The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.jpg
Title-page of the first edition, 1848
Author Anne Brontë (as "Acton Bell")
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Epistolary novel, social criticism
Publisher Thomas Cautley Newby
Publication date
June 1848
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 3 vols., 492, ?, ?
ISBN 978-0-19-920755-8 (Oxford University Press : New York, 2008), ISBN 978-0-14-043474-3 (Penguin Classics, 1996), ISBN 978-1-85326-488-7 (Wordsworth Editions, Ltd., 1999)
OCLC 162118830
Preceded by Agnes Grey

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the second and final novel by the English author Anne Brontë. It was first published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell. Probably the most shocking of the Brontës' novels, it had an instant and phenomenal success, but after Anne's death her sister Charlotte prevented its re-publication.

The novel is framed as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend and brother-in-law about the events leading to his meeting his wife.

A mysterious young widow arrives at Wildfell Hall, an Elizabethan mansion which has been empty for many years, with her young son and servant. She lives there in strict seclusion under the assumed name Helen Graham and very soon finds herself the victim of local slander. Refusing to believe anything scandalous about her, Gilbert Markham, a young farmer, discovers her dark secrets. In her diary, Helen writes about her husband's physical and moral decline through alcohol, and the world of debauchery and cruelty from which she has fled. This novel of marital betrayal is set within a moral framework tempered by Anne's optimistic belief in universal salvation.[1]

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is mainly considered to be one of the first sustained feminist novels.[2] May Sinclair, in 1913, said that the slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. In leaving her husband, Helen violates not only social conventions, but also English law.[3]

Background and locations[edit]

Blake Hall, illustration, reproduced from photographs taken at the end of 19th century

Some aspects of the life and character of the author's brother Branwell Brontë correspond to those of Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant.[1] He resembles Branwell Brontë in three ways: physical good-looks, sexual adventures (before his affair with Mrs Robinson, Branwell is thought to have fathered an illegitimate child who died at birth[4]), and especially in his alcoholism.[1] Another character in the novel, Lord Lowborough, has an association with opium that may also reflect Branwell's behaviour.[5]

Another possible source for The Tenant is the story of Mrs Collins, the wife of a local curate, who in November 1840 came to Anne's father Patrick Brontë seeking advice regarding her alcoholic husband's abusive conduct. Mr Brontë's counsel was that she should leave her husband. Mrs Collins returned to Haworth in the spring of 1847, while Anne was writing The Tenant, and told how she had managed to build a new life for herself and her two children.[1]

The Brontё biographer Winifred Gérin believed that the original of Wildfell Hall was Ponden Hall,[6] a farmhouse near Stanbury in West Yorkshire. Ponden shares certain architectural details with Wildfell, including latticed windows and a central portico with a date plaque above.

Blake Hall at Mirfield, where Anne had been employed as a governess, was suggested as the model for Grassdale Manor, Arthur Huntingdon's country seat, by Ellen Nussey, a friend of Charlotte Brontë, to Edward Morison Wimperis, an artist commissioned to illustrate the Brontë sisters' novels in 1872. However, neither Blake Hall nor Thorpe Green, another house where Anne was employed as a governess, corresponds exactly with Grassdale.[6]

Linden-Car, the village that Wildfell Hall stands close to, is in Yorkshire. Car in northern dialect means pool, pond or low-lying and boggy ground. Lindenhope hope in Northeastern English means a small enclosed valley.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel is divided into three volumes.

Part One (Chapters 1 to 15): Gilbert Markham narrates how a mysterious widow, Mrs Helen Graham, arrives at Wildfell Hall, a nearby mansion. A source of curiosity for the small community, the reticent Mrs Graham and her young son Arthur are slowly drawn into the social circles of the village. Initially Gilbert Markham casually courts Eliza Millward, despite his mother's belief that he can do better. His interest in Eliza wanes as he comes to know Mrs Graham. In retribution Eliza spreads (and perhaps creates) scandalous rumours about Helen. With gossip flying, Gilbert is led to believe that his friend Mr Lawrence is courting Mrs Graham. At a chance meeting on a road Gilbert strikes the mounted Lawrence with a whip handle, causing him to fall from his horse. Though she is unaware of this confrontation, Helen Graham still refuses to marry Gilbert, but when he accuses her of loving Lawrence she gives him her diaries.

Part two (Chapters 16 to 44) is taken from Helen's diaries, in which she describes her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. The handsome, witty Huntingdon is also spoilt, selfish and self-indulgent. Before marrying Helen he flirts with Annabella, and uses this to manipulate Helen and convince her to marry him. Helen, blinded by love, marries him, and resolves to reform him with gentle persuasion and good example. After the birth of their only child, however, Huntingdon becomes increasingly jealous of their son (also called Arthur), and his claims on Helen's attentions and affections.

Huntingdon's pack of dissolute friends frequently engage in drunken revels at the family's home, Grassdale, oppressing those of finer character. Both men and women are portrayed as degraded. In particular, Annabella, now Lady Lowborough, is shown to be unfaithful to her melancholy but devoted husband.

Walter Hargrave, the brother of Helen's friend Milicent Hargrave, vies for Helen's affections. While he is not as wild as his peers, he is an unwelcome admirer: Helen senses his predatory nature when they play chess. Walter tells Helen of Arthur's affair with Lady Lowborough. When his friends depart Arthur pines openly for his paramour and derides his wife.

Arthur's corruption of their son — encouraging him to drink and swear at his tender age — is the last straw for Helen. She plans to flee to save her son, but her husband learns of her plans from her diary and burns the artist's tools with which she had hoped to support herself. Eventually, with help from her brother, Mr Lawrence, Helen finds a secret refuge at Wildfell Hall.

Part Three (Chapters 45 to 53) begins after Gilbert's reading of the diaries. Helen bids Gilbert to leave her because she is not free to marry. He complies and soon learns that she has returned to Grassdale because her husband is gravely ill. Helen's ministrations are in vain, and Huntingdon's death is painful since he is fraught with terror at what awaits him. Helen cannot comfort him, for he rejects responsibility for his actions and wishes instead for her to come with him to plead for his salvation.

A year passes. Gilbert pursues a rumour of Helen's impending wedding, only to find that Mr Lawrence, with whom he has reconciled, is marrying Helen's friend Esther Hargrave. Gilbert goes to Grassdale, and discovers that Helen is now wealthy and lives at her estate in Staningley. He travels there, but is plagued by anxiety that she is now far above his station. By chance he encounters Helen, her aunt and young Arthur. The two lovers reconcile and marry.


Helen and her family[edit]

  • Helen Lawrence Huntingdon, known also under her alias Helen Graham (Graham is her mother's maiden name), the protagonist of the novel and the tenant of the title. Wildfell Hall is the place where she and her brother were born. After their mother's death she goes to live with their aunt and uncle at Staningley Manor, while her brother, Frederick, remains with their father. In spite of their separation Helen has maintained an affectionate relationship with her brother and later he helps her to escape from her abusive and dissolute husband.
  • Master Arthur Huntingdon, five years old at the beginning of the book, the son of Arthur Huntingdon and Helen. He has a resemblance to his uncle, Frederick, which gives rise to gossip. He is grown up by the time of Gilbert's letter to Jack Halford, and is residing at Grassdale Manor with his wife, Helen Hattersley (the daughter of Milicent Hargrave and Ralph Hattersley).
  • Mr Maxwell, Helen's wealthy uncle, dies near the end of the novel and leaves Staningley to Helen.
  • Peggy Maxwell, Helen's aunt, tries to warn her against marrying Huntingdon. She dies several years after Helen's and Gilbert's marriage.
  • Frederick Lawrence, Helen's brother, helps her to escape from Huntingdon and lends her money. As he and Helen grew up apart and probably never visited each other before her first marriage, no one in Linden-Car village guessed that the secretive Mrs. Graham is actually Frederick's sister. Eventually he marries Esther Hargrave. Being in mourning for her husband, Helen is forced to miss her brother's wedding.

Huntingdon and his circle[edit]

  • Arthur Huntingdon, Helen's abusive and alcoholic husband, is a Byronic figure of great fascination but also of barely concealed moral failings.[7] His abusive behaviour impels Helen to run away from him, but nevertheless when he becomes ill (after falling from his horse when drunk and injuring his leg badly), Helen returns to Grassdale to take care of him. Unwilling to stop drinking alcohol, Huntingdon deteriorates in health and eventually dies. He is widely thought to be loosely based on the author's brother, Branwell,[8] but some critics have argued that, apart from their masses of red hair, they have little in common. Along with Lord Lowborough, Huntingdon bears far stronger resemblance to two types of drunkards outlined in Robert Macnish's The Anatomy of Drunkenness.[5]
  • Annabella Wilmot, later Lady Lowborough, Arthur Huntingdon's paramour, is flirtatious, bold and exquisitely beautiful. She has an affair with Arthur Huntingdon for several years. Helen ignores the affair, but when Annabella's husband discovers it, he divorces her. Gilbert says he hears that after Annabella moves to the continent, she falls into poverty and dies destitute and alone, but stresses he cannot be sure if this is true or merely a rumour.
  • Lord Lowborough, a friend of Huntingdon's and Anabella's husband, is apathetic but devoted. Melancholic, dour and gloomy, he is in complete contrast to Huntingdon. He used to gamble and drink too much alcohol and developed an addiction to opium, but after his financial ruin gradually reforms himself. Lowborough truly loves Annabella, and her infidelity brings him such suffering that only his Christian faith and strong will keep him from suicide. Later he divorces her and after some time marries a plain middle-aged woman, who makes a good wife to him and a stepmother to his children with Annabella — a son and a nominal daughter. Lord Lowborough also has some resemblances to Branwell, such as a life of debauchery, periods of remorse/religious torments, and opium, as well as moral weakness.[5]
  • Ralph Hattersley, a friend of Huntingdon's, marries Milicent because he wants a quiet wife who will let him do what he likes with no word of reproach or complaint. He mistreats his wife. "I sometimes think she has no feeling at all; and then I go on until she cries – and that satisfies me," he tells Helen. But after he reforms himself he becomes a loving husband and father.
  • Mr Grimsby, another of Arthur's friends, is a misogynist. He helps Arthur to conceal his affair with Annabella.

Inhabitants of Linden-Car Farm[edit]

  • Gilbert Markham, a twenty-four-year-old farmer, is the principal narrator in the novel. He exhibits jealousy, moodiness and anger, but during the course of the novel he grows morally and proves to be worthy of Helen.
  • Fergus Markham, Gilbert's 17-year-old brother, is high-spirited and idle, and often tries but fails to be witty.
  • Rose Markham, a clever and pretty girl of 19, is Gilbert's younger sister and a friend of the Millward sisters. She becomes the wife of Jack Halford, to whom Gilbert is recounting in letters what happened 20 years prior in his youth.
  • Mrs. Markham, Gilbert's mother, is a great admirer of the Reverend Millward and his ideas.

Inhabitants of Ryecote Farm[edit]

  • Jane Wilson, a friend of Eliza Millward and a scandalmonger, tries to ensnare Frederick Lawrence, but when Gilbert reveals to him her hatred of Frederick's sister Helen, Frederick breaks off their relationship. As no man she meets fits her high standards, she moves to a nearby country town, constantly name dropping, but friendless and, according to Helen, becomes a bitter spinister.
  • Richard Wilson, Jane's brother, succeeds the Reverend Millward in the vicarage of Lindenhope and eventually marries his daughter, the plain Mary.
  • Robert Wilson, brother to Jane and Richard, is a rough farmer whom Jane is ashamed of. However, everyone else approves of him as being pleasant and kind. He eventually marries, and Jane leaves the family home as she cannot stand him and his ordinary wife.
  • Mrs Wilson, the mother of Jane, Richard and Robert, is a gossip like her daughter.

Inhabitants of the Vicarage[edit]

  • Eliza Millward, daughter of the vicar and friend of Jane Wilson, is a scandalmonger. Gilbert carries on a half-serious flirtation with her before he first meets Helen.
  • Mary Millward, Eliza's elder sister, is a plain, quiet, sensible girl, housekeeper and family drudge. She is trusted and valued by her father, loved and courted by children and poor people, dogs and cats, and slighted and neglected by everybody else.
  • The Reverend Michael Millward, Eliza's and Mary's father, is a man of fixed principles, strong prejudices and regular habits. He considers anyone who disagrees with his views deplorably ignorant.

Inhabitants of The Grove[edit]

  • Walter Hargrave, a friend of Arthur Huntingdon's, is a dangerous admirer of Helen while she is still living with her husband. He is a cousin of Annabella Wilmot.
  • Milicent Hargrave, Walter's sister and Helen's close friend, is a meek woman married to Ralph Hattersley against her will, although with the lapse of time and Ralph's reform they start to love each other.
  • Esther Hargrave, the younger sister of Milicent and Walter, and Helen's friend, is bold, high-spirited and independent. She eventually marries Helen's brother, Frederick Lawrence.
  • Mrs Hargrave, mother of the three Hargrave children, is a hard and stingy woman. She adores her only son and tries to marry off her daughters as soon as possible.

Other characters[edit]

  • Mr Boarham, one of Helen's suitors before her marriage, is rejected because Helen is repelled by his dull conversation. Helen prefers to spell his name "Bore'em".
  • Mr Wilmot, the uncle of Annabella Wilmot, is another of Helen's early suitors. She considers him a scoundrel.
  • Rachel, a servant and friend of Helen and her son, has taken care of Helen since her birth.
  • Alice Myers, another paramour of the elder Huntingdon, is hired ostensibly as a governess for little Arthur. Helen is suspicious of her from the start (all the families she has previously worked for have conveniently gone abroad), and when Rachel gives her certain proof that Alice is having an affair with her husband, she decides to flee.
  • Benson, the butler at Grassdale Manor, has compassion for Helen in her misfortune and helps her escape.
  • Jack Halford, a squire, is the husband of Rose Markham and the addressee of Gilbert's letters. He is an unseen character.


The novel begins in 1847, but flashes back to the period from 1821 to 1830 before returning back.

  • 1792/3 Arthur Huntingdon born.
  • 1802/3 Helen Lawrence born at Wildfell Hall; Gilbert Markham born.
  • 1821 The beginning of Helen's diary (1 June). She is back from her first season in London where she met Arthur. Wedding of Helen and Arthur (20 December).
  • 1822 Helen reports the birth of her son, named also Arthur (5 December).
  • 1824 Helen reveals Arthur's affair with Annabella (7 October).
  • 1827 Helen flees to Wildfell Hall with Rachel and little Arthur (24 October).
  • 1828 Helen goes back to Grassdale to take care of Arthur (4 November); Arthur dies (5 December).
  • 1830 Gilbert and Helen are married (August).
  • 1847 Gilbert ends his letter to Jack Halford and the narrative (10 June).



Arthur Huntingdon and most of his male friends are heavy drinkers. Lord Lowborough is "the drunkard by necessity" "whom misfortune has overtaken, and who, instead of bearing up manfully against it, endeavors to drown his sorrows in liquor". Arthur, however, is the "drunkard from excess of indulgence in youth". Only Ralph Hattersley, husband of the meek Milicent, whom he mistreats, and Lord Lowborough reform their lives. Helen's undesirable admirer Walter Hargrave has never been such a heavy drinker as Arthur and his friends, and he indicates this to her in an attempt to win her favour. Arthur and Lord Lowborough particularly seem affected by the traditional signs of alcoholism.[9] They frequently drink themselves into incoherence and on awakening they drink again to feel better. Lord Lowborough understands that he has a problem and, with willpower and strenuous effort, overcomes his addiction. Arthur continues drinking even after he injures himself falling from a horse, which eventually leads to his death. Ralph, although he drinks heavily with his friends, does not seem to be as much afflicted by alcoholism as by his way of life. Mr Grimsby continues his degradation, going from bad to worse and eventually dying in a brawl. Huntingdon's son Arthur becomes addicted to alcohol through his father's efforts, but Helen begins to add to his wine a small quantity of tartar emetic, "just enough to produce inevitable nausea and depression without positive sickness". Very soon the boy begins to be made to feel ill by the very smell of alcohol.

Gender relations[edit]

Gilbert's mother, Mrs Markham, holds the doctrine prevailing at the time that it is "the husband's business to please himself, and hers [i.e. the wife's] to please him". The portrayal of Helen, courageous and independent, emphasises her capacity for seeking autonomy rather than submitting to male authority, and the corrective role of women in relation to men. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is thus considered a feminist novel by many critics.


The Tenant features numerous allusions to a wide range of other texts, from the Bible to contemporary novels. Apart from being used as a quotation, allusions are often applied by peculiar characters to reflect their personalities. Sometimes the individual voices of characters are shown as a patchwork of quotations. Such "borrowed voices" denote the displacement of the main heroes[1] – Gilbert, being a well-educated man with high ambitions for some "great achievements", is forced to take over his father’s farm, and Helen, being a runaway wife, can call neither her home nor her name her own.[2] Josephine McDonagh believes that the theme of displacement is underlined by the title of the novel: Helen is tenant, not an owner-occupier, of Wildfell Hall, the place of her birth, which was bequeathed to a male descendant, her brother. The emphasis on allusion in the novel, on using the language of others, according to McDonagh, may be a reflection on the position of being a tenant, which in its subjugation is similar to that of being a wife.[1]


Until the passing of the Married Women's Property Act in 1870 a wife had no independent existence under English law, and therefore no right to own property or to enter into contracts separately from her husband, or to sue for divorce, or for the control and custody of her children.[1] Helen is misled by ideas of romantic love and duty into the delusion that she can repair her husband's conduct.[9] Hattersley declares that he wants a pliant wife who will not interfere with his fun, but the truth is that he really wants quite the opposite. Milicent cannot resist her mother's pressure, so she marries Ralph against her will. Wealthy Annabella wants only a title, while Lord Lowborough truly and devotedly loves her. The social climber Jane Wilson seeks wealth.


Helen never forsakes her devotion to Christianity and its moral precepts, and after all her torments she is rewarded with wealth and a happy second marriage. Her best friend, the meek and patient Milicent Hargrave, humbly tolerates all her husband's vices before he reforms himself. Helen Huntingdon expresses several times in the story her belief in eventual universal salvation for all souls. She does not reassure the elder Arthur about this on his deathbed because she wants him to repent of his wrongdoing on his own accord.[1]


Helen escapes from her husband, in violation of English law as it then was, not for her own sake but for young Arthur's. She wants to "obviate his becoming such a gentleman as his father".

Woman artist[edit]

Helen's artistic ability plays a central role in her relationships with both Gilbert and Arthur. Her alternating freedom to paint and inability to do so on her own terms not only complicate Helen's definition as wife, widow and artist, but also enable Anne Brontë to criticize the domestic sphere as established by marriage and re-established with remarriage.[10]

At the beginning of her diary the young and unmarried Helen already defines herself as an artist. She writes that her drawing "suits me best, for I can draw and think at the same time". Her early drawings reveal her private and true feelings for Arthur Huntingdon, feelings that lead her to overlook his true character and lose herself to marriage. Nevertheless, in addition to revealing Helen's true desires, the self-expression of her artwork also defines her as an artist. That she puts so much of herself into her paintings and drawings attests to this self-definition.[10]

Nicole A. Diederich has argued that in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Anne Brontë constructs remarriage as a comparative and competitive practice that restricts Helen's rights and talents.[10]

Literary analysis[edit]

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall challenged the prevailing morals of the Victorian era. Especially shocking was Helen's slamming of her bedroom door in the face of her husband after continuing abuse. One critic went so far as to pronounce it "utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls", though another cited it as "the most entertaining novel we have read in a month past". It is considered by some critics to be a feminist novel. The main character, Helen, is spirited and forthright, unafraid to speak to the men in her life with frankness. Anne Brontë portrays her approvingly, in contrast to the meekness of Milicent who is trampled and ignored by her unrepentant husband. Helen leaves with her beloved son in tow.

Vice is not unique to the men, however. Lady Lowborough's adultery has a particularly devastating effect on her husband, and the malice of Eliza Millward is poisonous to the entire community. The eternal struggle between good and evil is emphasised by heavy use of biblical references: sinners who repent and listen to reason are brought within the fold, while those who remain stubborn tend to meet violent or miserable ends.

Themes of alcoholism, animal mistreatment, physical and emotional abuse, unhappy marriage, and escape from one's husband also appear in other novels by the Brontë sisters, but there is a marked difference between Charlotte's and Emily's romanticism, on the one hand, and Anne's realism and moralism, on the other.

Style and narrative[edit]


Unlike her elder sisters, Anne Brontë did not follow the Romantic style in her two novels, opting instead for Realism. Many critics, including Anne's sister Charlotte,[a] considered her depiction of alcoholism and adultery overly graphic and disturbing.[2] In defence, Anne openly stated her writer’s intentions in the preface to the second edition of the novel.

When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? [12]

Often, when depicting the same subject as her sisters, Anne presents it in completely different light. Wildfell Hall, an old superannuated mansion, she pictures not as a ‘haunted’ house like Thornfield Hall or Wuthering Heights in her sisters' works, but as a decayed relic of an outworn patrician class, whose pretensions are mocked by the recrudescence of building into moor. Stevie Davies has argued that Anne’s ancient hall demystifies Gothic. Wildfell Hall is not haunted, it is simply dilapidated, damp and un-welcoming.[2]

Anne’s portrayal of Arthur Huntigdon deflates Byronic cult – while witty, adventurous and handsome, he is not endowed with intellectual gifts, nor even vitality, famously exhibited by Heathcliff, and has nothing of the fundamental goodness that finally redeemed Rochester.[13] All Huntingdon's vices come from his being spoilt as a child. Analyzing the lack of sense and reason amongst males as the consequence of value-system based on the worship of machismo, Anne depicts the pathetic end of her main hero, brought on by his drinking habits. Totally dependent on his estranged wife in his final illness, Arthur Huntingdon ultimately loses all his personality.[2]

According to Caroline Franklin, Anne Brontë uses the Byronic paradigm "not to titillate, but to shock" – her protest against spousal abuse needs no scandal-mongering allusions to be sensational. The character of Helen Graham may have been inspired by Anna Isabella Milbanke, the wife of George Byron, who also thought at first that her religious obligation was to improve her husband's behavior, but very soon she got disillusioned, separated from him and raised their child alone. Despite this, she – like Helen – believed in the ultimate salvation of her husband’s soul.[14]

Sisters’ connection[edit]

Stevie Davies believes that the settings and characters in The Tenant are influenced by Anne’s juvenile fiction. In their childhood Emily and Anne Brontë created the imaginary kingdom of Gondal, about which they composed prose and poems. Thomas Moore’s biography of Byron, with its description of womanizing, gaming and carousing, directly influenced the Gondal mythos and was echoed in Brontë’s adult works. The characteristics of Arthur Huntington and Annabella Wilmot, both self-indulgent sexual transgressors, may be relics of Gondal, where most of the main heroes were extravagant and led adventurous lives.

Four houses in the younger Brontës’ novels have "W.H." initials: Wellwood House in Agnes Grey, the eponymous mansion in Wuthering Heights, and Wildfell Hall and Woodford Hall in The Tenant. Ur-hall in Gondal may be the source of inspiration for at least two of them — Wuthering Heights and Wildfell Hall.

Citing all this, Davies concludes that Charlotte’s statement that Anne "hated her work [on The Tenant]" is not credible.[2]

Framed narration[edit]

Notwithstanding Anne’s repudiation of the Gothic atmosphere, The Tenant’s narrative structure is common to Gothic fiction with the usage of framing narrator, letters and diary as clues to a whole truth. However, the narrator, Gilbert Markham, differs from his gothic predecessors in that he and the official standards he represents are shown to be in part the cause of the shocking reality he encounters.[15]

Unlike many critics, who consider The Tenant’s narrative structure as a flaw, Naomi Jacobs argues that "the displacement [of framing narration by the inner] is exactly the point of the novel, which subjects its readers to a shouldering-aside of familiar notions and comfortable perceptions of the world", and both narrations and jarring discrepancies of tone and perspective between them are essential to the purpose.[15]

In The Tenant, like in Wuthering Heights, a horrific reality of private life is obtained after passing through the voice of a framing narrator. According to Jacobs, the male narrator represents the public world, and the framed structure serves several functions that are strongly gender-related: it illustrates the process of going behind the official version of reality in order to approach the truth that the culture prefers to deny; it exemplifies the ways in which domestic reality is obscured by layers of conventional ideology; and it replicates the cultural split between male and female spheres that is shown to be one of the sources of the tragedy in the novel. Jacobs concludes that both Emily and Anne seemed to find it necessary, in approaching subjects that were considered to be controversial, to use the voice of a male narrator, appropriating, delegitimizing and even ridiculing his power, before telling anti-patriarchal truth.[15]

Chapters 16 to 44 are formed from Helen’s diary and strictly follow its style. It should be noted that Gilbert’s narrative is also taken from his own diary. Such adherence to the diaries is considered to be a ‘testimony of experience’.[2] Since the Renaissance writing a diary had been a popular form of documenting and expressing personal opinions.

According to Tess O’Toole, the architecture of Brontë’s narrative stresses and calls attention to the disjunction of two different forms of domestic containment, one deriving from marriage, the other from the natal family.[16]

Priti Joshi, noting Helen and Gilbert’s suspicion of spoken words and reliance on the visual, and their faith in the written word, concludes that a diary is a fitting narrative device because the characters require it, and that the epistolary narrative form reflects this faith.[17]

Direct speech[edit]

Josephine McDonagh believes that some of the stylistic features of The Tenant may be influenced by the print culture of the Brontës' time. For example, Anne’s concern to preserve the integrity of each of her narrators’ voices is similar to magazine structure that maintains the voice of individual contributors. The novel’s labyrinthine structure is established by the application of direct speech. Gilbert’s letter incorporates Helen’s diary; and in turn, Helen’s diary includes Arthur’s autobiographical reminiscences.[1]


From social comedy to social drama[edit]

Anne Brontë starts her novel in a social comedy manner, reminiscent of Jane Austen. Like Pride and Prejudice, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall starts with the arrival of a new person in a neighbourhood — a source of curiosity for a small rural community. Unlike Austen, Brontë makes a woman the center of interest. Reticent Mrs. Graham with her views on alcohol consumption and girls’ education, controversial for the 19th century, soon becomes an outcast.[2]

Domestic drama[edit]

Helen’s retreat from her husband is followed by a return to her natal family origins, symbolized by her return to the home in which she was born, and adoption of her mother’s maiden name as her alias. The relationship between Helen and Frederick, sister and brother, who spent all their childhood apart and reunited only as adults, is foregrounded to domestic reform – Frederick's virtue compensates for their father’s neglect of Helen, and their comfortable relationship, defined by their mutual respect and understanding, contrasts with Helen’s problematic relationship with her husband and her suitor.[16]

Tess O’Toole calls The Tenant "the most unusual example of 19th century domestic fiction", and attributes to that the relative marginalization of the novel in the Brontë sisters' oeuvre. According to O’Toole, Anne, unlike her elder sisters, seems to juxtapose rather than to collapse kinship and sexual relations. The relationship between Frederick and Helen remains insular and cannot solve all the problems or contradictions that cluster around the concept of the domestic.[16]

Novel of ideas[edit]

In the third chapter The Tenant changes tone to the novel of ideas. In a powerfully argued Miltonic debate about virtue, experience, choice and temptation, Helen challenges the segregated education of the two sexes, with its over-exposure for boys and over-protection for girls.[2]

The novel’s critique of libertine men may be influenced by the works of Mary Wollstonecraft.[1] Priti Joshi, believing that Anne had read her works, argues that she not only refuses the Wollstonecraftian indictment of the feminine, but also rejects its elevation, famously postulated by Hannah More. Anne Brontë’s feminism, in Joshi’s words, "forges a path between the extremes of Wollstonecraft-More spectrum". In The Tenant, a reformed masculinity emerges not, as More would have it, under the tutelage of a woman, but by emulating feminine ways. Anne presents the "idle talk" of Linden-Car villagers primary as a way of creating fellowship and community, not only as vicious gossip. According to Joshi, the gossip of middle-class Linden-Car functions not as a critique of the behavior, but rather to heighten its contrast with the chilling atmosphere of the upper-class estate.[17]

While refusing to believe whispered insinuations, the main heroes are led astray by precisely the evidence of their eyes: Gilbert, spying Helen walking with Frederick, mistakenly takes them to be lovers, and Helen’s naïve empiricism leads her to disastrous marriage. Helen’s faith in the written word and the class reserve that lead her to confide her troubles to diary, "the best friend I could have for the purpose [of a confidential talk]", is also shown as folly when her husband confiscates the diary and reads its contents.[17]

In The Tenant Anne challenges the central tenet of domestic ideology – women’s influence on men – that More articulates. This doctrine found its way into even "protofeminist" novels such as Jane Eyre, where the main heroine fulfills (or reduces) her ambitions for a wider life by taming and managing her husband. In The Tenant, however, masculinity is impervious to the softening or "superior" influence of women. Marrying Arthur, Helen is convinced that she can reform him, but six years later she escapes from him to protect herself and her young son. Helen’s second husband, Gilbert Markham, who despite many faults is "more pliable", never shows any noticeable reform throughout the novel. Joshi concludes that Gilbert is "tottering toward a new form of masculinity" together with Jack Halford, "a closer friend than even [his sister]", by exchanging[b] confidences and, by learning to communicate and reveal emotions, doing what is considered to be feminine, he can redeem himself, become a new man and a worthy husband of Helen.[17]


A great success on initial publication, the novel was almost forgotten in subsequent years. When it became due for a reprint, just over a year after Anne's death, Charlotte prevented its re-publication. Some believe that Charlotte's suppression of the book was to protect her younger sister's memory from further onslaughts.[18] Others believe Charlotte was jealous of her younger sister. Even before Anne's death Charlotte had criticised the novel, stating in a letter to W.S. Williams: "That it had faults of execution, faults of art, was obvious, but faults of intention of feeling could be suspected by none who knew the writer. For my part, I consider the subject unfortunately chosen – it was one the author was not qualified to handle at once vigorously and truthfully. The simple and natural – quiet description and simple pathos – are, I think Acton Bell's forte. I liked Agnes Grey better than the present work."[18]

Mutilated Text[edit]

Although the publishers respected Charlotte's wishes, shortly before her death in 1854 the London firm of Thomas Hodgson issued a one-volume edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.[19] Hodgson performed extensive editing of the novel, removing many sections, including the opening letter to Jack Halford and the chapter headings. Other omissions ranged from single words to almost complete chapters (such as the 28th); some sections were completely rearranged in an attempt to compensate for the omissions. Most subsequent English editions, including those eventually produced by Charlotte's publisher, Smith, Elder & Co., followed this mutilated text. These copies are still prevalent today, despite notes on their covers claiming them to be complete and unabridged. In 1992, Oxford University Press published the Clarendon Edition of the novel, which is based on the first edition, but incorporating the preface and the corrections presented in the second edition.


Radio show version[edit]

Ten episodes aired from 28 November to 9 December 2011 on BBC Radio 4, with Hattie Morahan as Helen, Robert Lonsdale as Gilbert and Leo Bill as Arthur.[20]

Television versions[edit]

The novel has twice been adapted for television by the BBC. The first version, made in 1968, starred Janet Munro, Corin Redgrave and Bryan Marshall. Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, Rupert Graves and James Purefoy starred in the second version, made in 1996.

Theatre and musical versions[edit]

The novel was also adapted as a three-act opera at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with music composed by Garrett Hope and libretto by Steven Soebbing.

The University of British Columbia adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall premiered in October 2015, adapted by Jacqueline Firkins and directed by Sarah Rogers.[21]

References in culture[edit]

In the Downton Abbey Christmas special (2011) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the book title acted out by Lady Mary Crawley in the Christmas charade.

The story of Helen Graham is mentioned in Elizabeth George's 1988 novel A Great Deliverance. Her name is also used as a secret code.

Tina Connolly's 2013 novel Copperhead was inspired by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The name of the heroine is Helen Huntingdon and she also has a disastrous marriage.[22]

Sam Baker's 2016 novel The Woman Who Ran takes inspiration from radical themes of Anne's novel. The heroine is a woman also called Helen, who she hides from her past (in an abusive marriage) in a present-day Yorkshire village.[23][24]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase "tied to the apron strings" first appeared in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:


  1. ^ In her letter to W.S. Williams on 5 September 1850 Charlotte wrote: "The choice of subject in [The Tenant] is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer."[11]
  2. ^ Note that Gilbert offers his story as a "coin", the "first instalment of [his] debt", that indicates emotional clumsiness even in his older self.[17]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j McDonagh, Josephine (2008). "Introduction and Additional Notes". The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-920755-8. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Davies, Stevie (1996). "Introduction and Notes". The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-043474-3. 
  3. ^ "Anne Brontë at A Celebration of Women Writers". Mary Mark Ockerbloom. Retrieved 30 September 2012. 
  4. ^ Barker, Juliet (2007). The Brontes (2 ed.). Overlook Press. pp. 334–335. ISBN 978-1-58567-363-6. 
  5. ^ a b c Thormählen, Marianne (October 1993). "The Villain of "Wildfell Hall": Aspects and Prospects of Arthur Huntingdon". The Modern Language Review. Modern Humanities Research Association. 88 (4): 831–841. JSTOR 3734417. 
  6. ^ a b Dinsdale, Ann (2008). "Geographical sittings". The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Worth Press Limited. ISBN 978-1-903025-57-4. 
  7. ^ Website of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth
  8. ^ Anne Brontë (Website)
  9. ^ a b The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Themes
  10. ^ a b c A. Diederich, Nicole (2003). "The Art of Comparison: Remarriage in Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall". Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association. 57 (2): 25–41. JSTOR 1348391. 
  11. ^ Barker, The Brontës, p. 654
  12. ^ Barker, The Brontës, p. 532
  13. ^ Franklin, The Female Romantics, p. 127
  14. ^ Franklin, The Female Romantics, p. 128
  15. ^ a b c Jacobs, N.M. (1986). "Gender and Layered Narrative in "Wuthering Heights" and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall"". The Journal of Narrative Technique. Journal of Narrative Theory. 16 (3): 204–219. JSTOR 30225153. 
  16. ^ a b c O’Toole, Tess (1999). "Siblings and Suitors in the Narrative Architecture of "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall"". Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Rice University. 39 (4): 715–731. JSTOR 1556270. 
  17. ^ a b c d e Joshi, Priti (2009). "Masculinity and Gossip in Anne Brontë's "Tenant"". Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Rice University. 49 (4): 907–924. JSTOR 40467510. 
  18. ^ a b The Novels of Anne Brontë
  19. ^ The Mutilated Texts of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  20. ^ The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Episode guide
  21. ^ World premiere of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opens the Department of Theatre and Film’s 64th season
  22. ^ Copperhead at BronteBlog
  23. ^ Sam Baker's new thriller The Woman Who Ran takes inspiration from radical themes of Anne Brontë
  24. ^ Ellis, Samantha (29 January 2016). "The Woman Who Ran by Sam Baker review – 21st‑century take on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 1 March 2016. 
  25. ^ Apron strings, tied to at


External links[edit]

The novel online[edit]