“Like the remembrance of a wild, mad dream” – On The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

I admit that I don’t understand the love as defined and described in Anne Brontë’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Oh! when I think how fondly, how foolishly I have loved him, how madly I have trusted him, how constantly I have labored, and studied, and prayed, and struggled for his advantage; and how cruelly he has trampled on my love, betrayed my trust, scorned my prayers and tears, and efforts for his preservation — crushed my hopes, destroyed my youth’s best feelings, and doomed me to a life of hopeless misery — as far as man can do it—it is not enough to say that I no longer love my huband — I HATE him! The word stares me in the face like a gritty confession, but it is true: I hate him — I hate him!

The passage above is a mere relenting — one that took our heroine [whom I begun to call Saint Helen two-thirds to the end]long enough to arrive at. There are others: one of willful blindness, one of abuse [colored with a sense of entitlement, of social right], one of zealousness, one of seeming ambivalence, one of calmness to the point of vapidness. So much love between strangers, too — strangers who hardly know each other. So much love without choice, really. This feeling that whatever arrangement there exists, if one has to call it something, why not name it Love?

True, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall isn’t strictly a love story. It’s a severe [?], meaty, intense novel — Anne and her awe-inspiring complexities, her darkness. And yes, even her occasional black-and-white view of moral good and evil. It’s a record of social mores, it’s a group of people put under the microscope — even remembered, rehashed, reviewed. It’s domestic politics, it’s the role of men and women in a society at a given time. It’s about a woman running away to escape the abuse of her husband — an unheard of deed, then. It’s not so much about building a new life after the ravages of the past, but unshackling oneself from the darknesses wrought by it.

However, the way I see it, much of the story’s tragedies [oh, yeah, and joys too] are hinged on acts of love, foolish or otherwise — done in the name of love or despite it. It’s about a woman standing up for herself though battered by her own admission that her love was wrong. It’s about being brave enough to run away because she loves something more, and stronger too, and she has to protect that at all costs. It’s about choosing to run after someone because she is of value — because she’s detrimental to what one has built for himself — or pining for her because you want so badly to run after her, but she’s resolutely told you to stay away.

So, yes, the novel is about, mainly, two things: 1] Mainly, what a woman’s life was like then — rather barbaric, in my opinion, if one could not hit one’s husband for behaving like a jackass. No, really: you have to throw in a punch or two to the myriad degenerates and, basically, Not Very Nice People that litter this book. 2] It’s a romance between Gilbert Markham and Mrs. Graham, “quite young” and “excessively pretty,” and often described as a “fair recluse” — the tenant of Wildfell Hall. Never mind that one gets the impression that this latter is rather arbitrary. Never mind that I wondered, many times, “Dude, how can you love each other this way?” [As opposed to the first thread whose question goes, “Why do you still insist on loving him?”]

Let’s start with the romance between Mr. Gilbert Markham [who, by the way, recounts this story in a series of letters twenty years after the fact] and the mysterious Mrs. Helen Graham. It is simpler. It is also, well, it is easy. That is, it is familiar.

Ready your tomatoes, friends. I do believe Wildfell is a precursor to a lot of romance novels whose premise relies on: woman with a dark past intrigues happy-go-lucky bachelor; they don’t really hit it off right away, as evidenced by the first time they lay eyes on each other — he thinks, “I would rather admire you from this distance, fair lady, than be the partner of your home,” and she looks upon him “with a monetary indefinable expression of quiet scorn;” but of course the romance proceeds.

Woman with a Dark Past isn’t quite willing, but our Happy-Go-Lucky Bachelor is on a crusade. His affections grow, they become realer by the day. He’s enamored: “Never had she looked so lovely: never had my heart so warmly cleaved to her as now.

And then, well, she warns him away. She insists on friendship, she informs him. The subtext: Go away, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.

‘Now, Mr. Markham,’ said she, with a kind of desperate calmness, ‘I must tell you plainly, that I cannot do this. I like your company, because I am alone here, and your conversation pleases me more than that of any other person; but if you cannot be content to regard me as a friend — a plain, cold, motherly, or sisterly friend — I must beg you to leave me now, and let me alone hereafter — in fact, we must be strangers for the future.’

But she trusts him enough to give her his diary. A confession granted without needing to meet the confessor’s eyes. A relenting here, too, letting someone peek into the world she believes is still in pursuit of her and her son. [And, note that this diary was seen by only one other person -- who then punished our Helen for what she wrote.]

Helen’s dark past? An impetuous marriage to a degenerate, Arthur Huntingdon, despite the numerous warnings of family, friends, and even her nursemaid. A charmer, loose with both money and morals, an audacious flirt, a salacious adulterer heavy drinker, bad husband, terrible father — meet Arthur Huntingdon. No worries, Helen soon gets with the program:

I have had eight weeks’ experience of matrimony. And do I regret the step I have taken?—No—though I must confess, in my secret heart, that Arthur is not what I thought him at first, and if I had known him in the beginning, as thoroughly as I do now, I probably never should have loved him, and if I had loved him first, and then made the discovery, I fear I should have thought it my duty not to have married him.

Well. Helen admits: I cannot shut my eyes to Arthur’s faults; and the more I love him the more they trouble me. But then, Helen later says, I was willfully blind. Yes, you were, young lady.

Helen has a spine of steel, though — partly why the moniker Saint Helen: how steadfast she is to her principles and her morals, her ideals. With everyone: her douche husband and his cronies, and her dealings with Gilbert. So godly. So fucking good, it’s annoying.

But it’s these principles—her goodness—that strengthens her resolve to run away, if only for her child:

. . . my child should not be abandoned to this corruption: better for that he should live in poverty and obscenity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence with such a father.

And she runs away. It isn’t easy. But she runs away, she hides, she becomes the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

And that’s it. Sure, I must mention how the author resolves both the past and the future: Arthur Huntingdon falls sick, she runs to him and cares for him, because she is his wife, and she insists on being a good wife. But what about Gilbert?

[A warning of Spoilers Ahead, for those who do not wish to encounter them.]

The diary ends when Gilbert enters the picture. One concrete severance between Helen’s two lives, actually. What about Gilbert? What about the “love” between Helen and Gilbert?

Oh, he pines: “My love had been cherished in vain; my hope was gone forever; I must tear myself away at once, and banish or suppress all thoughts of her like the remembrance of a wild, mad dream.” You can’t really blame him. Sure, Saint Helen is Saint Helen, but what is one to think when the woman you have professed to love runs to her husband’s deathbed with no by-leave? With no word from her from months and months after?

And, dear Reader, know how itchy I was to have these two Get It Going, Already. Never mind that I was beginning to sense that there was an arbitrary feel to Gilbert and Helen’s relationship. That, “Hey, let’s get these two together, we need a love story that works — see, they’re still married twenty years from now!”

Yech. Again, I do not understand. How can these two say they love each other? The definitions of love aren’t constant — I’ve read enough books and lived adequately these past years to know this. But it’s all too similarly wrong from this side of Sasha-Land, this love between the pages.

See the resolution, Gilbert and Helen politely — stiffly? — falling into each other after months of silence, of Big Misunderstandings, of nothing:

‘And you do love me, Helen?’ said I, not doubting the fact, but wishing to hear it confirmed by her own acknowledgment.

‘If you loved as I do,’ she earnestly replied, ‘you would not have so nearly lost me — these scruples of false delicacy and pride would never thus have troubled you — you would have seen that the greatest worldly distinctions and discrepancies of rank, birth, and fortune are as dust in the balance compared with the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathizing hearts and souls.’

The first part, especially, is a lie. Gilbert, how could you have not called her out on that? She was practically begging for it. Did she not stay away too? Was she not hindered as well by the “scruples of false delicacy and pride”? Hasn’t Helen already proven that she’s not the conventional 19th Century Englishwoman, that she can confront, she can fight back, she can knock on someone’s front door to say, “I am back; will you still have me?” Double standards, Mrs. Graham-Huntingdon!

Ah, but I am rewriting The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s a terrible habit. But I don’t think this is not without reason. I do wonder about the deliberateness of the book’s structure — See, the narrative of the romance between Gilbert and Helen [before or after the latter’s revelation] suffers underneath the heft of Helen’s diary. And don’t what they symbolize do the same? Their budding love, her dark past — their future?

Did Anne Brontë do this on purpose? Perhaps I am asking the wrong questions?

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8 comments

  1. I think I have to return to this after reading the book, because at the moment your post leaves me with a big questionmark. I do love your ability to ask such questions and your eloquence in stating them. Ah, I often wish I was a little bit more like you.

  2. I loved Tenant, but I agree that the Gilbert and Helen romance was clunky and, as you said, arbitrary. And Gilbert is himself a jerk at times, what with all his childish behavior early in the book. I wonder now if Bronte felt obliged to frame her real, and more subversive story, all contained in Helen’s diary, with something more socially acceptable and told by a man.

  3. I haven’t read the book yet although it is very close to the top of my TBR pile–but when I saw the movie, I was really blown away that I had not known about the book in my youth when I was most Bronte-obsessed. Like Iris, I need to return to your post after reading the post.

    I get your point that this is a precursor to a certain kind of romance novel. But the idea of showing the story beneath the story, the perspectives beneath the perspectives seems like a precursor to Faulkner and his followers in some ways, too.

  4. “…. this love between the pages.” I like that.

  5. Great questions! And I was going to say something clever, but then Teresa said it all for me :)

    Glad you enjoyed (I think?) one of my favourite books.

  6. A middle or upper-class woman leaving her husband was a totally shocking and scandalous event in Bronte’s day. Tenant is, in my eyes, a brilliant and subversive book that undermines the Victorian notion of ‘The Angel in the House’, and sets Helen (the representative of all women in her situation) free, even if it is only fictively. Tenant is my favourite Bronte novel, after Wuthering Heights.

    Love comes in many guises. :)

  7. Ahh. This is on my list for the year. I loved JANE EYRE and hated WUTHERING HEIGHTS, so I thought I’d see how I felt about the final Bronte sister. My book club said this was Anne’s best. Maybe there’s a reason she’s less-known than her sisters. Still, I’m looking forward to reading this. I’ve heard it referred to as one of the first feminist novels. Did you see it like that?

  8. I have not read this yet, but your thoughts have encouraged me to move it up the list :)

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