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.
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.
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.