It’s a shame that the Brontës died young. Their early departures prevent us from other works that would sit comfortably with their other masterpieces. I don’t have too many more Brontë books that I haven’t read, but I think I will always go back to read Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I think these two books are some of the most emotionally violent books that we consider as classics. Wuthering Heights hit harder, but Wildfell Hall also hit like a ton of bricks.
There is a lot to like about Wildfell Hall that I loved in Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights and Age of Innocence: the jealousies, disappointments and adversities. There is a lot at stake, and while the pacing in these other novels allow the reader to breathe some, Wildfell Hall keeps these tensions high all the way to the final pages of the book. By the time the book was done, I was also emotionally exhausted.
The “tenant” is Helen Graham, a mysterious woman with child who moved to a dilapidated property of the title. She has no intentions to make friends in her proximity, overprotective of her young son and nobody seemed to know her history. And we know where this goes — the damage of gossip to reputations is a common thread that prop up a lot of classic literature. In spite of this, the narrator of the book, Gilbert, is lovesick with Helen and took it to himself to unravel the mystery, but not without causing damage himself along the way.
The middle parts of the story is the revelation of Helen’s past, right before she moved to Wildfell Hall. Helen, no secret from the blurb, is a victim of an emotionally abusive husband, incompetent as a husband as he is a father. He fell into marriage with Helen from mutual passion, but soon fell back into his ways with womanising, gambling and toxic socialising.
In the preface, it seemed that Anne Brontë caught a lot of flak from her depiction of Arthur Huntingdon, Helen’s husband, as he was vile, and this irked many readers. But Anne rebutted this argument that her intentions was to show the truth of family life, that to depict this sort of behaviour is essential. We are used to seeing husbands behaving badly in literature now that we tend to forget that this type of storyline is almost scandalous in the 1840s, yet it seems to be a common pattern that we still condone today.
The classics are classics because even to this day, they are still relevant, and will be so in a hundred years. Ever been lovesick? The Brontës are masters of writing on love to the point of toxicity. Look at Gilbert Markham and how his unjustified jealousies hurt those around him, from Frederick Lawrence, who he suspected to be infatuated with Helen, to the neglect of his family, to tarrying his own name. There are some parts of this book where I really cannot love Gilbert, because he was unstable, violent and pathetically obsessed. Personally, the heaviest flaw in the book for me is Gilbert.
The form of the book is really two stories which weaved into one towards the third act. The first part dealt with the arrival of Helen Graham, the second the story of her marriage with Arthur Huntingdon, and the third is the resolution. The words in the novel are directed to a mysterious reader, Halford, who we cannot associate until the last part of the book, and in some way it reads like a memoir from years past. But the direct allusion to the present is rarely ever mentioned, as Brontë keeps us back in the past, where the story takes place.
It is in the second part of the story, I think that, the story really came alive — that we finally find out who Helen Graham (not her legal name, actually) really is. It is here that Brontë dissected the nature of relationships, and marriage. Austen usually stops when the main characters are about to be wed, with a neat summary after, but all the Brontë sisters follow through with the ugly sides of marriage.
Marriage has different purpose for different people, and the relationships evolve based on this purpose. In the case of Lady Lowborough, she married for the title and position, even though she was marrying a husband who was indebted beyond his means. The balance of power fall in her favour. Hattersley married Millicent because the norms required him to, even as a façade, as most of these marriages often are. The power falls to the husband in this case. Women serve their purpose in the marriage to put the house in order, while the husband meander as they like and drain the family funds. The parts where the men meet to socialise read like a nightmare.
Helen puts it aptly:
“Arthur is not commonly called a bad man: he has many good qualities; but he is a man without self-restraint or lofty aspirations — a lover of pleasure, given up to animal enjoyments: he is not a bad husband, but his notions of matrimonial duties and comforts are not my notions. Judging from appearances, his idea of a wife is a thing to love one devotedly and to stay at home — to wait upon her husband, and amuse him and minister to his comfort in every possible way, while he chooses to stay with her; and, when he is absent, to attend to his interests, domestic or otherwise, and patiently wait for his return; no matter how may be occupied in the meantime.
So this raise the question: what’s in it for the wife? For a wife in Helen’s situation, her pleasure is in raising her son, little Arthur, but even this is derailed by her husband, big Arthur, as he teaches his son to drink and swear, a model of himself. The wife, we know, does not enjoy the same privileges as the husband, and her pleasures are society of other women and whatever residues their husbands choose to give. I think that Wildfell Hall almost failed the Bechdel test if not for a couple of conversations about marriage. The women, in general, when they converse, converse about men.
It is a low-key important book even before feminism is a word. Helen Graham is a badass character that often put men in their places. Her decisions, even though controversial for those around her, are courageous and not without reason. The faults of Gilbert Markham as a flawed, hot-headed narrator is balanced by the level-headed narration of Helen. I admire her resolution when she decides to take action. But read the book for the masterpiece that it is, with almost flawless prose, characters fully drawn out with their own personal conflicts and just being one of the books in Brontë repertoire.