The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. Edited by Herbert Rosengarten with an introduction by Margaret Smith. Highly recommended.
The elaborate Victorian prose style of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does not obscure a story that is recognizably modernthat of an idealistic young woman who wants to save her brutish, alcoholic husband from himself.
Reviled for its “morbid love for the coarse, not to say the brutal,” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall continues the theme Brontë began in Agnes Greythat nurture’s role in shaping in a person’s character and future is more important than parents and other authority figures realize or take responsibility for. As Helen says of Arthur, she wants “to do my utmost to . . . make him what he would have been if he had not, from the beginning, had a bad, selfish, miserly father . . . and a foolish mother who indulged him to the top of his bent . . . doing her utmost to encourage those germs of folly and vice it was her duty to suppress.”
Helen’s background is also revealing. Raised by her uncle and aunt, she exemplifies the modern concept of the adult child of an alcoholicself-righteous and controlling. Knowing that Arthur is flawed, she marries him with the objective of changing him and saving him for God. It can be speculated that Arthur, intrigued by Helen’s youth, beauty, passion, and apparent demureness, envisions making her a more worldly woman. Neither knows the other beyond the surface, and each seems to want to transform the other into his or her own image. This is not the basis for a happy or durable union, as Helen learns.
Failing to control the father, Helen turns her attentions to her son. Quite rightly, she is horrified when Arthur makes his son a pawn in their marital battle, teaching him the manly Victorian arts of sport and predation, love of drinking and carousing, camaraderie without friendship, and disrespect for and the subjugation of women. Even Brontë seemed to be aware that Helen’s approach is also disturbing in its own way, for the child-rearing debate between Helen and her new neighbors is the basis for an entire chapter before we learn her history. While many of Brontë’s contemporaries would have agreed with the vicar’s argument that experience builds character, Helen slowly reveals how experience of the wrong kind without a moderating influence can destroy character.
The structure of the novel is undoubtedly awkward; it is unlikely that anyone would share such intimate details and thoughts as well as another person’s entire personal journal with even the dearest friend without a compelling reason. Gilbert, who is introduced, perhaps symbolically, as a hunter of predators (hawks), disappears from the story as he reads Helen’s tale. This diminishes him, relegating him to Helen’s redemption and reward. On occasion, for example, in “Domestic Scenes,” Brontë’s tense changes and irregularities make Helen’s journal lose its currency and distract the reader with lapses into a novel-like tone.
The structure does, however, allow the reader (and Gilbert) to meet the reclusive, protective, guarded, almost-grim Helen before we find out about the life that has shaped her and her inflexible opinions. The revelation of her character, and the strength she has to flout convention when her conscience and sense of duty require it, helps to complete Gilbert’s growth from sarcastic village wit to the kind of mature man more worthy of her.
Brontë’s stated purpose was “to tell the truth, for the truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it . . . Let it not be imagined, however, that I consider myself competent to reform the errors and abuses of society, but only that I would fain contribute my humble quota towards so good an aim . . . .” Helen’s story, like that of Agnes, reveals the uglier aspects of Victorian family life, usually idealized, that resulted when women had few rights, men abused theirs, parents did not take responsibility for instilling healthy values (such as respect for life) in their children, and divorce was out of the reach of most. Beyond the impressive gates and parks, within the stately estates, behind the closed doors, lurked family and social problems that could not be hidden or denied away. Helen’s story was disturbing not because of her depiction of Arthur’s demeaning, childish, and amoral behavior, but because she exposes the falseness of the idyllic family life her society held dear and because she is willing to abandon what society considers her duty to her marriage to perform her real duty to herself and her son.
Anne Brontë’s work has been compared unfavorably to that of her sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Yet its psychological insights, including the very coarseness and brutality of which contemporary critics complained, make up for Brontë’s lack of literary finesse. Her portrayal of Arthur, the fun-loving, amoral, pettish, selfish hedonist, and his boorish social circle resonates today. Despite his country gentleman status and his debt-supported wealth, Arthur is recognizable in all times and classes. Helen, too, is familiar as the long-suffering wife who finally takes action when her child is threatened.
Although much has changed since Brontë’s time, her characterizations and insights on family life hold true today, making The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a classic in its own right.
Sunday, 15 July 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.