The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

To finish off our Brontë summer, we have the often-forgotten black sheep of the family, Anne. Unlike her older sisters, Anne Brontë has the crazy idea that male love interests should not be dark and broody like to Emily’s Heathcliff or Charlotte’s Rochester. One could even say her first novel, Agnes Grey, is rather dull because the main characters are so tediously decent. In fact, I say this pretty often. So we’re going to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall instead.  It’s quite scandalous, what with the main female character challenging the laws of her time with feminist rage and prohibitionist anger.  (Of course, she’s still a proper Victorian lady, so you have to squint before you see the rage.)

And, of course, it’s yet another epistolary tale. Did people really write novel-length letters?  What is the proper length of a response to a novel-length letter?  I can see things getting out of hand very quickly.  But I digress. Our humble narrator is a man by the name of Gilbert Markham, who introduces his sister Rose by calling her a “smart, pretty girl of nineteen, with a tidy, dumpy figure.”   Not at all contradictory. Gilbert joins his family around the table and they talk about what they’ve done all day. Gilbert has been breaking in a colt on the farm, his younger brother Fergus has been badger-baiting because no one will let him join the military and he has vowed to become a nuisance instead (he instantly becomes one of the most accurate depictions I’ve ever seen of an obnoxious little brother), and Rose has been gossiping. She has heard the scandalous news that Wildfell Hall has been let at last – by a single woman. *cue storm clouds and bolts of lightning*

The next day, Rose and her mother go to visit the mysterious single woman, Mrs. Graham. They discover she is dressed in mourning attire and dreadfully ignorant about cooking. At church, Gilbert sees for himself what she looks like – decent, but a little scrawny – and the two of them get into a tense staring contest over the pews.

Later, Gilbert is hunting when he stumbles upon Wildfell Hall, and spies a 5 year old boy climbing over a wall. Naturally, he tumbles over with a scream, and Gilbert tries to comfort him. Mrs. Graham comes running out of the house and hisses at Gilbert for kidnapping her son. She takes the kid away as fast as she can. This makes Gilbert grumpy, so he goes to visit Eliza Millward and her sister Mary. Eliza is the vicar’s younger daughter who has a reputation for being just a little bit naughty. Mary mends stockings while Eliza flirts with Gilbert and then makes out with her cat. As one does.

Mrs. Graham does eventually visit Gilbert’s family with her son, Arthur. She refuses party invitations out of fear that he will catch cold from walking in the damp air,  and everyone whispers that all that coddling turn him into a sissy. Gilbert is especially offended by her concern for her son, but that doesn’t stop him from visiting. On one visit with his sister, they learn that Mrs. Graham supports herself by having her paintings sold in London.  She also has a weird habit of labeling the estates in her paintings with different names so no one who recognizes her artwork will trace her back to the original location.  Very curious.  Is she a mobster? He snoops around her room and finds a painting of an attractive young man faced up against the wall. She doesn’t want to talk about it (though why she would bring it and unpack it to begin with, I’m not sure.)  The mystery deepens. Gilbert, of course, is offended that she won’t give him an explanation.  Though to be honest, Gilbert is offended quite often when people don’t do things he thinks they should do, especially when they should be catering to him.

But he still likes her. In fact, he starts to like her more than he likes Eliza, who his mother disapproves of once she catches them kissing. He immediately decides that Eliza is too shallow and that it’s safe to hang out with Mrs. Graham because they surely won’t fall in love with each other. That’s a romcom plot if I’ve ever heard one.

One day, Gilbert accompanies his siblings to Wildfell Hall. Fergus is especially helpful because he’s direct about getting answers out of Mrs. Graham concerning her native lands. When she asks how to get to the beach, Rose refuses to let anyone tell her, instead insisting that they all go together. During this time, their acquaintance, Mr. Lawrence, appears to be stalking Mrs. Graham.  When Gilbert invites him to come and talk with her, he refuses. Very suspicious.

They go to the beach, and Gilbert is offended that Mrs. Graham doesn’t want him chatting and peering over her shoulder while she sketches. He gets more annoyed when she politely declines his offer to help her climb down from her perch. She finally lets him carry her footstool back to the carriage, which was probably a bad move.  Despite her repeatedly shutting down all advances, he still thinks he can wear her down with friendship and presents.  He tries to give her a book, and it goes as well as one might expect. She offers to buy it and refuses to accept it gratis until he promises that it is freely given with no expectations or obligations. Gilbert goes home feeling completely friendzoned.

Eliza appears with more gossip, but we have to go through a whole community full of snubbing before we find out what it is. Apparently people have realized that Mrs. Graham’s son looks an awful lot like Mr. Lawrence. Scandal! Gilbert is so outraged by these obviously false accusations that he has to go to Mrs. Graham and make sure they aren’t true. Of course, he does this in such a roundabout way (namely, by pointing out Mr. Lawrence walking with Miss Wilson and trying to read Mrs. Graham’s reaction) that he doesn’t get an actual answer. He tries to make a move on Mrs. Graham the next day, and she tells him that he can either be her friend or be a complete stranger. He accepts the friendship, but practically challenges Mr. Lawrence to a duel when they cross paths in the street.  Because attacking another man who may or may not be her lover is certainly going to win her heart.

His acceptance of the friendzone never lasts more than a few pages, but after hearing how people are now gossiping about his own visits to see Mrs. Graham, he suddenly decides that it’s a good time to propose. As expected, she turns him down. (Seriously, how is this guy not getting the point?)  Exasperated, she promises to tell him everything soon and sends him away. Instead of going home, he skulks around her property and catches her walking with Mr. Lawrence in the moonlight.  Gasp!  After they walk past, Gilbert throws himself on the ground like a baby in despair. He eventually goes home and mopes for days.

Eventually he goes back to work, but when Mr. Lawrence tries to make small-talk in the streets, Gilbert bashes the poor man in the head with a whip, knocking him off his horse. For a moment, Gilbert worries that he’s killed him, but when he sees eyelids fluttering, he decides Mr. Lawrence will be fine and leaves him lying in the street in the rain. He comes back a few minutes later to help him up. Mr. Lawrence is understandably hesitant for his assistance, so Gilbert gives him his handkerchief and leaves him sitting in the rain.  Again. He finds out later that Mr. Lawrence is very possibly dying from a concussion and a cold, but thinks it serves him right.  Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

Mrs. Graham stops by his house some time later, asking why he didn’t visit her to hear her explanation. He tells her that he understands everything already, thank you very much.  She decides his childishness isn’t worth her time and leaves, so of course he has to go to her house just to convince her otherwise. He does so, and she hands him a thick manuscript and tells him to go and read it and tell no one. Naturally, since this is an epistolary novel, he’s going to ignore that last bit and reproduce it for his whole audience in its entirety.

The manuscript turns out to be Mrs. Helen Graham’s diary, starting a few years ago when she was single. I don’t know about you, but when I keep a diary, I tend not to replicate every sentence word-for-word. Helen, however, has a unique skill of making her diary entries sound just like a novel. She talks about meeting a Mr. Huntingdon at a ball, where he saved her from dancing with a really boring man. That same boring man, twice her age, proposes to her, and she objects because she thinks he’s old and boring. Apparently this is a scandalous thing, because how dare women have opinions about possible future husbands.  She prefers to get close to Mr. Huntingdon, while her aunt disapproves and tells her all sorts of scandalous things she’s heard about him. Helen refuses to believe a single bad word and insists he is a good person. Wow, this feels like déjà vu.

Huntingdon ends up visiting with a hunting party (given how often he goes hunting, his name is, perhaps, a little too obvious).  He discovers that Helen has doodled his face on the backs of some of her sketches, which is basically like scribbling “Mrs. Helen Huntingdon” with hearts all over her Trapper Keeper. When they part for the evening, he kisses her, despite her protests.  The next day, he starts stealing all the little pictures she’s drawn of him. She gets one back and throws it in the fire just to spite him. This does nothing to deter him and he gets her to confess her love for him the next night. Her aunt catches them making out and threatens her with “the talk.”

Despite Helen’s concerns about Huntingdon being a morally questionable man and a terrible church-goer, they decide to go through with the marriage.  None of their friends are keen on the matter. Huntingdon’s friends in particular are upset that their bachelor clique is ruined, meaning that their days of gambling and orgies (Brontë’s word, not mine) are coming to an end.

Helen and Arthur get married anyway.  Less than eight weeks later, she regrets it entirely. She complains about not really getting to see Europe on her honeymoon because he’d already seen it all before.  He doesn’t like how religious she is and his favorite pastime is telling her about his ex-girlfriends. They go to London for a change of scenery, but he runs off and isn’t seen for a few weeks. When he does return, he continues to flirt with other girls. She yells at him, he says it’s her fault for being so emotional, and she eventually forgives him.  Ah, the toxic optimism of young love.

Within the first year of marriage, they end up with little baby Arthur. Big baby Arthur doesn’t like the fact that Helen enjoys spending time with her son and would rather drop the baby on the floor so that she’ll spend more time with him. Another year passes, and Arthur Sr. wanders off to London.  Their letters to each other get shorter and shorter until he finally comes back in a temper, demanding that they fire and replace the cook, the clumsy servant, and very possibly Helen herself. His friend Hargrave visits often, and Helen finds herself grateful to him for reminding her husband that she exists.

It turns out she actually has been replaced when she gets a tip from her servant, goes for a walk, and sees Arthur kissing her friend Annabella (also married)  in the moonlit garden while declaring that he doesn’t love Helen one little bit. She confronts him that night, informs him that she was hiding in the shrubbery, and asks if she can take her child and leave him.  He refuses (as expected), and she informs him that she will stay as his child’s mother and housekeeper only.  No more nookie.

She hates her husband, is annoyed by all his friends, and is in a terrible mood for quite awhile. Annabella corners her and demands to know why she’s so suspicious of everyone. Helen tells her how much she enjoys walking in the shrubbery in the moonlight (which is a rather weird excuse, taken out of context) and Annabella just wants to know if Helen’s going to tell her husband.  She won’t negotiate to stop seeing Arthur, but that’s because she’s totally in love with him and their love is obviously forever, etc. Now that they’re no longer hiding the affair, all of Annabella and Arthur’s friends don’t hesitate to talk about it openly. Hargrave thinks it’s now appropriate to profess his love for Helen. She refuses him, of course, and later forgives him for his willingness to sin.  Mainly she just wants him to stop badgering her about having an affair of her own.

Their friends leave eventually and Helen and Arthur are left alone. Helen encourages her husband to go join them, but he’s determined to show the community that they are still totally married and he can totally handle living with his own wife. They argue frequently, Arthur starts drinking, and Helen gets upset because Arthur Jr. happens to like his dad a little more.  All according to plan.

Helen likes how quiet things are when Arthur goes to visit his friends, but she still has to watch out for Mr. Hargrave, who comes over every so often to try and woo her. She rejects him as often as she can and in many different ways until he finally goes to Paris.  When all of Arthur’s friends visit again, Helen threatens to tell Annabella’s husband if she catches them behaving inappropriately. He finds out anyway, and accuses Helen of aiding and abetting adulterers. Because somehow it’s her fault their spouses are cheating on them.

Helen starts calling her husband Mr. Huntingdon again because she doesn’t want to sully her son’s name. Huntingdon, meanwhile, pretends he has no wife and offers her to any man who wants her. For some reason, she tells Hargrave that she’s going to run away, and he professes his love again (sigh). He grabs her hand, insistent that the heavens decided they should be together and since she is his angel, he must be her protector. This guy really needs a reality check, and he gets one.  Helen grabs a palette knife and that sobers him for a moment.  He calls her ungrateful and leaves.

At this point, Huntingdon finds Helen’s diary with all her plans to escape and decides to start confiscating her property. He starts by throwing her painting tools into the fire, having the servants remove her easel and canvases, and steals her money and jewels so she can’t escape with his son. (Fun fact: Married women in Victorian England technically don’t have any property, including their own children.  Everything belongs to their husbands, even if said husbands are adulterous drunkards.)

When he leaves for the hunting season, she starts to train little Arthur to hate the taste of alcohol by giving him a glass with a dash of poison mixed in. (Because nothing shows motherly love like poisoning your own child.) When Huntingdon comes back, he laments that little Arthur has become an automaton and promptly hires a new governess, Miss Myers, who is very obviously Huntingdon’s latest girlfriend.

Helen writes a letter to her brother Frederick, seeking asylum for herself and her son, and packs up her small life, attaching the name “Mrs. Graham” to her trunks. Graham is her mother’s maiden name, and hopefully Huntingdon doesn’t do genealogy as a hobby. Somehow she also manages to pack a lot of paintings  (including that one of the husband she’s trying to run away from).   They sneak out before dawn the next morning, Helen in a black dress and little Arthur in plain clothes. Once at Wildfell Hall, she sells her clothes and buys some more suited to her station along with painting materials with which to make her living. She hears that Huntingdon is hunting her (well, her son, anyway) and tries to fade into the background.  Her attempts are made more difficult due to irritating new neighbors who keep wanting to gossip and visit her, Gilbert.

Gilbert is upset that her diary ends abruptly just as she starts to mention him. (Because he’s really that self-centered.) He is certainly convinced that the rest of her diary is full of initial prejudice against him, followed by a progression to friendship and warm regard (and possibly more) toward him.  He’s a little bit deluded.

To further cement his self-centeredness, Gilbert remarks that the first half of her diary was more painful to him than the second half because he liked the fact that Huntingdon was becoming increasingly awful in Helen’s estimation and he takes a perverse pleasure in that.  (Never mind how much she was suffering.) He runs over to her house at once and even though her servant says she’s not feeling well, he goes in anyway. He and Helen forgive each other for not spilling their hearts upon first meeting, and Helen wants him to promise never to come again. If he does, she’s going to flee Wildfell Hall.   Apparently she doesn’t make these instructions clear enough (a sad theme in het life) because he keeps going on about it. She finally agrees they can exchange messages through her brother, Mr. Frederick Lawrence (who, if you recall, was mysteriously beaten with a whip not long ago and is possibly dying) and she will inform Gilbert of her whereabouts in six months. He protests, but eventually hugs her and runs off.

He goes straight to visit Frederick because although common decency wouldn’t persuade him to save the life of the man he attacked, the possibility of writing to that man’s lovely sister is enough incentive to become acquainted with him. The poor man is ill and bedridden, and as an apology, Gilbert can only say he has “not acted quite correctly towards you as of late.” Such a proper Victorian way of referring to assault and abandonment. Gilbert offers his apologies and remarks that it’s Frederick’s own fault if he doesn’t accept them. It is also Frederick’s fault he didn’t trust Gilbert with the knowledge of being Helen’s brother. Frederick is far too nice for his own good, forgiving Gilbert and only hoping no one has told Helen of his illness so she doesn’t worry about him.

Helen leaves Wildfell Hall two months later, and while Gilbert makes good on his promise not to harass her, he chooses instead to “care” for her sick brother and harass him for information instead. (He confesses to us that he has a thing for Frederick’s slender hands, which are very much like his sister’s. Okay.) When he learns that Frederick saw Helen before she left, he grills the poor fellow for information (Did she talk about me? What did she say?) and is still so shocked when he learns that Mrs. Graham wants to forget him. Naturally, his ability to deny anything he doesn’t like kicks in and he refuses to believe she would say that.

Gilbert gets a visit from Eliza, who has heard the gossip that Mrs. Graham’s husband is alive and that she has gone back to him.  Gilbert doesn’t believe this, of course, even when Lawrence confirms it himself. He has a letter from Helen, who writes how she returned to find Huntingdon very ill and with awful servants because all the good ones had quit. She does her best, but Huntingdon insists that he has no wife and that she should leave. To be honest, between the leeches and the ravings, I’m not sure why she’s sticking around. Gilbert asks Frederick if he can keep the letter (in order to copy it all for our benefit, he argues, but also because he’s a bit of a stalker).

Huntingdon has a relapse in his improving health because he won’t stop drinking wine. He has some kind of epiphany about becoming a good person at one point, but then relapses again and dies before he can properly repent. Gilbert is thrilled by this news, because Gilbert is a terrible person. He is upset that Frederick goes to help out his sister but doesn’t keep Gilbert updated on all of her doings.  To pass the time, he summarizes for us the fates of other characters. As expected, the bad people meet bad ends while the good people meet good ends. (e.g. Annabella gets a divorce after running away with another man and ends up dead in debt and disgrace, while her husband happily remarries a lovely plain woman.)

Time passes, and Eliza informs Gilbert that she heard that Mrs. Graham is going to marry Mr. Hargrave and that Mr. Lawrence has left to attend the ceremony. Of course, Gilbert decides he’s going to go after her and stop the wedding. After a series of snowstorms and lack of carriages (which would generally suggest divine intervention is trying to keep you from doing the thing you are doing), he makes it to the church on time, only to discover that Frederick Lawrence is the groom and Esther Hargrave (Mr. Hargrave’s sister) is the bride. Way to mess with Gilbert, Eliza. Frederick says Gilbert was supposed to get an invitation (uh huh, sure), but since he didn’t, he’s puzzled as to why he showed up anyway.  As Gilbert watches the happy couple leave on their honeymoon, he has a sudden realization that the world does not, in fact, revolve around him, and that other people have their own lives and concerns.  Amazing!

On his way home, Gilbert pays a visit to Staningley Hall to see if Helen is around (he’s not at all stalking her, honest – he just happened to acquire her new address). She isn’t home, but then, just as he’s leaving, Helen and little Arthur pass Gilbert in their carriage.  Probably against her better judgement, she invite him in, and he confesses that his love for her hasn’t changed.  She leans out of her window, picks a rose, and asks if he’ll take it. (English lit alert: The rose is a metaphor). He reaches and closes his hand over it, just in time for her to snatch it out of his hand and defenestrate it. Her only explanation of the action is that he didn’t understand her gift. In reply, Gilbert defenestrates himself and brings the rose back to her. She spells out for him that the rose is her heart and he really shouldn’t be taking it and leaving her alone.

This is her roundabout way of saying she finally consents to being his wifely angel and letting him kiss her, but tells him they’ll have to put the wedding off for a year. He haggles her down to next autumn, and one assumes that Gilbert, at least, lives happily ever after.  As for Helen, we never did find out what she really thinks about Gilbert, so we can’t judge if she’s going to be happy or if she’s just given in after being worn down by so many men.  Gilbert, at least, is probably the lesser of several evils.  And as for Anne…well, even if she doesn’t join the broody man bandwagon, her male protagonist does get an award for being an awful person, so it looks like she’s a Brontë after all.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

  1. Kellen

    Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

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