January 17, 2020, was the 200th anniversary of Anne Brontë’s birth: neglected Anne, forgotten Anne, Anne who is the least famous sister in a family of celebrated geniuses. But her bicentennial came at a transitional moment in Brontë studies, because the consensus on Anne is changing.
Although Anne Brontë has traditionally been considered a much less interesting writer than her sisters Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights), over the past few decades, critics have started to change their minds. Now, they’re wondering if Anne might have been the most radical Brontë of all — and if the second of her two books, 1848’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, might be one of the first truly feminist novels.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, out now in a new edition from the Folio Society, tells the story of Helen Huntingdon and her ill-fated marriage to an abusive alcoholic. As the critic Marianne Thormählen noted in 2018, Tenant is in the odd position of never having been quite right for its time: too shocking in its uncensored treatment of domestic abuse and addiction for the 19th century, and too didactic and moralizing in its condemnation of both for the 20th century.
Victorian critics called Tenant “disgusting,” “revolting,” and “brutal;” too coarse to be truly great art in the way that Jane Eyre was. Meanwhile, the 20th century critic Terry Eagleton argued that the book’s language “is that of morality rather than imagination”: too prim and prudish to be truly great art in the way that Wuthering Heights was.
Despite critical ambivalence, on its first publication, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a bestseller to rival Jane Eyre. But after Anne Brontë’s death in 1849, Charlotte Brontë forbade publishers from reprinting it, on the grounds that the novel was “an entire mistake,” because “nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived.” Anne, in other words, was a perfectly respectable young lady from a respectable family, and strangers should stop judging her for writing a novel filled with such unnervingly vivid scenes of drunken abuse.
After Charlotte died in 1854, publishers began reprinting Tenant, but this time in a version riddled with errors and omissions, with entire chapters stripped away to keep the page count down. This new version of the novel — known among Brontë scholars as “the mutilated text” — was widely distributed and republished. It wasn’t until 1992, after decades of determined Anne partisans making the case that her work deserved further scholarship, that a complete scholarly edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published.
In the interim, the low quality of the mutilated text — along with Charlotte’s disavowal of the work and the majority critical consensus that Anne was the least worthy of the Brontë sisters — served to ensure that Tenant remained below the threshold of public knowledge. Today, most people have heard of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and they may even be aware of a few of Charlotte’s other novels, like Villette. But Anne appears most regularly in popular culture as a foil to her more famous sisters: the weird one, the forgotten one.
On the occasion of Anne Brontë’s 200th birthday, it’s time to change that. Because The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a wildly modern, daring, and provocative book. It’s not perfect by any means, but it shows that its author deserves our attention today — not as the odd one out among the Brontë sisters, but on her own merits.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall centers on a witchy misandrist heroine. She’s great.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins like a Jane Austen novel, with a new arrival to the neighborhood. A mysterious young widow who calls herself Helen Graham has moved into an empty gothic manor with her young son, and while the neighborhood fears that she may be a witch, Gilbert Markham, our narrator, rapidly becomes infatuated with her.
Helen is easy to fall in love with, not because she is likable, but because she is angry. She’s a forbidding young woman who does not suffer fools lightly, and she peppers her dialogue with a spiky, misanthropic wit that’s reminiscent of Jane Eyre telling the preacher that to avoid hell, she’ll be sure to stay in good health and not die. “I would rather be lectured by you than by the vicar,” she observes to Gilbert, after he takes issue with her plans to ensure that her son will abstain from alcohol, “because I should have less remorse in telling you, at the end of the discourse, that I preserve my own opinion precisely the same as at the beginning.”
Endearingly, Helen is quick to tell the people around her exactly what she does not like about them, especially when those people are men: In one delightful passage, she ticks off a veritable five-paragraph essay explaining why she finds a suitor disagreeable, not neglecting to note that he is ugly, mean, old, and stupid before concluding that “finally, I have an aversion to his whole person that I never can surmount.”
But for reasons that I must admit remain wholly mysterious to me, Helen has no such aversion to the vapid and self-absorbed Gilbert, and in fact grows to care for him deeply. She won’t allow him to court her formally, however, and after a long period of anguish, at last she decides to tell him the truth: She is not truly free to remarry. She gives him her diary to read, and we the readers are allowed to read it too.
Helen’s diary reveals that Graham is not her real surname, and that she is not a real widow. She has broken the law and fled from her still-living husband, taking her child with her, and now she is living in hiding under an assumed name, penniless and earning her own living as an artist, guarding against the day that her husband finds her and takes her away again.
Helen’s diary forms the core of the novel, and its strongest portion. (Sadly, Gilbert returns as our narrator after he finishes reading it.) In an intimate present-tense narrative, we see her fall in love with charming, handsome, flighty Arthur Huntingdon, who woos the over-serious Helen by his willingness to laugh at everything, including her. Helen acknowledges that Huntingdon spends too much of his time drinking and carousing, that he has a cruel streak, but she believes that she will be able to reform him through the strength and moral purity of her love.
Instead, Huntingdon degenerates, and he takes Helen with him. Huntingdon drinks more and ever more, sliding slowly and inexorably into alcoholism. His willingness to laugh at everything develops into taking sadistic pleasure in humiliating his wife. He flaunts his extramarital affairs in her face. He destroys her artistic materials and, when she threatens to run away, confiscates all her money and jewels. He takes special satisfaction in incorporating their toddler into Helen’s torment: “So the little fellow came down every evening,” Helen writes in her diary, “in spite of his cross mamma, and learnt to tipple wine like papa, to swear like Mr Hattersley, and to have his own way like a man, and send mamma to the devil when she tried to prevent him.”
Helen, in response, transforms from idealistic and infatuated young bride to an embittered survivor. “Instead of being humbled and purified by my afflictions, I feel that they are turning my nature into gall,” she confides to her diary. In one of the more elaborately Gothic setpieces of the novel, she begins slipping poison into her child’s wine so that he’ll associate drunkenness with sickness and won’t inherit his father’s vices.
That’s not the only way Helen fights back against Huntingdon. She bars him from her bed, in a moment that the Victorians found shocking: the critic May Sinclair famously wrote that “when [Anne Brontë] slammed the door of Mrs Huntingdon’s bedroom she slammed it in the face of society and all existing moralities and conventions.” Helen asks for a separation, and when Huntingdon denies it to her on the grounds that he doesn’t want to deal with gossip, she concocts a plan to run away. When Huntingdon finds out and thwarts it, she concocts another. She breaks the law; breaks social convention; defies the advice of her brother, who tells her to just stick it out; and she gets herself the hell away from him.
Tragically, she gets herself the hell away from Huntingdon and over to Gilbert, surely one of the least convincing romantic heroes in the history of the novel. Gilbert’s a prig who few critics have ever managed to defend, and he’s violent. When he thinks Helen is in a sexual relationship with another man, he hits his rival over the head with a whip and almost kills him, “not without,” Gilbert confesses, “a feeling of savage satisfaction.”
That even staid, pragmatic Gilbert — the “good choice,” by the laws of the classic marriage plot — is violent and sadistic says enormous amounts about the moral laws of this universe. It’s one in which the potential for violence and abuse lurks everywhere, even in places that are presented to the reader as safe. That’s what sets The Tenant of Wildfell Hall apart from the other Brontë novels, which either harbor true safe havens or tell us flatly that no such safety exists. And it’s also what makes the book feel so contemporary.
The abuse in this novel reads as though it was drawn directly from life. It probably was.
There is a powerful, vivid urgency to the scenes of Huntingdon’s dissipation, and the gradual way they build from mild horseplay to vicious abuse, that feel completely fresh and modern today. They feel as though they are drawn directly from life, with minute attention to detail, and they probably were.
Branwell Brontë, brother to the famous sisters, was an alcoholic and opium addict. He and Anne briefly worked as tutor and governess respectively to the same household, but Branwell was fired after he had an affair with the mistress of the house. After he was sent home in disgrace, he commenced writing letters to his friends begging for money for gin and setting fire to his bedsheets in a drunken stupor.
Branwell produced no significant artistic work of his own, but many critics believe that the Brontë sisters modeled their charismatic but dissipated heroes on him. In a way, their three most famous novels each offer a different solution to the problem presented by the archetype Branwell represents. Jane Eyre reforms and overpowers Rochester, whose sins are comparatively mild and who proves to be good at heart in the end. Wuthering Heights’ Cathy is just as feral as Heathcliff, who is appealingly tragic and committed to Cathy besides.
But Helen is not feral, and she fails to reform Huntingdon, because Anne Brontë doesn’t seem to believe that love is the secret cure to abuse and addiction. Helen thinks that it is — that through her love, she can bring Huntingdon to God — but she is mistaken, and she pays for her mistake dearly. That mistake ruins her life. And Anne shows us Helen’s ruin in painstaking and unstinting detail.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not a technically perfect novel. Helen’s religious fervor takes up an enormous number of pages, and it can be difficult to swallow. And to get to Helen’s diary, we have to wade through more than a hundred pages of Gilbert’s frame narrative, which does occasionally verge on insufferable.
But the heart of this book is a portrait of a woman surviving and flourishing after abuse, and in that, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall feels unnervingly modern. It is fresh, shocking, and wholly new today, 200 years after the birth of its author.