The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Title-page of the first edition, 1848
|Author||Anne Brontë (as "Acton Bell")|
|Genre||Epistolary novel, social criticism|
|Publisher||Thomas Cautley Newby|
|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)|
|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.
May Sinclair, in 1913, said that the slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. In escaping her husband, Helen violates not only social conventions, but also English law.
- 1 Background and locations
- 2 Plot summary
- 3 Characters
- 4 Timeline
- 5 Themes
- 6 Analysis
- 7 Suppression
- 8 Mutilated Text
- 9 Adaptations
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Background and locations
Some aspects of the life and character of the author's brother Branwell Brontë correspond to those of Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant. 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), and especially in his alcoholism. Another character in the novel, Lord Lowborough, has an association with opium that may also reflect Branwell's behaviour.
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.
The Brontё biographer Winifred Gérin believed that the original of Wildfell Hall was Ponden Hall, 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.
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.
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. He encounters Helen, her aunt and young Arthur by chance. The two lovers reconcile and marry.
Helen and her family
- 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 helped 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. Eventually he marries Esther Hargrave.
Huntingdon and his circle
- Arthur Huntingdon, Helen's abusive and alcoholic husband, is a Byronic figure of great fascination but also of barely concealed moral failings. 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, but some critics have argued that, apart from their masses of red hair, they have little in common. As well as Lord Lowborough, Huntingdon bears far strongest resemblance to two types of drunkards outlined in Robert Macnish's The Anatomy of Drunkenness.
- 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, however 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 Annabella 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.
- 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
- 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 who 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 Millward sisters. She becomes the wife of Jack Halford, to whom Gilbert is recounting what happened 20 years prior in his youth, through the medium of letter-writing.
- Mrs. Markham, Gilbert's mother, is a great admirer of the Reverend Millward and his ideas.
Inhabitants of Ryecote Farm
- 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 and unattractive Mary.
- Robert Wilson, brother to Jane and Richard, is a rough farmer whom Jane is ashamed of. He however is approved of by everyone else 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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 to 1847.
- 1793 Arthur Huntingdon born.
- 1803 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 The younger Arthur born at Grassdale Manor (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. 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.
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.
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. Helen is misled by ideas of romantic love and duty into the delusion that she can repair her husband's conduct. 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 does want him to repent of his wrongdoing on his own accord.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 adverse onslaughts on her. 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."
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. 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 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
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
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.
References in culture
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.
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.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase "tied to the apron strings" first appeared in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:
|“||Even at his age, he ought not to be always tied to his mother’s apron string.||”|
- McDonagh, Josephine (2008). "Introduction and Additional Notes". The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-920755-8.
- Davies, Stevie (1996). "Introduction and Notes". The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-043474-3.
- "Anne Brontë at A Celebration of Women Writers". Mary Mark Ockerbloom. Retrieved 30 September 2012.
- Barker, Juliet (2007). The Brontes (2 ed.). Overlook Press. pp. 334–335. ISBN 978-1-58567-363-6.
- 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.
- Dinsdale, Ann (2008). "Geographical sittings". The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Worth Press Limited. ISBN 978-1-903025-57-4.
- Website of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth
- Anne Brontë (Website)
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Themes
- 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.
- The Novels of Anne Brontë
- The Mutilated Texts of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Episode guide
- World premiere of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opens the Department of Theatre and Film’s 64th season
- Copperhead at BronteBlog
- Sam Baker's new thriller The Woman Who Ran takes inspiration from radical themes of Anne Brontë
- 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.
- Apron strings, tied to at Wordorigins.org
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- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall information and free ebook
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1968) at the Internet Movie Database
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996) at the Internet Movie Database
The novel online
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1848. Scanned first edition, first, second and third volumes from Internet Archive.
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on Open Library at the Internet Archive
- Online edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the prologue and the chapters headings included at AnneBronte.com
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at Project Gutenberg
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall public domain audiobook at LibriVox