The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë - Essay

Anne Brontë


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Anne Brontë

The following entry presents criticism of Brontë's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

Brontë's second and final novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, details the departure of its heroine, Helen Huntingdon, from a disastrous marriage and into an uncertain life in provincial England. Both a love story and a novel of psychological growth, the work was considered scandalous and immoral by Victorian critics, particularly in its representation of the debauched behavior of its antagonist, Arthur Huntingdon. Composed with an exacting verisimilitude, and incorporating Brontë's personal experience of her brother Branwell's steady decline into madness, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall presents a tacit critique of the inequities between women and men in marriage, and serves Brontë's purpose of moral instruction by urging young women to use prudence in selecting a mate. Though the novel is perhaps flawed by moments of melodrama, and by what some consider an awkward narrative structure, most critics view The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a significant and somewhat unconventional statement on Victorian morals and an enduring example of nineteenth-century literary craftsmanship by a frequently underrated novelist.

Plot and Major Characters

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opens with the narration of Gilbert Markham, a gentleman farmer of Yorkshire, England. Markham's tale, which takes the form of an extended series of letters to his friend Halford, begins in 1827. Gilbert recalls how he met and subsequently fell in love with a young woman, Helen, who had recently moved with her son to the neighboring estate of Wildfell Hall. Initially greeted with a strange coldness by the woman, Gilbert suspects that she and the man who accompanied her to Yorkshire, Frederick Lawrence, are lovers. Later, in a fit of misinformed frustration, Gilbert attacks Frederick before learning that he is in fact Helen's brother. Finding it difficult to explain herself to Gilbert, but wanting him to understand her stern behavior, Helen later gives him her faded journal, the pages of which form the central portion of the novel. The first entry in the diary, dated June 1, 1821, reveals some of Helen's thoughts about her painting. In the ensuing pages, Gilbert learns how Helen met and married a man named Arthur Huntingdon. Preferring the attractive and boisterous Arthur to any other suitors offered by her relatives, Helen chose him, despite protest. However, after the wedding she realizes that her husband's excessive indulgence in alcohol and gambling leave him little time for her. Arthur's debauched behavior repulses Helen, but endears him to a small sect of “gentleman” revelers, for whom he is the jovial leader. Sometime later, a spasm of rage prompts Arthur to destroy a number of Helen's paintings. She suffers this and other indignities without taking concrete action until she discovers a clandestine affair between Arthur and the governess he has hired and installed in their household, ostensibly for the purpose of educating their son. Taking the boy with her, Helen leaves, fleeing to Wildfell Hall. The journal ends, and Gilbert, having realized his mistake in judging Helen, apologizes for his immature behavior. Soon, the two reveal their love for one another. Helen, still married to Arthur, learns that her husband is gravely ill and hurries back to London in order to look after him. Unremorseful on his deathbed, Arthur Huntingdon eventually dies, allowing Gilbert and Helen to marry.

Major Themes

Brontë stated in the preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that her purpose in writing the novel was to tell the truth and to convey a moral idea. Thus, she hoped to caution those who might make mistakes in marriage similar to those of Helen Huntingdon. Indeed, most critics take Brontë at her word, viewing the work as a critique of marriage in Victorian England, an institution that, in cases such as the one illustrated in the novel, left little recourse for women. A minor theme related to Brontë's analysis of marriage encompasses the work's implied attack on the rakish, Regency-era morals of many of the male figures in the novel—led by Arthur Huntingdon. These men drink, gamble, and carouse with little regard for the consequences, while their solidly moral, Victorian spouses are required to abide, and even atone for, their degradations. The status of Helen as a female artist provides another theme in the work, as her struggle to support herself through painting is thwarted by an unappreciative, male-dominated society personified in Arthur. Additional themes related to the dynamics of gender also resonate in the work, though most critics agree that Brontë's heroine and novel depict a traditionally Christian/moral worldview rather than an overtly feminist one.

Critical Reception

Negative critical appraisals of The Tenant of Wildfell at the time of its publication were conditioned both by the supposedly immoral subject matter described in the novel, and by the condescending and dismissive attitude to the work taken by Anne Brontë's elder sister Charlotte, whose disparaging remarks continued to mar its reputation for decades. Criticism of the work's narrative form, which has been described as cumbersome and disjointed, originated with George Moore's 1924 evaluation. Otherwise a champion of Brontë's works, Moore observed that the novel was irretrievably divided by Brontë's use of a complicated epistolary structure, and felt that the story would have been better told without this clumsy narrative apparatus. Many subsequent commentators have echoed this criticism. However, more recently, a few scholars have begun to view the benefits of Brontë's narrative technique, particularly as it focuses on the psychological development of Helen Huntingdon in the crucial midsection of the novel. Indeed, Edith A. Kostka has praised its “ingenious design” in delineating Helen's character. And, while a few critics have viewed Arthur as the most compelling character in the book, the majority of late twentieth-century commentators have highlighted the significance of Helen, studying her as its central figure. A complementary line of inquiry has focused on the novel's feminist themes. Several scholars have studied issues related to the gendered enclosure and appropriation of Helen's narrative by Gilbert Markham's male discourse, which surrounds and comments upon her journal entries. Helen's occupation as a female artist has also been deemed significant by several critics, who have concentrated on her status as a marginalized figure in Victorian society. Additionally, the motif of Helen's socially and ideologically transgressive desire in the novel has been highlighted. Other scholars have challenged the view that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall should be read as a feminist or proto-feminist work, and have argued that the work fails to adequately challenge Victorian domestic ideology and its assumptions concerning the proper roles of men and women.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell [as Acton Bell, with Currer and Ellis Bell (pseudonyms of Charlotte and Emily Brontë)] (poetry) 1846

Agnes Grey: An Autobiography [as Acton Bell] (novel) 1847

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall [as Acton Bell] (novel) 1848

*The Brontës's Life and Letters (letters) 1908

The Complete Poems of Anne Brontë (poetry) 1920

*This work includes letters written by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë.

Rambler (review date 1848)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mr. Bell's New Novel,” in Rambler, Vol. 3, September, 1848, pp. 65-66.

[In the following anonymous review, the critic compares The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to Jane Eyre, claiming that the two were written by the same author, and that both are deplorable in nature.]

The names of Acton Bell, Currer Bell, and Ellis Bell, are now pretty generally recognised as mere noms de guerre in the literary world. The novels lately published by these supposed individuals, or at least those which have the names of the first two of the three, are too palpably the work of one hand to deceive even the unpractised critic; while few people would doubt that...

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Arlene M. Jackson (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Question of Credibility in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” in English Studies, Vol. 63, No. 3, June, 1982, pp. 198-206.

[In the following essay, Jackson asserts that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, despite the flaw of its somewhat burdensome narrative structure, avoids melodrama by counter-balancing Helen Huntingdon's psychological realism with the debauched behavior of her husband Arthur.]

Author of Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), Anne Brontë is the least known of the Brontë family, but seems ready for rediscovery in this period of new interest in minor and neglected women writers....

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Juliet McMaster (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Imbecile Laughter’ and ‘Desperate Earnest’ in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 352-68.

[In the following essay, McMaster contrasts the Regency-era rakishness of the male characters with the Victorian morality of the females in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, finding in the struggle of these opposites the thematic and structural pattern of the novel.]

“You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827,” Gilbert Markham begins the first chapter of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.1 The last words of the novel are likewise a date, a much later one, “June...

(The entire section is 7594 words.)

Jan B. Gordon (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gossip, Diary, Letter, Text: Anne Brontë's Narrative Tenant and the Problematic of the Gothic Sequel,” in ELH, Vol. 51, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 719-45.

[In the following essay, Gordon studies gossip and narrative enclosure in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as well as the relationship between Anne Brontë's novel and his sister Emily's Wuthering Heights.]

The frame, however, is handsome enough; it will serve for another painting. The picture itself I have not destroyed, as I had first intended; I have put it aside. …

(The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 398)1


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Lori A. Paige (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Helen's Diary Freshly Considered,” in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 20, No. 4, 1991, pp. 225-27.

[In the following essay, Paige maintains that the complex narrative of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does not mar the integrity of the novel, but rather serves to further Brontë's stated purpose of examining the institution of marriage in Victorian England.]

In her second novel,1 Anne Brontë attempts a more complicated structure than the simple autobiographical mode she utilized in Agnes Grey. As anyone who has attempted even a cursory reading of Anne Brontë criticism knows rather too well, the diary device she chose is generally...

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Edith A. Kostka (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Narrative Experience as a Means to Maturity in Anne Brontë's Victorian Novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” in Connecticut Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 41-47.

[In the following essay, Kostka considers Gilbert Markham's reading of Helen Huntingdon's diary as the act of an inexperienced male achieving maturity via female writing.]

One of the pleasures of studying literature is the unexpected encounter with ingenious design. Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a case in point. At first Tenant appears to be a Brontëan version of the male “Bildungsroman” which traditionally catalogues the progress of a young man's...

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Elizabeth Langland (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Voicing of Feminine Desire in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” in Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art, edited by Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor, Northern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. 111-23.

[In the following essay, Langland offers a feminist/post-structuralist analysis of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a Victorian narrative of transgressive feminine desire.]

Because of its radical and indecorous subject matter—a woman's flight from her abusive husband—Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shocked contemporary audiences. Yet the very indecorousness of the subject may seem to be...

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Marianne Thormählen (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Villain of Wildfell Hall: Aspects and Prospects of Arthur Huntingdon,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 88, No. 4, October, 1993, pp. 831-41.

[In the following essay, Thormählen argues against traditional, biographically motivated estimates of Arthur Huntingdon by examining the character in cultural context, particularly in relation to contemporary texts on alcoholism and phrenology, as well as Victorian notions of Christian salvation.]

With foreheads villainous low

(The Tempest, iv. 1. 249)

Anne Brontë's second novel has traditionally been contemplated against the background of events and circumstances...

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Elizabeth Signorotti (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Frame Perfect and Glorious’: Narrative Structure in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” in Victorian Newsletter, Vol. 87, Spring, 1995, pp. 20-25.

[In the following essay, Signorotti details Brontë's analysis of Victorian gender roles in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, beginning with Gilbert's narrative “appropriation” of Helen's story and concluding with the feasibility of their marriage.]

Early criticism of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall focused as much, if not more, on the mysterious identity of the author Acton Bell, as on the text itself. Several contemporary critics argued that Acton Bell was simply...

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Alisa M. Clapp (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Tenant of Patriarchal Culture: Anne Brontë's Problematic Female Artist,” in Michigan Academician, Vol. 28, No. 2, March, 1996, pp. 113-22.

[In the following essay, Clapp evaluates Helen Huntingdon as a marginalized, and hence paradigmatic, Victorian female artist.]

Unlike many writers in history, Anne Brontë has had the misfortune not to be unknown by literary critics but to be ignored. We know that she was the youngest sister of Charlotte and Emily, and even that she was a writer, but we rarely look at what she wrote. Even scholarship devoted to “the Brontë sisters” often fails to include the work of the youngest.1


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Rachel K. Carnell (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feminism and the Public Sphere in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” in Nineteenth Century Literature, Vol. 53, No. 1, June, 1998, pp. 1-24.

[In the following essay, Carnell claims that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does not challenge the traditional Victorian separation of men and women into public and domestic spheres.]

The narrative structure of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) has traditionally been criticized as a “clumsy” rupture in what might have been “a passionate and original love story.”1 By embedding Helen Graham's diary into an extended letter between her second husband and his...

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Tess O'Toole (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Siblings and Suitors in the Narrative Architecture of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” in SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 39, No. 4, 1999, pp. 715-31.

[In the following essay, O'Toole proposes that the narrative construction of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall serves to reinforce the novel's thematic tension between two forms of domesticity—marital and sibling.]

Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been singled out most frequently for two elements: (1) its unusually complicated framing device (Gilbert Markham's epistolary account of his relationship with Helen Huntingdon surrounds her much lengthier diary...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Alexander, Christine. “Milestones in Brontë Textual Scholarship.” Text: An Interdisciplinary Annual of Textual Studies 9 (1996): 353-68.

Details the early publication history of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Berg, Margaret Mary. “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Brontë's Jane Eyre.Victorian Newsletter 71 (Spring 1987): 10-15.

Observes resemblances between The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, arguing that Anne Brontë's novel contains implicit criticism of Charlotte's view of morality.

Berry, Laura C. “Acts of Custody...

(The entire section is 400 words.)