I started reading ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ alongside Samantha Ellis’s ‘Take Courage’, a brand new biography about Anne Brontë. I am quite a Brontë fan, so already know quite a bit about Anne’s background (not that a huge amount is known about her – she has for so long been the sister in the background, but this is changing now and Anne is becoming just as popular as her sisters) but soon realised that although I had a general understanding of the main themes of ‘Tenant’,I had never read the book and was in danger of reading one faster than the other and spoiling the story. Before I started to read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, I knew that it is widely recognised as having strong feminist themes. It tells the tale of a woman who takes her child and leaves her abusive and alcoholic husband, something that was virtually unheard of at the time of publication, and something which would have been widely frowned upon. It is also often described as being somewhat biographical of Anne herself and her experiences with her own alcoholic brother, Branwell. In fact, in the preface to the second edition Anne wrote, “I know that such characters do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps the book has not been written in vain”. This indicates that Anne was writing, not for entertainment, but as a warning, a reality check to heed others from falling into the traps that ensnared Branwell and hurried along his untimely death.
I am about a third of the way through ‘Tenant’, but already I have decided two things. Firstly Anne’s writing style is more like that of Jane Austen than either of her sisters, and secondly, I do not like Gilbert Markham!
Actually, dislike is a bit strong, I am disappointed . He is not the Brontë leading man I was expecting. He is not brooding and vengeful, he is not the mysterious and slightly grumpy older man, he is a slightly arrogant farmer with a tendency toward thoughts bordering on the violent, he is not even harmless and affable in the same way as Austen’s Mr Bingley. Heathcliff never had to clarify that that he was not squeezing a hand in spite, Gilbert has to make that distinction because otherwise the reader just wouldn’t know! He seems somewhat wishy-washy.
Upto this point in the story, everything has been from Gilbert’s point of view. He is not described visually, but is portrayed rather like a spoilt and petulant child – he wants what he cannot have, and when things do not go quite his way he throws a tantrum, even resorting to hitting his perceived competition, Mr Lawrence, across the head with a whip. Like a child however, he is penitent, and does return to the scene of his crime to ensure that there is no lasting damage. I feel somewhat uncomfortable as the reader, watching his persuit of Helen Graham; rather like watching a cat toying with his prey. I am slightly concerned that if Mr Markham does succeed in his chase, he will tire of Mrs Graham as soon as the next pretty lady happens along, in the same way that Helen so swiftly replaced Eliza Millward as the object of his desires. Whilst I haven’t yet (and honestly, I am not sure that I will) warmed to the mysterious Helen Graham, I find myself wanting to warn her, remove her from Gilbert’s sights.
To return to my first observation, the beginning of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ reads far more like an Austen book than the works of either of her sisters. It is more genteel, less physically descriptive, and yet the scene is very clearly set. Unlike her sisters works, the locale is not really mentioned – if it were not for the fact that Fergus, the younger brother has been badger baiting, which suggests more country than town, it really could be anywhere! The location is not key to the story, unlike in ‘Wuthering Heights’ where the moors are almost a reflection of the defining features of Cathy and Heathcliff’s characters, the backdrop for ‘Tenant’has far more in common with Austen’s Meryton; it is by coincidence, where a story happened, it is not a part of the story.
What really does stand out though is the conversation between the characters. There is no dialect, plenty of speech, but, in complete contrast to the unmistakably Yorkshire characters in ‘Wuthering Heights’, there nothing to denote a particular county. Rather like the Bennett family in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, these are society characters, much more like the families that Brontë would have worked for at Thorpe Green, or associated with at Ponden Hall than those living around her in Haworth. These are people who are concerned with the lives and business of those about them rather than the details of their own domesticity. Compare if you will the following passages…
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte) – Chapter I
‘”Well”, resumed Rose; “I was going to tell you an important peice of news I heard there – I have been bursting with it ever since. You know it was reported a month ago, that somebody was going to take Wildfell Hall – and – what did you think? It has actually been inhabited above a week – and we never knew!”
“Impossible!” Cried my Mother.
“Preposterous!” Shrieked Fergus.
“It has indeed! – and by a single lady!”‘
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) – Chapter I
‘”My dear Mr. Bennet” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs Long has just been here, and she told me all about it”.
Mr Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs along says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the North of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take posession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”‘
As a governess, Anne would have had the opportunity to spend more time in the company of the family that she worked for than she would have experienced if she had just been a housemaid. She worked for the Robinson family at Thorpe Green for around five years, and like her sisters, is known to write from her own experiences. It is likely that this is just the sort of conversation that she would have been exposed to during her time with the family. Anne has long been regarded as the quiet, reserved sister. Thus far, this is definitely the face of Anne that comes through her reading. I can’t help but compare the mysterious Helen Graham to her creator – at this stage in the telling, very little is known about Helen; she is a widow, has a son, and earns her money through her painting. Even now, nearly two hundred years after her birth, little is known about Anne – very few of her letters remain, she is known to have had strong religious beliefs and was thus described by her sister, Charlotte,“Hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved and dejected nature. She hated her work, but would pursue it. It was written as warning”.
Whilst I am finding ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ a far from ‘easy’ read, I am determined to look beyond its pages and learn more about its author. It is widely renowned as one of the first feminist novels, and piece of strong social criticism. It is also based in truth. Despite the similarities that I have noticed so far to the works of Jane Austen, Samantha Ellis notes that a reviewer at the time of publication wrote in response to ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ that, “Sex in Austen is a kiss on the hand. In the Bronte’s, everything happens“. I want to see more of the ‘Brontë-ness’, the rugged, earthy, honest humanity, less of the ‘Austen-y’ social convention with its determination to prove that every “single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. And when I am done, I will be returning to Samantha Ellis’s biography.