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Disturbing 19th-century sensibilities

04 August 2017

Michael Wheeler enjoys Anne Brontë’s radical novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

DIT Archive/Alamy

Steady Anne Brontë: a portrait of the author based on a painting by her brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë.

Steady Anne Brontë: a portrait of the author based on a painting by her brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë.

WHEREAS Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights hold secure places in the English literary canon, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has always been regarded as something of an enigma. The first reviewers, in 1848, wrestled with a book that sometimes reads like a Christian conduct book, and at others goes far beyond the norms of Victorian respectability in its presentation of alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, and acts of adultery.

These reviewers had no idea that “Acton Bell”, the pseudonymous author, was the steady Anne, the younger Brontë sister, who had held firmly to a more orthodox Christian faith than her sisters’ as she witnessed the descent of her beloved brother, Branwell, into addiction to drink and drugs in the last three years of his life.

Anne’s heroine, Helen Huntingdon, aka “Mrs Graham”, conforms to the ideal of the conduct books as the female guardian of her husband’s soul, and that of her beloved son. In her journal, she records her husband’s return from a debauch that leaves him “flushed and feverish, listless and languid”. “I will forgive him, freely and entirely,” she writes. “I will shame him into virtue if I can.” Fearful now, but not without hope, she is soon to give thanks on becoming a mother: “God has sent me a soul to educate for heaven, and given me a calmer bliss.”

Like Coleridge in “Frost at Midnight”, she regards the sleeping baby boy as “stainless yet as that pure snow, new fallen from Heaven”. Years later, however, when young Arthur’s worrying taste for “intoxicating liquors” has been fostered by his father, Helen is reduced to adding an emetic to his drinks by way of “aversion therapy”.

Modern critics are also undecided about the novel’s complicated narrative structure. Chapters 1-15 are presented in the form of letters from the protagonist, Gilbert Markham, to J. Halford, Esq., drawing on a long tradition of epistolary fiction. Addressed as “old boy” on the first page, Halford is soon forgotten by the reader, until his name is abruptly reintroduced from time to time, as at the end of chapter 6.

When Markham’s and Helen’s mutual attraction meets an impasse, at the end of chapter 15, Helen thrusts her journal into his hand, having first torn out the final leaves in which Markham himself figures, thus allowing him and us to learn the truth concerning her marital status by reading it (chapters 16-44).

In the final chapters (45-53), the novel returns to the epistolary mode, as Markham takes up the narrative with the rather stilted question: “Well, Halford, what do you think of all this?”, and in the later stages transcribes letters sent from Helen to her brother describing her ministrations to Huntingdon in the final stages of his life.

So, whereas Wuthering Heights is a brilliant example of “Chinese box” narration, which deepens the novel’s ambiguity, and Jane Eyre holds the reader’s attention through its direct first-person narration, The Tenant is a rather awkward hybrid.

Nevertheless, this shuttling of the narrative between the two central characters accentuates not only their gender differences, but also the novel’s critique of stereotypical concepts of male and female spheres. It also complements other thematic polarities from which the book’s energy is generated, the most significant of which is the tension between “Victorian” values, broadly defined, and late-Georgian manners.

Many Victorian readers of 1848 would have sympathised with Markham’s judgemental mother, when she expresses narrow opinions concerning Helen in the opening chapters. Yet the central and final sections of the novel will unsettle these, as the true nature of “Mrs Graham’s” situation is revealed, and the inner movements of her mind and sensibility subtly traced in her journal and letters.

The language of the Bible that Helen holds sacred is corrupted in the “deuces”, “damnations”, and “hellfires” exchanged between Huntingdon and his drinking friends in front of the ladies, and that are redolent of Byron (whose wife may have been a model for Helen) and the Regency bucks, who, in turn, looked back to the world of the 18th-century Hellfire Club.

Huntingdon comes to judgement as he descends from an initial condition that he describes as an “infernal fire” in his veins, in the manner of Charlotte’s Rochester, or Emily’s Heathcliff, to the torments of his final illness, when he declares that he is “in hell, already”.

Meanwhile, the harrowing episode in the shrubbery, when Helen witnesses her husband’s infidelity, is followed by Mr Hargrave’s attempt to exploit her vulnerable position by suggesting that she transfer her affections from her errant husband to him, thus raising his “devoted heart from purgatorial torments to a state of heavenly bliss”. Again, the heroine’s sacred language has been debased in the mouth of a man.

Charlotte Brontë domesticates the Gothic in Jane Eyre, taming the aptly named Rochester, empowering Jane through a legacy and ending with Christian matrimony (“Reader, I married him”). Wuthering Heights is more radical: the novel ends with a ruined kirk, and unresolved stories of hauntings. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall offers a “happy” resolution of the love plot, but is in some ways more radical than either of the canonical novels in its extensive treatment of the heroine’s experience of hell on earth.

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton, Chairman of Gladstone’s Library, and a Lay Canon Emeritus of Winchester Cathedral.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë is published by Oxford University Press at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-19-920755-8).


On its first publication, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was felt by critics to be “vulgar”, “coarse”, and “brutal”. Do you agree with these assessments?

“Matrimony is a serious thing.” What did you think of the novel’s portrayal of marriage?

What did you make of the interplay between passion and discipline, or wildness and restraint, in the book?

Anne Brontë’s novel is full of deplorable male behaviour. Ought we to have any sympathy for Huntingdon, and Hargrave, and their friends?

What part does romance play in the novel? Is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a romantic book?

Brontë’s book is full of allusions to scripture, and Helen subscribes to the doctrine of universal salvation. To what extent is there a sense of “God’s plan” in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, whether for the characters or over the course of the novel itself?

“You are too religious.” What lessons does the novel have for Christians who are struggling with life in a secular world?

What did you think of the portrayal of childhood and parenthood in the novel?

“‘It’s all these cursed women!’” How did you react to the many models of femininity demonstrated by the book’s female characters?

Much has changed since The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in 1848, not least divorce law, and social attitudes to alcohol and addiction. In what ways might the novel be different were it to be written today?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 8 September, we will print extra information about our next book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, timefullness, and gentle discipleship by John Swinton. It is published by SCM Press at £19.99 (CT Bookshop special offer price £14.99); 978-0-334-05557-0.


Book notes
Becoming Friends of Time offers a solution for the modern age’s struggles with the ever hastening pace of life. Enlisting the perspective of people with profound neurological disabilities, the book outlines the compromises that come with our enthralment to the demands of the clock, and shows how we might consider time not only as a gift of God to humans, but also a gift that humans can render back to God. By engaging with people whose understanding of time is altered by trauma or illness, John Swinton’s book sets out a form of discipleship focused on relationship and community, embracing the rhythms of “timefullness” rather than measuring life in hours, minutes, and seconds.

Author notes
Before his theological career, Swinton worked for 16 years as a registered nurse, specialising in psychiatry and learning disabilities. An ordained minister of the Church of Scotland, he is one of the leading figures in the emerging field of disability theology, serving as Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, where he founded the Centre for Spirituality, Health, and Disability, in 2004, and the Centre for Ministry Studies, in 2014. His book Dementia: Living in the memories of God (SCM Press, 2012) was awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing in 2016.

Books for the next two months:
October: East West Street by Philippe Sands
November: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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