Book reviews

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Anne Brontë, by Charlotte Brontë, 1834

Anne Brontë, by Charlotte Brontë, 1834 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What a pleasure to read work penned by the Bronte sisters! And how remarkable that one household produced three formidable authors, all of them women, and that their novels still engage and entertain over 150 years later.

In Tenant, Anne Bronte, whose pen name was Acton Bell, tackles the unseemly nineteenth century topics of infidelity and alcoholism.

Tenant’s one flaw comes, unfortunately, in the opening chapters.  Anne swamps her reader with too many characters.  Aack! To whom should I pay attention?  In these chapters our narrator is Markham, a young gentleman farmer.  Markham tells of the new tenants peopling the long vacant and neglected Wildfell Hall: the curious Mrs. Helen Graham, a twenty-something widow, and her young son Arthur.

Soon Helen is being charged with the unpardonable slight of not being neighborly enough.  Also she is too restrictive in young Arthur’s upbringing.  Why, the neighbors wonder, does Mrs. Graham refuse even one drop of alcoholic beverage to touch young Arthur’s lips? Even something as harmless as home-brewed beer is denied the poor child.  And isn’t it rather odd for a feminine creature to take her picture-making so seriously? Mrs. Graham seems determined to earn her living painting pastoral pictures.

At first Markham is put off by the new tenant’s coolness, too, but he finds himself warming to her as he discovers her noble qualities and moral high-mindedness.  But as his love for Mrs. Graham swells, ugly rumors regarding Mrs. Graham swirl.  Who is the mysterious gentleman frequently seen visiting Wildfell Hall?  Why does Mrs. Graham’s son  resemble this mysterious man so strongly?

Unlike his neighbors, Markham concludes the mystery gentleman has been harassing Mrs. Graham.  He chivalrously knocks the fellow off his horse at his earliest opportunity.  Shortly thereafter Markham discloses his tender feelings for Helen.  She feels likewise.  But oops, that man Markham knocked down just now wasn’t a harasser of Helen, but Helen’s brother.  And oops, Markham and Graham can’t be joined just yet.  Helen belongs to another.  Helen then thrusts her diary into Markham’s hands.

So the reader embarks on Part Two of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Helen’s diary.  The account begins with Helen skipping a path toward matrimony.  She has several suitors, but all, in young and beautiful Helen’s estimation, are flawed.  They are boring or dull or not very pleasing to look at or too many years Helen’s senior.  Enter the young and dashing Lord Arthur Huntingdon.  Helen’s guardian, who also happens to be her aunt, warns Helen away from him—Aunt knows he’s a rake—but Helen is blind.  Everyone but she appears to have gotten the memo that Huntingdon is selfish, self-centered, a gambler, hard-drinking, womanizing, and unscrupulous.

Wedding bells ring.  Our heroine’s trials begin.  (Unfortunately in nineteenth century England, the pre-marital co-habitation trial period wasn’t much of an option.  A co-habitating gal was a fallen gal.  Definitely a nineteenth century no-no.)

The married couple takes up residence at Arthur’s Grassdale Estate.  Helen must endure Arthur’s boorish friends, their excessive drinking, carousing, and gambling.  When she objects, Arthur dismisses her as a shrew.  Soon cruelty takes root in him.  He goes out of his way to humiliate and mock her.  Eventually he consorts with the wife of the unfortunate Lord Lowborough, a fellow who orbits the scummy fringe of Arthur’s cesspool of companions.

Meanwhile, Helen treads the saintly path of endurance.  Only when Arthur takes to schooling Arthur Jr. in debauchery does Helen make plans to skedaddle.  She will amass a portfolio of paintings and sell them.  The proceeds will pay for her and young Arthur’s passage to New England where she hopes Arthur Senior will never find them.

Arthur discovers her plan.  He commands a servant to destroy Helen’s paintings and curtails Helen’s allowance to one hardly enough to cover the needs of a mouse.  Helen becomes a prisoner.  That is when she learns how few her rights are as a married woman.  Her husband’s slights and injuries against her mount, but she has very little recourse.  Short of murdering her, it appears her husband can do what he wishes with her.

Helen now calls upon her aunt and brother to help her.  When they discover how poorly she and young Arthur are being treated, they agree to provide her with means to live after she flees.

Thus ends part two and “the diary.”  The third part of Tenant involves the obstacles Markham and Graham must overcome before joining together in–fingers crossed– wedded bliss.  Despite her horrific experience as a married woman, Helen continues to take her wedding vows to Arthur seriously.  She wedded for life.  To transgress and sully those vows is something she will not do.  Hence, although she has fallen in love with Markham just as much as he with her, she is unable to reciprocate or encourage Markham’s affections as long as Arthur lives.

(Yes, to the twenty-first century reader, at least to this one, Helen’s wish to marry a second time after being burned so badly the first seems strange.  But then again, how else could Anne Bronte deliver on Tenant‘s promise of romance? But by now I’m liking Helen mucho.  Whatever she decides, I’ll respect her choice.  She has pluck and resolve.  In spades.)

Our heroine and her paramour’s unrequited love is of short duration.  The dissolute Arthur obliges by succumbing to death by excess and Markham and Graham are united at last.

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