I’ve been listening to a podcast called Bonnets at Dawn, which has me rereading all of Jane Austen’s works, while introducing me to Brontë works with which I was previously unfamiliar. I was just getting ready to read Villette by Charlotte Brontë for a few episodes thy had comparing the book to Persuasion, but before I could get to it, they announced they would be doing a read-along of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. I had never read anything by Anne before, but Lauren had called her the “gateway Brontë” for Austen fans, so I was intrigued. Also, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is only 450 pages, whereas Villette is 650, so Tenant won by being shorter.
There’s no denying the book is well written, but I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it. It’s written as a series of letters, with most of the book consisting of diary entries. I’m not normally a fan of the epistolary format, but this book didn’t really feel like a series of letters, mostly because the “letters” were so long (often going on for chapters without any kind of signature) that it let the reader forget about the letters.
The story is told from the perspective of a young farmer named Gilbert Markham who’s living his life until it’s suddenly interrupted by a young widow, Helen Graham, moving into town with her young son, Arthur. Since it’s such a small town, a new person moving in causes quite a commotion and the small town is soon full of gossip about the mysterious Mrs. Graham. Rumors begin to circulate that her landlord, Frederick Lawrence, is actually Arthur’s father. Gilbert (who has a crush on Mrs. Graham) is incensed on behalf of Mrs. Graham’s honor, until he accidentally eavesdrops on the pair having a private conversation. Since it’s taken completely out of context, Gilbert interprets it to mean the rumors are true and he stops speaking to Mrs. Graham without an explanation.
Then he runs into Mr. Lawrence while he’s out on a business errand, let’s his temper get the better of him, beats Mr. Lawrence, and leaves him for dead on the side of the road. He eventually regrets his impulsive actions and comes back to find Mr. Lawrence, but by that time he has disappeared. It turns out he’s fine and recuperating in his own home.
In the meantime, when Mrs. Graham finally confronts Gilbert about the distance he has recently put between them, he admits to having overheard the two of them together and to believing the rumors are true (although he neglects to mention anything about beating up Mr. Lawrence and leaving him bleeding by the side of the road). She berates him for not trusting her, but then she places an immeasurable amount of trust in him by giving him her diary.
Who does that? Who places that much trust in someone immediately after having told them how untrustworthy they are? I just could not get on board with that.
That said, most of the rest of the book is comprised of Helen’s diaries (at this point, we come to know her as Helen, since the name Mrs. Graham was a pseudonym). The portion of her diary Helen gives to Gilbert (which he is “now” copying into a series of letters to a friend of his, which – what? Who does that? Again with the serious breach of trust, dude!) starts as Helen is meeting and falling in love with Arthur Huntingdon. They are both upper class and Helen’s aunt (her mother is dead, so her aunt and uncle act as her guardians) warns Helen to be smart when she marries and Helen promises she will, but they both quote the Bible on love and marriage with different interpretations, which was actually a pretty interesting theological discussion.
Helen then proceeds to ignore all her aunt’s warnings and marry Arthur despite several warning signs that he’s not a good guy. He plays mind games with her and flirts with other women while courting her, and once they’re engaged he brags about how he and his friends have lured a friend of theirs with a drinking and gambling problem back into the world of drinking when it’s clearly not for his own good. To Arthur it’s all just a game. Helen is horrified, but she marries him anyway.
Things go from bad to worse. They live in the country and during the country season Arthur spends a lot of time hunting and when the weather isn’t good for hunting he mopes around the house (he apparently doesn’t read or write or do anything productive). During the London season he’s in London, which Helen hates because she loves the country and Arthur’s bad habits are significantly worse in London. At one point he sends her back home, despite her indication that she wants to be with him. It’s clear he’s up to no good when he’s in London without her, but he keeps putting off his homecoming until he finally can’t put it off anymore.
When he does come home, Helen convinces him to put off drinking and gambling for a while, but it doesn’t last. He “must” go back to London and have his friends over for nights of drunken debauchery. Through it all, Helen is convinced she can be a good influence on him and convince him to become a better man, until she discovers he’s having an affair with his friend’s wife in Helen’s own house.
At that point Helen renounces him and says they are husband and wife in name only. By that time they have a son, also named Arthur, and Helen worries for his soul. Since so much indulgent drinking and gambling is a sin, and his father convinces him to drink to the point of drunkenness, Helen is worried that he will be a bad influence on her son. But kids will do what pleases their parents, and while her husband is around, Helen has no influence over her son, so she teaches him to hate alcohol by waiting until her husband was away and then feeding their son small amounts of poison with alcohol – just enough to make him sick and associate that sickness with alcohol. It’s a dangerous balancing act, but it has the desired effect.
But it’s not enough. Arthur is still telling his son things to turn him against his mother, who eventually decides the only way to save him is to get him away from his father. After one failed escape attempt, she manages to get her son away from her husband, with the help of her brother (who is none other than Mr. Lawrence! *gasp*) and to Wildfell Hall, of which she is currently the tenant.
That brings us up to speed and back to Gilbert, who has a lot to digest. He manages to make amends with Mr. Lawrence and Helen (who still doesn’t know that Gilbert beat up her brother and left him for dead), but just as he does, he finds out Helen has run back to her husband and they’ve been reunited. It turns out he’s on the brink of death and no one else was willing to stay and nurse him (surprise, surprise). So Helen goes because, despite it all, she still loves him. He promises to repent, but as soon as he feels a little better, he goes back to drinking, which promptly makes him sick again until he eventually dies.
Arthur doesn’t hear from Helen for a long while after that, but when he does eventually run into her by accident she’s a wealthy heiress, having inherited both her husband’s and her uncle’s fortunes. She kind of proposes to him, and despite my Gilbert misgivings, I thought that scene was rather sweet.
I don’t have any personal experience with addiction, but the people on the Bonnets and Dawn Facebook group who do found this to be very true to life – Arthur’s behavior, as well as Helen’s reaction to it, her continued attachment to him, and her decision to leave to keep her son safe.
Anne never married and never had children of her own, but her brother, Branwell, was an alcoholic at a time when alcoholism was a new phenomenon, so there was a lot of discussion regarding how much of this was taken from Anne’s personal history (it’s been said Charlotte didn’t like the book and had it discontinued after Anne’s death, despite it’s popularity, not because she was jealous of her sister’s success, but because she thought Anne was airing their family’s dirty laundry).
There was also a lot of discussion about how the book addresses women’s dependence on their husbands and how they’re expected to stick it out no matter how dangerous the situation becomes for them. Apparently Anne’s father, Patrick Brontë, once counseled a woman in a similar situation to leave her husband. She did and later came back and thanked him for his advice, telling him how she had managed to turn her life around without the dead weight of her husband. There’s been a lot of talk around how this book may have been at least partially inspired by those discussions (for which Anne was present and she mentions in her letters). It was also a more general social criticism of society and how women were required to forfeit all their money and property to their husbands when they got married and how maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.
All that being said, I enjoyed reading this book and I loved being able to be a part of the discussion that happened online and on the podcast, but I didn’t love the book. Gilbert in particular made presumptions and had violent reactions that I cannot overlook. He’s definitely a bad lad in my book and doesn’t deserve Helen.
What did you guys read this week. Any other new-to-you classics?