only the one book (plus some poetry and juvenilia). Charlotte, the Brontë sister who lived the longest, also wrote more – four novels, with Jane Eyre by far the most estimable and well known.
And then there’s Anne. Her two novels show both her own rapid growth as a writer and the influence of her talented sisters. But they also show that, while, like Charlotte and Emily, she was willing to tackle what Elizabeth Gaskill would call difficult topics, she continued on her path – and she found the domestic sphere of Jane Austen’s novels more congenial to her writerly interests.
The story of “Helen Graham,” i.e. Helen Huntingdon, is, however, Austen through the looking glass. It is as if Anne Brontë asked herself some very contemporary questions: “What if Elizabeth Bennet had married George Wickham? Or Marianne Dashwood had married John Willoughby? How might that have turned out?” In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, we find out.
The young and somewhat headstrong, though morally upright and rational, Helen Lawrence chooses the dashing (and, as some scholars like to note, Byronic) Arthur Huntingdon as her husband instead of one of her other suitors – none of whom are really suitable matches, in truth. Handsome but decadent, Huntingdon is, as Helen’s Aunt Maxwell had warned her, the worst match of the lot. While Helen works to be a good wife, Huntingdon’s chief interest has been in the pursuit and conquest of her. Once that goal is attained, he loses interest in her except as a convenience for keeping his country estate, Grassdale Manor, in order while he spends the bulk of his time in London carousing with other decadents. Eventually, he conducts an affair with the wife of one of his friends (that wife, Annabella Wilmot, Lady Lowborough, is as decadent herself as any of Huntingdon’s male companions – she eventually presents her husband with a daughter likely fathered by Huntingdon). This behavior, exacerbated by Huntingdon’s ever growing problem with alcohol, ends his “real” marriage to Helen.
The most serious point of contention between these unhappily wed persons, however, is not Huntingdon’s infidelity – not even his growing alcoholism. Having presented her husband with a son at the end of their first year of marriage, Helen is forced to watch as he begins to corrupt their toddler son with alcohol, even to the point of getting him intoxicated. Determined not to allow her son to be corrupted by his father’s debauchery, eventually Helen, with the aid of her brother and her faithful servant Rachel, flees Grassdale, assumes the name Helen Graham, and become the tenant of Wildfell Hall.
While sojourning there, a figure alternately of mystery and scandalous gossip, she meets a respectable farmer named Gilbert Markham. Though their relationship begins rockily (Helen is, justifiably, distrustful of men, and Markham is, while quite the “decent chap” as the Brits would say, rather on the passionate side), they eventually develop deep feelings for each other.
Still, much must occur before these two can get together – this is a 19th century novel, after all. There are deaths (in what may seem the strangest turn in the novel, Helen returns to Grassdale and nurses Arthur Huntingdon through his final illness – brought on by falling from his horse while riding to hounds – drunk, of course) which both frees Helen and enriches her (her nursing of Arthur secures the Grassdale estate for their son; her Uncle Maxwell’s death makes her a wealthy – if widowed – heiress). There are marriages (Helen’s brother marries Esther Hargrave, a character much like the young Helen, and whose sister Millicent has been a true friend of Helen’s throughout her ordeals; meanwhile, Esther’s and Millicent’s brother Walter, a friend of Huntingdon who had made improper advances to Helen in the name of “turnabout is fair play,” has married badly and is receiving his comeuppance as a result) which “clear the field” for Gilbert and Helen. Other stuff happens, too. But, as we learn at the end, all has turned out well for Gilbert and Helen: they are happily married, have children of their own, young Arthur (Helen’s son with Huntingdon) has turned out well, and the old reprobates have come to various sad but fitting ends.
That last sentence gets at one of the characteristics of the novel that is most problematic from a stylistic viewpoint. The novel uses a “frame”: Helen’s diary telling the story of her unhappy marriage to Huntingdon is framed by letters from Markham to someone named Halford (whom we learn at the end of the novel is the husband of Markham’s sister Rose). The epistolary portion of the novel is about 220 pages; the diary portion is about 270. While Brontë handles the introduction of the diary most creditably (as well as its end and the resumption of the epistles), one almost forgets Gilbert until he is reintroduced. And once he is, the novel alternates between zipping and limping to its happy ending.
And here is where we come back to Jane Austen. Despite the difficulties and sufferings Helen undergoes (one might argue that Helen’s return to Grassdale and nursing of Huntingdon in his final illness is a sort of Brontëan atonement for having her dare to run away from such a horrible man – he is her husband, after all), she does, in the end, end up rich and wedded to a man she loves who makes her happy. Pure Austen – even if it conjures the Austen of Persuasion more than the Austen of Pride and Prejudice.
Of the influence of Emily and Charlotte Brontë on Anne’s masterpiece, there is something to be said, too. The most interesting thing to note in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is that Anne gives her own treatments to characters and themes one finds in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Huntingdon is, of course, comparable to both Heathcliff and Rochester, though he is more “domestic” than either and hence simply more tawdry than Romantic (note the big “R”). The unhappiness of life at Grassdale once Huntingdon turns fully to debauchery certainly echoes the misery of Heathcliff and Isabella’s life together at Wuthering Heights (and Isabella’s subsequent leaving) – though Helen is a stronger, more “upright” character than Isabella – and she no longer loves Arthur, which makes her decision to leave in order to preserve their son from corruption, if not easier, more rational, less desperate. And finally, Helen’s return to Huntingdon – to tend him once he is ill and dying – has echoes of Jane’s return to Rochester – though Helen is motivated by a sense of right and duty rather than by love.
Perhaps it is in Helen’s declaration to Gilbert about his diffidence in approaching her once she is “available” that Anne Brontë sounds most like her sisters:
“If you loved as I do she earnestly replied, you would not have so nearly lost me – these scruples of false delicacy and pride would never thus have troubled you – you would have seen that the greatest worldly distinctions and discrepancies of rank, birth, and fortune are as dust in the balance compared with the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathising hearts and souls.”
It is the familiar Brontë theme. It is what Heathcliff tries, but fails, to make Catherine see, what Jane is only able to “show” Rochester once he is (literally) blind: love, real love, matters more than anything. And in that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a worthy companion of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – as Anne Brontë is a worthy companion of Charlotte and Emily.