It is said that Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the most shocking of the Brontë sisters’ novels and after rereading it, I have to agree. It still startles in its honest depiction of domestic abuse and subsequent fear, isolation and misery.
Of the novel, Anne herself said, “I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it”(qtd in Langland 48). The reader receiving the unmasked truth must indeed reckon with it.
Anne Brontë, the youngest of the Brontë brood, utilized a different writing style, one labeled realism, unlike her literary sisters, Charlotte and Emily, whose masterpieces are models of gothic and dark romance.
Elizabeth Langland, scholar in Victorian literature and feminist and gender theory, in her book Anne Brontë: The Other One, says:
“Anne was, of the sisters, perhaps the most rigorously logical, the most quietly observant, the most realistic, and, in certain spheres, the most tenacious, the most determined, and the most courageous. All of these qualities were to emerge as her life unfolded”(4).
Through her compelling storytelling and inventive technique, Anne engages and entertains, while she cautions and instructs. I say thank you to Anne Brontë for her courage and believe The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, considered one of the first feminist novels, still serves its purpose.
“In The Tenant, Anne uses multiple storytellers and embedded narratives. In this she may have been following Emily’s Wuthering Heights, but she employs the technique to very different ends. In both novels, [Anne’s two] a privileging of the woman as narrator allows Anne to create a female reality formerly uncharted in novels” (Langland 31).
And this particular female reality is harrowing. Fortunately, the protagonist is wise and grows emotionally strong, for herself and others.
Anne isn’t as well-known as her older literary sisters, but she clearly should be. She wrote two novels, Agnes Grey and the one we’re focusing on here, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne also wrote juvenilia with her sisters and brother, Branwell, as well as poetry.
Anne passed in 1849 at age twenty-nine, not long after The Tenant was published, and only months after her sister Emily of Wuthering Heights fame passed. Her oldest surviving sister Charlotte believed the writing of The Tenant contributed to Anne’s death because of its subject matter, and suppressed its being republished for five years.
Yet, it seems completing The Tenant and seeing its sales soar must have been fulfilling for Anne. She was the most religious of the Brontës, believing strongly in salvation, and revealing such critical truths as she does in the book might assist others to live a cleaner, more integral and honest life while here on Earth.
After Anne’s passing, Charlotte says of The Tenant:
“The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but I think, slightly morbid”(qtd in Langland 47).
But Langland adds:
“Speaking of Anne as morbid, dejected, brooding, pursuing work she hated and that did her harm, Charlotte projects onto her sister her own strong distaste for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”(47).
Why Charlotte’s distaste for The Tenant? Perhaps it was too radical for the more conservative Charlotte, who then was left to navigate the Brontë literary landscape alone.
As mentioned, Anne’s final novel is considered one of the first feminist novels in that it directly exposes and challenges the unenviable position of women in Victorian England:
“A full awareness of these inequities in British law informs Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which also explodes the myth of domestic heaven and exposes domestic hell, from which the protagonist ultimately flees into hiding” (Langland 25).
The Tenant is a page-turner, a gripping story in that you want to know what happens, how and to whom. I read The Tenant as an undergraduate years ago, and this second read reminded me that the protagonist Helen Huntingdon is one of my absolute favorite heroines.
So that you might see what I mean, I’ll share some of her thoughts and words, along with just enough of the storyline to not give too much away.
In the beginning of The Tenant, a young Helen struggles to heed her aunt’s advice about choosing her mate wisely and ignores or justifies the numerous red flags around her choice, Arthur Huntingdon. Yes, Helen loves him and yes, he’s a charmer, but oh, those red flags of infidelity and partying, if they be true!
Helen believes SHE can reform him, as is evident in this discussion with her exasperated aunt (who raised Helen):
‘That sounds presumptuous, Helen! Do you think you have enough [principle] for both; and do you imagine your merry, thoughtless profligate would allow himself to be guided by a young girl like you?’
‘No; I should not wish to guide him; but to think I might have influence sufficient to save him from some errors, and I should think my life well spent in the effort to preserve so noble a nature from destruction. He always listens attentively now, when I speak seriously to him (and I often venture to reprove his random way of talking), and sometimes he says that if he had me always by his side he should never do or say a wicked thing, and that a little daily talk with me would make him quite a saint. It may be partly jest and partly flattery, but still-‘(141).
But still…Helen is set up for just what we as readers fear: an unhappy situation. Helen initially attempts to justify Arthur’s behavior, blaming it on him being spoiled as a boy in a family of some wealth, but it isn’t long before nothing is working well in the Huntingdon household.
Helen and Arthur’s marital and domestic bliss is short-lived. Here is an excerpt of a scene that takes place while there are guests at their house, which include Arthur’s friend Hattersley and his wife Millicent, narrated by Helen:
‘Now Millicent, tell me what you were crying for.’
‘I’ll tell you some other time,’ murmured she, ‘when we are alone.’
‘Tell me now!’ said he with another shake and a squeeze that made her draw in her breath and bite her lip to suppress a cry of pain.
‘I’ll tell you, Mr. Hattersley,’ said I. ‘She was crying from pure shame and humiliation for you; because she could not bear to see you conduct yourself so disgracefully.’
‘Confound you, Madam!’ muttered he, with a stare of stupid amazement at my ‘impudence.’ ‘It was not that – was it Millicent?’
She was silent.
‘Come, speak up child!’
‘I can’t tell now,’ sobbed she.
‘But you can say “yes” or “no” as well as “I can’t tell”- come!’
‘Yes,’ she whispered, hanging her head and blushing at the awful acknowledgement.
‘Curse you for an impertinent huzzy then!’ cried he, throwing her from him with such violence that she fell on her side; but she was up again before either I or her brother could come to her assistance, and made the best of her way out of the room, and I suppose, up stairs, without loss of time’(267).
Throughout the novel, Anne exposes a culture of violence and toxic masculinity, and its unappealing results. As Langland says:
“Not only does Anne Bronte thus revise our awe at male physical strength, she exhibits in her heroines no symptoms of attraction to the violence. Whereas a Charlotte Bronte heroine will ‘often respond in a disturbingly masochistic way to masculine aggression’, an Anne Bronte heroine is revolted by the abuse of strength. She does not seek a master; she seeks a partner”(57).
Helen finds no partnership with Arthur, especially when she discovers that he is carrying on with one of his friend’s wives, prompting this discussion:
‘Well, Helen, I won’t repeat the offence. But I meant nothing by it, I assure you. I had taken too much wine, and I was scarcely myself, at the time.’
‘You often take too much; – and that is another practice I detest.’ He looked up astonished at my warmth. ‘Yes,’ I continued. ‘I never mentioned it before, because I was ashamed to do so; but now I’ll tell you that it distresses me, and may disgust me, if you go on and suffer the habit to grow upon you, as it will, if you don’t check it in time. But the whole system of your conduct to Lady Lowborough, is not referrible to wine; and this night you knew perfectly well what you were doing.’
‘Well, I’m sorry for it,’ replied he, with more of sulkiness than contrition: ‘what more would you have?’
‘You are sorry that I saw you, no doubt,’ I answered coldly.
‘If you had not seen me,’ he muttered, fixing his eyes on the carpet, ‘it would have done no harm.’
My heart felt ready to burst; but I resolutely swallowed back my emotion, and answered calmly, ‘You think not?’
‘No.’ replied he, boldly. ‘After all, what have I done? It’s nothing – except as you choose to make it a subject of accusation and distress.’
‘What would Lord Lowborough, your friend think, if he knew all? Or what would you yourself think, if he or any other had acted the same part to me, throughout, as you have to Annabella?’
‘I would blow his brains out.’
‘Well, then, Arthur, how can you call it nothing – an offence for which you would think yourself justified in blowing another man’s brains out? Is it nothing to trifle with your friend’s feelings and mine – to endeavor to steal a woman’s affections from her husband – what he values more than his gold, and therefore what is more dishonest to take? Are the marriage vows a jest; and is it nothing to make it your sport to break them, and to tempt another to do the same? Can I love a man that does such things, and coolly maintains it is nothing?’
‘You are breaking your marriage vows yourself,’ said he, indignantly rising and pacing to and fro. ‘You promised to honour and obey me, and now you attempt to hector over me, and threaten and accuse me and call me worse than a highwayman. If it were not for your situation Helen, I would not submit to it so tamely. I won’t be dictated to by a woman, though she be my wife.’(224).
Overindulgence, especially with alcohol, is a constant and disturbing theme in this novel and it may be due to what Anne and the rest of her family endured with their brother Branwell, an addict who, as sometimes happens in these situations, put the entire family through hell.
Here are some of Helen’s thoughts when the situation between her and Arthur has deteriorated to the point of distress:
“Have I not laboured long and hard to save him from this very vice? Would I not labour still, to deliver him from it, if I could? But could I do so by fawning upon him and caressing him when I know that he scorns me? Is it my fault that I have lost my influence with him, or that he has forfeited every claim to my regard? And should I seek a reconciliation with him, when I feel that I abhor him, and that he despises me? – and while he continues still to correspond with Lady Lowborough, as I know he does? No, never, never, never! – he may drink himself dead, but it is NOT my fault!”(309).
The clarity of Helen’s thought process, her conviction, and ultimately her decision to take control of her situation are impressive and exciting.
Helen’s ultimate breaking point is when Arthur and his friends begin to corrupt their small son, providing him alcohol, teaching him to curse, and initiating him as one of the boys. Helen laments:
“My greatest source of uneasiness, in this time of trial, was my son, whom his father and his father’s friends delighted to encourage in all the embryo vices a little child can show, and to instruct in all the evil habits he could acquire – in a word, to ‘make a man of him’ was one of their staple amusements; and I need say no more to justify my alarm on his account, and my determination to deliver him at any hazard from the hands of such instructors”(335).
It was evident to close friends of the Huntingdon’s that their marriage was very strained. One of Arthur’s friends interprets that as an opportunity to swoop in and capture the vulnerable Helen. This doesn’t play out as Mr. Hargrave hopes. Again, narrated by Helen:
‘No one has ever dared insult me as you are doing now!’ said I, at length releasing my hands, and recoiling from him.
‘I do not insult you,’ cried he: ‘I worship you. You are my angel – my divinity! I lay my powers at your feet – and you must and shall accept them!’ he exclaimed impetuously, starting to his feet – ‘I will be your consoler and defender! And if your conscience upbraid you for it, say I overcame and you could not choose but yield!’
I never saw a man so terribly excited. He precipitated himself towards me. I snatched up my palette-knife and held it against him. This startled him: he stood and gazed at me in astonishment; I dare say I looked as fierce and resolute as he. I moved to the bell and put my hand upon the cord. This tamed him still more. With a half-authoritative, half-deprecating wave of the hand, he sought to deter me from ringing.
‘Stand off, then!’ said I. He stepped back, – ‘And listen to me. – I don’t like you,’ I continued, as deliberately and emphatically as I could, to give greater efficacy to my words; ‘and if I were divorced from my husband – or if he were dead, I would not marry you. There now! I hope you’re satisfied.’
His face grew blanched with anger.
‘I am satisfied,’ he replied with bitter emphasis, ‘that you are the most cold-hearted, unnatural, ungrateful woman I ever beheld!’
As the story progresses, Helen crafts her elaborate plan to escape with her son and faithful attendant, an unlawful and unheard of doing, and readers hold their breath that she will pull it off. When finally she does, we rejoice with her!
‘Thank Heaven, I am free and safe at last!…Oh, what delight it was to be thus seated aloft, rumbling along the broad, sunshiny road, with the fresh morning breeze in my face, surrounded by an unknown country all smiling – cheerfully, gloriously, smiling in the yellow lustre of those early beams, – with my darling child in my arms, almost as happy as myself and my faithful friend beside me; a prison and despair behind me, receding farther, farther back at every clatter of the horses’ feet,- and liberty and hope before!’(373-374).
This is far from the end of Helen’s story, but to see this woman free herself, along with protecting her son, is a victory for sure. There is so much more writer Anne has to share with the reader around this situation, for instance how Helen never speaks badly about Arthur to their son, and ultimately does all she can to mitigate the fallout from her decision. Helen is in no way the cold-hearted woman she is accused to be by speaking up for herself and others and ultimately saving her own life.
Helen is an incredible role model and heroine created by Anne Brontë and ingeniously delivered through The Tenant.
As Langley explains in Anne Brontë: The Other One:
“Anne Brontë’s fiction is distinctive in its yoking of a strong moral end with an absolute fidelity to representing reality as she saw it….This moral emphasis, so different from her sisters’, may partially account for her less favourable reception…The distinctions between Anne and her better known sisters continue in the emphasis Anne puts on spiritual development. The goals of an Anne Brontë protagonist are to cultivate the spirit and to learn self-command or control as ways of lessening one’s vulnerability to the vicissitudes of life” (37).
I believe cultivating the spirit and developing self-control are worthy goals. Not the only goals, but worthy ones for sure.
“Anne Brontë is surely an author worthy of interest in her own right. Her thematic innovations place her in the forefront of feminist thought in the nineteenth century even as her formal and technical innovations demand that we look again at her contributions to the English novel”(60).
There is often the inclination to compare, and this temptation is even greater when there are siblings involved. Clearly all three Brontë sisters, Anne, Emily and Charlotte were beyond talented and wrote classic novels, ones that have stood the test of time and will continue to do so. There is no need to put one above the other, except perhaps as personal preference.
Also, it’s important to avoid lumping them together, as again, we often do with siblings, and to recognize each for her talents and contributions.
As Elizabeth Langley says, “If there are three geniuses, then we must count them three”( 60). Indeed.
Anne Brontë is a Nasty Woman Writer in her very own right.
© Maria Dintino 2022
Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1992.
Langland, Elizabeth. Women Writers Anne Brontë: The Other One. New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1989.