The Other Brontë Girl

New entry for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

In her introduction to the 1914 edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the author and critic May Sinclair reminded her fellow Modernists how radical Anne Brontë’s second and final novel had been. When Anne depicted her protagonist, Helen Huntingdon, slamming her bedroom door in her abusive husband’s face, wrote Sinclair, ‘she slammed it in the face of society and all existing moralities and conventions’. And this was no understatement. When the novel was first published in 1848, that slam had echoed throughout Victorian England, a culture in which, as a mother tells her son in the novel, it was considered a husband’s business to please himself and a wife’s duty to please him. Under law, the wife’s property – including anything she already owned, inherited, or earnt – was her husband’s, as were any children. The wife, too, was her husband’s property; although he could divorce her, she had no right to do so herself, and to leave without permission was a crime. As Helen tells the young, unmarried Esther Hargrave, ‘You might as well sell yourself to slavery’.

Sinclair had mixed feelings about Anne’s technical abilities as a novelist, declaring that ‘but for that startling and reverberating sound, there isn’t one enlivening thrill, not one, in all the long pages of Anne’s novel’, making this a rather contradictory introduction and hardly a recommendation for the book. But Sinclair acknowledges that her reservations result from a long-held misconception:

The deception, I own, lies mainly in the title. It conjures up I know not what glamour of darkness and of supernatural haunting. For years before I ever read the book I had the fixed idea that it was the tale of a house haunted by hereditary evil … a tale in its gruesome power inferior only to Wuthering Heights.

The error thus lies with Sinclair, not the author. She wanted the gothic romance of Emily – and, no doubt, of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre too – and got instead the unsettling realism of Anne. That said, Sinclair admired Anne’s ‘feminist’ revolt, but believed that she had not the skill of her sisters to breathe life into her characters.

This criticism is unduly harsh. In fact, once the reader tunes into the epistolary style and a (characteristically Victorian) long first act, Wildfell Hall is a real page-turner. Flashing back to the end of the Regency – with all that would morally imply to Victorian readers – the Yorkshire farmer, Gilbert Markham, writes a series of letters to his best friend concerning a mysterious widow, Helen Graham, who took up residence in the only habitable wing of the ramshackle and previously abandoned Wildfell Hall when Markham was a young man. As this is the kind of area – not unlike Haworth – where a dead cow would attract a small crowd, tongues are soon wagging about the reclusive Helen, especially when her views on the raising of her son, Arthur, become known to the local curate. Helen does not agree with the prevailing opinion that a boy must be raised to ‘be a man’, which would include blood sports and drinking. Instead, she is at great pains to keep him away from such things, and never lets him out of her sight. The Reverend Millward considers this attitude to be ‘criminal’ and ‘contrary to Scripture’. His righteous indignation is stoked by his daughter, Eliza, who is sweet on Gilbert and fears Helen may be a rival. Helen also works for a living as an artist, which makes her even more alien to the locals. Gilbert, meanwhile, is well-read and cultured, and finds Helen’s obvious intellect deeply attractive. He befriends Arthur, and a cautious social connection with Helen begins. She is clearly hiding something, which Gilbert wrongly assumes is a relationship with her landlord, the local squire, Lawrence. To refute Gilbert’s suspicions and dissuade him from pursuing her himself, a distraught Helen hands him a journal by way of silent explanation. He is sworn to keep its contents secret, and begins, as do we, to read. Helen’s younger voice takes over the narrative for the next 28 chapters until Gilbert resumes and concludes the story, his Bertie Wooster-like chattiness and the Austenesque tone of the local rumour mill a welcome contrast to Helen’s bleak intensity.

Helen’s journal is electric. Even today, her account of domestic abuse at the hands of her rakish upper-class husband, Arthur Huntingdon, and his dissolute friends, is a challenging read; not for the reasons Sinclair suggests, but because of the relentless cruelty. And as the journal progresses through several years of marriage, the initially optimistic – she thinks she can change him – and naive young bride becomes more haunted and desperate while her husband descends further into alcoholism, gleefully trying to take their son with him.

This is nail-biting drama. To what depths of depravity will Arthur sink? How can Helen possibly escape, having no income and no legal rights, and how can she save her son from becoming his father? These questions drive the novel towards a powerful climax that is in retrospect inevitable yet unexpected and surprising, making for a compelling reading experience. But this is no mere potboiler. The author, through her protagonist, interrogates the early-Victorian view of social class, gender roles and marriage, wrestles with notions of family duty and faith, and presents a raw and honest portrayal of alcoholism, as well as drug addiction, profligacy and gambling. There is also a strong undertone of sexuality throughout, good and bad, through Helen’s attraction to bad boy Arthur, Gilbert’s attraction to the raven-haired Helen, Eliza’s earthy attraction to Gilbert, the predatory Hargrave, and the voluptuous Lady Lowborough, the most blatant of Arthur’s many infidelities – all subjects rarely expressed in popular or literary Victorian novels. Most shockingly of all, Anne was sticking to that old publishing adage to write about what you know…

To keep reading please click here.

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