Begun in autumn 1846, shortly after the completion of Agnes Grey (1847), Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall retains the social realism of the earlier work but adds a new complication of plot and a heightened sense of the dramatic. The chronological narrative, concentration on a single character, and subdued tone of the first novel here give way to a sophisticated structure that reveals increased complexity in themes, narrative techniques, and style.
The principal arguments in the preface to the second edition indicate the novel’s two principal themes. Brontë expresses her desire “to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral,” and she pleads for the equality of male and female authors. Her comments correspond to her novel’s themes of moral behavior and sexual equality.
The novel is closer to the Enlightenment than to Romanticism in its insistence on reason and moderation and in its depiction of the evil consequences of excess. The latter is shown in the degradation of Arthur Huntingdon, who appears first as a rakish but amusing and sophisticated man of the world but rapidly sinks to debauched reveler, brutal husband, and, finally, to the desperate alcoholic whose ravings indicate fear of a God in whom he does not believe but whom he cannot dismiss. Brontë, drawing on the observation of her brother, Branwell Brontë, shows clearly that Huntingdon’s collapse results from an addiction. Huntingdon’s addiction, however, is exacerbated by a failure of reason. Devoid of intellectual interests, Huntingdon is characterized by a fundamental unseriousness, and the lightheartedness that initially makes him a witty entertainer eventually leads to a callous indifference to others and a readiness to turn any situation, however serious, into a jest.
Huntingdon is not the only character who acts without reason and self-control. His dissolute friends share his proclivities, the only exception being the despondent Lowborough, who finally overcomes the addictions of gambling, alcohol, and laudanum. Helen herself, ignoring all warnings and drawn by a physical attraction that she does not fully recognize but that Brontë presents unmistakably, marries impetuously, believing that she can reform Huntingdon. The young Gilbert Markham harbors irrational suspicions, which lead him to a rejection of Helen and to violence against Lawrence.
Feminist issues form the second major theme. Brontë makes a forceful case for the independence and the equality of women in showing that while Huntingdon declines into fatuous alcoholism, Helen matures into a reasoning, self-disciplined individual who is determined to maintain some control. When she locks her bedroom door against Huntingdon the night of their first quarrel, this anticipates her later rejection of all sexual relations with him. When she finally leaves the abusive marriage, she defies the Victorian social code that required a wife to remain with her husband whatever his behavior. In subsequently demanding a written contract awarding her custody of her son, Helen affirms the rights of mothers, which were not legally recognized until the passage of the Infants’ Custody Bill in 1839.
After the separation, Helen achieves both financial and intellectual independence. Huntingdon controls her property, but she manages to support herself by her painting. Again she defies convention since, although the Victorians regarded painting as a suitable drawing-room accomplishment for ladies, they reserved for men the serious pursuit of art as a profession. Helen’s trials also bring her intellectual independence. Naturally spirited, she learns how to assert herself. Her quiet demeanor does not prevent her from challenging received opinions, most notably in her discussion with Mrs. Markham on the need to bring up boys and girls in the same way. In her marriage to Gilbert, the reader must suppose that Helen will not relinquish her hard-won independence but rather that theirs is an equal union....
(The entire section is 1,045 words.)