When we think of the name “Brontë”, Anne is never the first sister to come to mind. Many of us will have read either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre at some point in our lives, maybe even both, but who among you could name one of Anne’s books (before reading the title of this post)? It seems that that history has delegated her to the position of “the other one,” even though her first novel, Agnes Grey, was well-received and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had been an instant success; it quickly outsold Emily’s Wuthering Heights and was sold out altogether in only six weeks. Charlotte Brontë, for one, thought Tenant was an immature work. In a letter to W.S. Williams, she wrote:
That it had faults of execution, faults of art, was obvious, but faults of intention of feeling could be suspected by none who knew the writer. For my part, I consider the subject unfortunately chosen – it was one the author was not qualified to handle at once vigorously and truthfully.
After Anne’s death, she prevented the book’s republication, because it seemed to her “hardly … desirable to preserve.” So is this why The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not read by highschool students all over the world today? Because it’s just not very good? I think not. There are some pacing issues and a few nitpicks here and there, but I would argue that there is a far more influential factor: romanticisation, or, the lack thereof.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall starts out pleasant enough; a farmer by the name of Gilbert Markham falls in love with his mysterious new neighbour, a young widow, as his nosy family members and fellow villagers gossip about who this strange Mrs Helen Graham is and where she came from. There is some bickering, some misunderstandings… An Austen novel, almost. However, when Helen gives Gilbert her diary to read, hoping that it will explain why they can never be together, the story takes a much darker turn and plunges into that twisted territory we have come to expect of a Brontë book. The diary tells the story of Helen as a young woman who married a roguish young man, thinking that she could be a good influence on him and change his ways, only to find herself trapped in an abusive marriage. Her new husband, Arthur Huntingdon, is an emotionally manipulative drunk who cheats on his wife, makes her cry for his own amusement, and leaves her for months at a time to go on debaucherous rampages with his friends in London. When she finally accepts that there can be no redemption for him, she takes her son and leaves to start a new life elsewhere, under a different name.
It has been suggested that the characters of Heathcliff, Rochester, and Tenant‘s Huntingdon were all inspired by the Brontës’ brother, Branwell, who had an affair with a married woman, plenty of debts, and an addiction to alcohol and opium. Whether this is true or not, it is in these characters that we find the key difference between the Brontës; unlike her sisters, Anne has zero patience for the Byronic hero and refuses to romanticise the character of Huntingdon (this Hark! A Vagrant comic sums it up incredibly well). He does not change and does not better himself; the more he loses interest in his wife, the more cruel he becomes. Their fights are ugly and harsh, to the point where some critics thought that the writing was too brutal. The reviewer for Sharpe’s London Magazine wrote that the book was full of “profane expressions, inconceivably coarse language, and revolting scenes and descriptions by which its pages are disfigured.” One American critic praised the writing, but concluded that it brought the reader “into the closest proximity with naked vice, and there are conversations such as we had hoped never to see printed in English.”
However, Anne was determined not to hold back. Over the course of the novel, she rails mercilessly against physical and/or emotional abuse, Nice Guy Syndrome (look it up), animal cruelty, misogyny, gossip, any kind of double standard, and the He’s A Bad Boy But I Can Fix Him With Love trope (#4 on my list of literary pet peeves - thank you Anne!). She had a point to make and she would make it, no matter what. In the preface to the second edition, Brontë wrote:
. . . when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts – this whispering, ‘Peace, peace,’ when their is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.
My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it. [In this book] the case is an extreme one, as I trusted none would fail to perceive, but I know that such characters do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain: . . . when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own.
(I like to imagine the Victorian equivalent of a mic drop at the end there.)
Not only did Anne not gloss over the harsh reality of addiction and abusive relationships, but she also gave Helen, the long-suffering wife, a voice and the agency to change her situation; she leaves and takes her son with her. This was an act of great rebellion since, until the law was changed in 1870, a wife had no independent legal existence in England; she could not own property, get a divorce, sue for the custody of her children, or enter into any legal contract without her spouse. Instead of resigning to her fate and becoming a martyr, Helen takes matters into her own hands and forcefully breaks free. According to May Sinclair, who published a biography of the Brontë sisters in 1912, “the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated through Victorian England.”
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has its flaws, but it is an incredibly daring and powerful work that is too often overlooked and forgotten. Anne Brontë was only twenty-eight years old when she wrote it, and it pains me that we will never know what she would have written next if she’d had the chance. Read it, tell your friends, and enlighten anyone who only thinks of Anne as “the other sister.”
This book deserves to be talked about.