I couldn’t resist the clothbound Classic edition of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, then, of course, I had to read it. I haven’t read it for quite a few years and I had forgotten what a powerful story it contains. Anne Bronte’s story of Wildfell Hall seemed to me like a twin novel to Wuthering Heights. I wonder if the sisters chose the same initial letters deliberately? These questions about the lives of the Bronte sisters could easily take over so instead of becoming a book blog this becomes a fantasy biography!
However, the structure of the both novels is also strikingly similar. Both novels involve a retelling of a story, read in a diary in the case of Wildfell Hall, told by Nellie Dean in Wuthering Heights. Gilbert begins Wildfell Hall with his own description of life in the provincial town in an unspecified rural location. A widowed lady and her son take on the tenancy of the semi derelict Wildfell Hall from the local squire, and create a certain sense of local mystery. Gilbert describes how he gets to know the widow, the tenant of the title through befriending her son. Gilbert is a poor narrator, indulgent about his own feelings and failing to really analyse events, instead reacting to them as the hotheaded young man he is. I admit, when I first read this novel in my teens, I thought this was poorly written but reading it again I recognise it is a stylistic choice. Anne Bronte, as a realist, actually writes the vain and sometimes silly thoughts and actions a pampered young man may well make when thwarted in love. In the same way Lockwood is an unreliable narrator and poor analyst in Wuthering Heights. It invites the reader to question the account and to examine the characters more closely.
The ‘guts’ of this novel is the diary account of Helen, the tenant of Wildfell Hall, and what draws her to live a hidden life. Few writers in the twentieth century capture the descent of a loved one into alcoholism one can only imagine how it shocked a Victorian audience. Bronte leads the reader through each stage, Helen’s passion and her belief she can reform Arthur through her own goodness. She recognises the folly of her arrogance only too soon and realises her charms hold nothing for him compared with wine. His alcoholism brutalises her. He casually offers her to other men for their pleasure, gives their young son wine and teaches him to abuse his mother, denies her friends, access to the keys of the house and even her painting materials as the story goes on. There is nothing redemptive in his character and he and his associates are often compared to demons. Helen’s dramatic escape to Wildfell Hall does not end his control. Gilbert is not a romantic hero. He is powerless to save her.
This is a startlingly feminist novel. Helen, a rich young woman, must surrender all her property to Arthur who wastes it in his dissipation. What constitutes a marriage is frequently asked and at what point does a partner’s behaviour mean that walking away is the only choice. These may not have been questions the Victorians wanted to read but they are so pertinent now. Anne Bronte is a writer worth revisiting. She is overlooked in the light of her sisters, yet both her novels are like the realistic reflections of the life of a governess and life with a brutal alcoholic.