As of this posting, which I scheduled, I am probably hard at work figuring out who is going to win this whole Brontë-off thing. I have a whole scoring system that I DEFINITELY DIDN’T MAKE UP TODAY and there will be numbers involved just so I can remove my own preferences from the whole thing. But… that being said… if I could pick a favorite, it would be this one.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has some weaknesses, most of these related to the structuring of the novel. But characterization and trope-reversal come as a result of that structure, so I’m willing to bet that Anne decided those weaknesses would just have to be a bi-product of the story she wanted to tell. I’m sure all of us as writers have run into issues that basically come down to a choice between which issues you want. Writing has limitations; it’s up to us to decide which ones we want to bring upon ourselves.
Another weakness, and this is just for me, is all the damn Bible quoting. I know this is a thing from that time and the whole point of the novel is that the main character–the eponymous tenant–is trying to save someone through her virtuous love, but fails, but the whole stretches of Helen attempting to “save” her husband… well, I hate being proselytized to, so I kinda found myself sympathizing with the cad at that moment. Which is problematic as we’re kinda supposed to hate him and everything he stands for. But it’s just so obnoxious when people foist their religion onto you that I had to push through. When Helen finally gives up on saving him and I’m free of her moralisms, I feel much better about her. Good for you, girl, for realizing you can’t save your man! Although… maybe preaching at someone…
But again, this is just me. Religiosity is an important part of the Brontë sisters lives, and a big part of the entire Romantic heroine ideal. Jane Eyre’s virtuous piety is part of what allows her to attract and then ultimately save Mr. Rochester. The lack of abstemious religion in Wuthering Heights is… notable. So there was no way we were going to escape the religion in this book. It’s a trope of Brontë. It just feels more obtrusive in this novel than it did in any of the others. More… obvious. I have to give credit to Charlotte and Emily for doing this better.
That said… there is something that this novel has that the others don’t: realism. There is a certain kind of reality on the page that just doesn’t exist in the books of Anne’s sisters. And that realism is exactly why I love this book more than the others (though the essay at the beginning of my version evidently disagreed…).
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins with Gilbert Markham. He lives a pretty normal life as a farmer, he thinks he’s in love with the preacher’s daughter, and is mostly content with things as they are. His mother is a bit overbearing (and obviously favors Gilbert), his brother is a teenager (which should explain everything), and his sister is his favorite sibling. In fact, it is to sister Rose’s husband that Gilbert is writing, as this novel’s framing device is epistolary in nature. Everything is fine. Then someone moves into town: a beautiful young widow has settled into Gothic ruin (it wouldn’t be a Brontë novel without a Gothic ruin, would it?) Wildfell Hall. She is remote, not terribly warm, and doesn’t–in general–like people. In fact, she is basically a Byronic heroine, which is one of those amazing trope-reversals I loved so much in this novel. I forgive the slight clunky framing for the chance to watch the mangenue (male ingénue) fall in love with the cold, distant Byronic hero of his dreams. It’s delicious. Actually, this first section of the novel is probably my favorite. I like Gilbert’s voice better than Helen’s, and I like Helen from the outside better than inside Helen’s head.
Well, obviously, Helen and Gilbert do fall in love. But then… it turns out she isn’t a widow at all! She has run away from her abusive husband and is in hiding from him, eking out a living by selling her paintings. Let’s just stop the narrative train for a moment here and talk about this. Helen Huntingdon (her married name– she goes by Graham during this portion of the novel) might be a tad too religious for my tastes, but when the chips are down and she has to save her son (because, if not for her son, she would have braved it out staying with her husband), she is willing to flout everything. Women belong to their husbands at this time, as do all the children. Helen’s own religion teaches her this, and she is very faithful (as we’ve discussed). But despite that, she leaves her husband, takes the kid, and sets up shop as a fricken painter (!) in a place where no one knows her but her brother whom she has barely seen since childhood. And, of course, no one knows that he’s her brother. Secrets and stuff. How incredibly brave! This is brave even for modern women, who still often have difficulty getting away from abusive lovers/spouses/family. But for a Victorian woman (and this novel was written during the early Victorian years)! It’s a revelation! In fact, it was something of a scandal.
The majority of the novel is taken up by Helen’s diary, which she gives to Gilbert as an explanation of what has happened. (Basically, Gilbert is a bit of a dick. To put it waaaay mildly. But, to his credit, when Helen says no, let’s just be friends, he really does stop pressuring her and, though not content, is mostly able to sublimate his own feelings to make her comfortable. So… YAY Gilbert!) We meet charming man Arthur Huntingdon, who decides to sweep Helen off her feet and take her away to his house as his bride. There is some Rochester here. Actually, the way I liken it is that this is what Rochester really would have been like if not viewed through the lens of Gothic Romance. He demands love without question, adoration without cessation, and refuses to stop his carousing no matter how much Helen asks. She has married him to save him, walking into the connection knowing he is a cad but thinking her virtuous love will show him the way. But, unlike other such novels, there is reality: she can’t. She can’t change him and he only grows worse. It is to Helen’s credit that she eventually gives up, though some part of her is always sad that she couldn’t “fix” him.
There’s a certified Toxic Nice Guy in the mix, too, pretending to be Helen’s friend, but really secretly wanting her to become his lover. (Modern me is like, “why not? You and your husband are basically separated. Do it.” But of course that’s not possible. Helen is still virtuous. She and Jane share this personality trait. I would’ve run off with Rochester to the Mediterranean.) And he really is quite the asshole, too. When she finally turns him down, he refuses to have anything more to do with her. This is obviously juxtaposition for Gilbert who, while still exhibiting some of the problematic nature of the Gothic hero, is nonetheless able to respect Helen’s wishes. Or, more to the point, Helen is able to control him more easily.
The novel ends in Gilbert’s voice as he promises to wait six months before writing, but never writes because he never hears from her and assumes she wants nothing to do with him. Eventually, he hears she’s getting married and decides to go off and storm the wedding, but it’s actually her brother who’s getting married and yay! Then he finds out Helen is a rich heiress and decides she’s too far above him to marry, so he’s going to take a look at her house and bid adieu. Of course, he loiters outside the house so long, miserable, Helen happens to drive by. They are reunited. They love one another. And they get married. Because, right… at some point during the novel, Arthur dies. Miserably. Probably from complications related to alcoholism and syphilis. OK, I added the syphilis bit, but… he does cheat on Helen a lot. It’s good she refuses to sleep with him or she might have caught something.
I love this novel. Aside from the bits where Helen gets preachy, I love it. It’s a deliberate repudiation, in may ways, of the Brontë style, pulling back the curtain on the so-called romantic natures of her sisters’ books. I mean, no one should consider Heathcliff a romantic hero, but some people do. Why? I don’t know. But they do. And Anne comes down hard on the idea that the sexes should be educated differently. Oh, and she runs off from her husband and sets herself up as a painter. Have I mentioned that? I think I have. But it deserves mentioning again. There’s a reason some critics hold this up as an early feminist novel.
I adore it.
Now. What to pair. No cordials or deep red wines for this. Helen is understandably suspicious of alcohol, too, so I want to choose something a little lighter and with a lower alcohol content. So, for the purposes of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I am choosing… Moscato! That light, sweet, slighty fizzy dessert wine (or even aperitif) with hints of peach and orange that’ll dance over your tongue and not impair your judgment. Moscat grapes are also good for eating and for making raisins, so if you’re really against drinking, you can do that, too. But remember to have no more than a glass or two! For Helen’s sake.