I've just finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. Believe it or not, I'd never read it before. Depressing, how many books I've never read. However, that number is now reduced by one.
For others who may not yet have read this dark, powerful novel: The title character is Helen Graham, a pretty, strong and selfreliant young woman, ostensibly a widow, who has moved into the largely ruinous Wildfell Hall with her young son and only one womanservant. She is surrounded by mystery and, soon, also by malicious gosip, in which the village's handsome young squire, proprietor of the Hall, figures promanently. Gilbert markham, a substantial farmer and landholder, falls reluctantly but inexorably in love with the inigmatic Mrs. Graham, but is baffled in his attempts to learn her history both by the lady herself and by his friend, Squire Fredrick Lawrence whom, in his jealousy and despair, he eventually attacks.
Mastering his anger at what he believes to be the perfidy of his beloved and his friend, Gilbert returns to the Hall to confront Helen. But, though she confirms her return of his love, she maintains that it must not be consumated or even allowed to flurish in their hearts. Finally driven to frenzy by Gilbert's persistance and lack of understanding, she thrusts a thick manuscript into his hands, and commands him to go.
The manuscript, with a few pages torn from the end, proves to be Helen's journal. In it she recounts her courtship by and marriage to one Arthur Huntingdon. Though her aunt, her guardian, remonstrates, Helen believes that she can discourage what is bad in Arthur and cultivate what is good. However, her life with him gradually becomes intolerable as his drinking, philandering and general Debauchery come to threaten the wellbeing of their young son. With the help of her brother, none other than Gilbert's friend Squire Lawrence, and her faithful attendent Rachel, Helen devises and carries out a desperate plan of escape. But, no sooner has she returned to Wildfell Hall, her childhood home before her father sent her away to live with her aunt and uncle following her mother's death, but village tongues start wagging. To add to her troubles, the handsome young cockscomb, Gilbert Markham, has attracted her attention...
Now understanding both her sorrows and her scruples, the broken hearted Gilbert avows his undying love, but at the same time agrees to honor Helens request that they part. Hurrying to Lawrence, he apologizes awkwardly but sincerely, and Lawrence welcomes the return of their friendship. But, shortly thereafter, Gilbert learns from a malicious former sweetheart that Helen has returned to Huntingdon. Lawrence confirms this, explaining that Huntingdon has sustained severe injuries in a riding accident and, since he is gravely ill, Helen has returned to nurse him. Through Helen's letters, which Lawrence freely shares with him, Gilbert learns of Huntingdon's final illness and death. Lawrence gives Gilbert no encouragement, and between this and his own well-meant but misplaced delicacy, his pride, and his tendency which he shares with even the best specimines of his sex to be a blockhead, Gilbert lets time slip past without trying to write to Helen, as she had asked he do at their last interview.
It is, of all people, the same malicious former sweetheart who saves Gilbert by laughingly informing him that the former tenant of Wildfell Hall is to be married in two days' time. Travelling to Grassdale Manner, Huntingdon's estate, with all possible speed, he finds that it is not Helen but Fredrick Lawrence who has just been married. Warmly congratulating his friend, Gilbert travels on to the aunt's home, where Helen is now staying. But, his hopes are finally dashed forever, as he thinks, when he learns from the conversation of his fellow coach passengers that Helen has inherited a substantial fortune from her uncle. In despair, he walks up and down in front of the park gates, knowing he must leave yet unable to do so. Thus it is that Helen finds him when she returns with little Arthur and her aunt. It is almost more than Helen can do to persuade him that she still wants to marry him, despite her newfound wealth. Eventually, however, he grasps the miraculous fact, and while he gains his heart's desire, she earns at last the quiet, happy life she deserves.
I didn't measure, but I should think Helen's narrative takes up at least half the text. And, a harrowing narrative it is, detailing her struggle to maintain her dignity and her child's safety and innoscence in the face of Huntingdon's decline from casual vice to confirmed, despairing evil. Helen does sometimes seem a trifle too good. Certainly, she quotes Scripture with disconcerting fluency. We must remember, however, that Anne Bronte was a clergyman's daughter. Also, perhaps, she wanted to underline the difference between Helen's simple yet deep and sustaining piety on the one hand and Huntingdon's rejection of both human and divine law on the other. Only occasionally was Helen's piety cloying or distracting. For the most part, I found her a strong, attractive and deeply sympathetic character.
Huntington is by no means as strong or memorable a character as Rochester or Heathcliff. He didn't strike me as being as strong a representative of evil as Gilbert is of good. Still, the contrast is stark enough. Gilbert's egotism is relatively harmless. He is well off, handsome and intelligent; but, if he is aware of these advantages, he is likewise aware of being petted and spoiled by both his mother and his sister and realizes that he may not be quite as fine a fellow as they fondly imagine. On the other hand, Huntington's selfishness, willfulness and popencity towards cruelty manifest even before his and Helen's marriage.
The way Bronte has set up the novel's structure leads the reader almost unconsciously to contrast Gilbert favorably with Huntington. That is, we meet Gilbert first, finding him sympathetic if somewhat exasperating, as young people are wont to be. We also see his and Helen's growing affection, and are able to contrast it readily with the relationship between Helen and Huntington. In other words, this reader at least was predisposed to find that Huntington suffered by comparison. Yet, I do not think this is an authorial trick but rather a deft manipulation of material. If Bronte had told the story in chronological order, beginning with Helen's meeting and falling in love with Huntington and concluding with her meeting and falling in love with Gilbert, some at least of the emotional force of both storylines would have been lessened. Both are strengthened by the mutual contrast.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not summertime fluff, but rather more of a thoughtful winter's afternoon read. As brooding and powerful as Wuthering Heights, it is yet less clostraphobic and achieves brighter sunshine in the end.
Unabridged Audio Cassette