Does The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë act as a warning against being a victim of emotional abuse?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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This is an interesting question and one that Anne Brontë answers in part of her own accord in the "Preface" to the Second Edition. Though she does not mention "abuse," either emotional or physical, she does discuss her wish to contribute "to reform the errors and abuses of society, ... [with] my humble quota towards so good an aim." She also asserts her aesthetic philosophy that when, in fiction, "we have to do with vice and vicious characters, ... it is better to depict them as they really are." Thus Anne Brontë clearly wanted to warn readers against the vice and viciousness revealed in the pages of her novel.

What is the vice and viciousness therein revealed? It revolves around Huntingdon's depraved lifestyle. He spends days and weeks away from his country seat, away from Helen, burying himself in the activities of London with his vice-tolerant friends at his side. When the friends are invited to their home in the country, Helen sees first-hand what that lifestyle partly entails.

Young Arthur is taught to talk and behave like his father and friends; he is taught to behave "particularly ill." Even one of the guests is repulsed by what the father does:

Mr. Hargrave suddenly ... lifted the child from his father’s knee, where he was sitting half-tipsy, ... and execrating me with words he little knew the meaning of ...

Make no mistake, though, Brontë isn't opposed only to the vice of the men of the novel; she is equally opposed to the foolishness of the women who marry them and bring emotional and physical misfortune upon themselves and their children. Bear in mind that not many of these women are saved as Helen was by the death of the torturing male and the receipt of an inheritance. Most of these women have to live out to the end of their days the struggle to undo what was done and to right what was put wrong.

I know that such characters [as Huntingdon] 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. (Anne Brontë, "Preface" to Second Edition).


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