Reading Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series always gives me a hankering to read the classics–mostly so that I can get more of the jokes. The first book on the list of classics I should have read, but didn’t, is Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I’ve read the books by the other sisters and was divided on my opinion. I loved Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and I hated Emily’s Wuthering Heights. I can now officially say, I love two-thirds of the Brontë sisters.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is, I’ll admit, not the most skillfully constructed novel. It’s written in an epistolary style and uses a lot of flashbacks. But the letters and diary entries often turn into long passages of novel, complete with dialogue and internal monologues. The structure’s not the important thing about this book, its the subject matter. This is a surprising book for 1847, because at the center of the novel is a bad, bad marriage. Most of my knowledge of the first half of the nineteenth century comes from Austen, where it’s all about getting that ring. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is refreshingly blunt and honest about what can happens after the happy couple says I do.
The novel begins with a mysterious woman arriving, with her son, to take up residence at the falling down Wildfell Hall. This part of the book is told from the perspective of one Gilbert Markham, who tells the reader of how the whole neighborhood is desperate to find out who she is and what her history is. When Mrs. Graham refuses to talk about her past, some nasty rumors start up. Gilbert, who has been falling in love with Mrs. Graham, finally gets her to share her history. She gives him her diaries to read, which takes up most of the middle of the book.
This is where things start to get interesting. The novel jumps back in time four years, to a young Helen Lawrence who is a lot more naive than the Mrs. Graham we meet later. Helen has her pick of a couple of different men, but she falls in love with an irreverent young gentleman with an excess bon homme. Arthur Huntingdon is not a good man, but Helen is convinced that she can improve him. At this point, I wanted to yell at her, “No, you can’t!” Arthur behave himself until shortly after their wedding, at which point his true nature starts to reveal itself. Before long, Helen is spending all of her time at Arthur’s manor, while her husband lives it up in London.
Arthur, it turns out, is a selfish, shallow, and cruel drunk. He plays with his wife’s feelings, accusing her of not loving him when she tries to curb his behavior. He starts to giver her ultimatums. But the worst is when Arthur has an affair with a married woman, takes her money, and threatens to make Helen a prisoner in their house. Arthur teaches their son to drink and swear. It’s clearly over by then. If the novel were set a hundred-odd years later, they could have divorced and been done with each other. But Helen has no legal rights and few allies. It becomes clear that something has to be done.
The diaries make it clear that Mrs. Graham is the runaway Mrs. Huntingdon and, moreover, that her husband is still alive and drinking away the fortune somewhere. Markham is still in love her and she with him. But they’re stuck because of Arthur. The ending of the book is bittersweet and wonderfully satisfying. Brontë holds you in suspense all the way to the end.
Where Charlotte and Emily’s books are the very definition of gothic, Anne’s book is a tonic of realism. As I read it, I felt like I was getting a real glimpse of what life was like for women in the 1820s and 40s. It can’t always be Elizabeth and Darcy or Jane and Rochester. There’s happiness in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, sure, but the characters have to go through fire to get there.
The star of the book is Mrs. Graham/Huntingdon. Helen feels utterly real, even to the point of annoying me every now and then before winning back my sympathy. I wonder how many women of the Brontës’ time were like her–certainly more than fiction would have us believe. It’s depressing to contemplate, but on the other hand, this is a book with important depth. It sounds so simple when you try to summarize it; it’s a book about a bad marriage. But it’s more than that. It’s about a woman in an impossible situation who actually manages to do something about it instead of pining away artistically. I don’t understand why it’s not more well known.
And I still don’t understand why people seem to like Wuthering Heights so much.