When I finished writing the first part of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall‘ blog I wrote a very different opening for the second part. I had a clear place to start. That changed. It has been a long time since I have struggled to finish a book as much as I have struggled to finish ‘Tenant‘. In fact the only one I can think of where I persevered to the end, with the feeling that “it’s a classic, I really should find out how it ends”, was Jane Austen’s ‘Emma‘.
As with ‘Emma‘, I have found the lack of a physical location difficult. Not place names, the actual places. I know for instance that Linden-Carr and Wildfell Hall are associated with a village or possibly a small town, but there is not even a hint of what this place may be like, other than gossipy. I have found it really hard to build a world around these characters. Like any reader, I don’t want to read a book that does all the thinking, or builds a world in minute detail but I would like a little atmosphere.
I have also found it hard to find a character that I can really latch on to, really care about and empathise with, and believe me, I looked really hard. It was never going to be Gilbert Markham. He may be the narrator of the story through this letters, but it is not his story, it is Helen’s story. Rather like Mr Lockwood in ‘Wuthering Heights‘ he is there, ever present as the voice, and he is mor involved in the proceedings that Mr Lockwood, but he is more an observer of Helen’s tale. We do see much more of Gilbert than we ever do of Lockwood, but the details that are given away are not appealing. As I previously said, he comes across as a petulant child, wanting what he can’t have. It could have been Mr Lawrence; he came close, but he remains very much on the sidelines throughout the book despite his pivotal role in the relocating of his sister to Wildfell Hall.
I really wanted to like Helen. I felt for her; she married a man knowing little about him, and regretted her decision once she realised the error of her ways. She did not run, she stayed until she felt that her child was in danger of being dragged into the darks ways of his father. Even then she did not run, she maintained her dignity and decorum, she planned, she prepared and then she walked away. She is thoughtful, she does not want to bring shame to anyone, she does not want to cause a scandal and does not leave until she knows that he has no choice. Despite this, I am still not her biggest fan. She seems cold, distant and moralistic. I know that giving nothing away is what helped her in maintaining her new life, but she comes across as cold. Lucy Snow in ‘Villette‘ is cold, icily so on occasion, but she is human and she has flaws which she is honest about. Helen is aware of her mistakes, but is also keen to point out the mistakes in others; it is not possible to escape her judgemental outlook.
It has taken me a long time to read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and even longer to process my thoughts afterwards. I am genuinely gutted that I didn’t enjoy the story more, but having said that I am glad that I finally made the time and read the book. I have learned so much more about Anne than I ever would have done by just reading books about her. She wrote ‘Tenant‘ as a warning. A warning to whom I am still not sure. Is it a warning to young men who fall in to a path waylaid with temptation and allow themselves to be seduced?A warning to young ladies who pay heed to their hearts and rush headlong into a marriage despite the advise of those who perhaps see things from a differing perspective? Or, is it actually a reminder that there is always a chance to repent, reform and be saved? As a child, when asked by her father, what a child like her most wanted she replied “Age and experience“. I believe that in writing ‘Tenant‘, Anne has found a way to share her “age and experience” with her readers; her experience of living with an alcoholic and drug-addled brother; her experience as a governess of watching from the sidelines, witnessing clandestine relationships, marriages that should never have happened, children suffering as a result.
I love that this book is such a clear window to Anne’s soul. In complete contrast to Aunt Reed in Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, Helen’s aunt is caring and sympathetic, she wants to guide her neice toward a marriage that could make her happy and street her away from Mr Huntingdon. Helen respects her and wants to gain her approval. I would like to hope that this is similar to the relationship that Anne had with her own aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, who came to Haworth to look after the young Brontë’s after the death of her own sister, Maria. Anne was scarcely a year old when her mother died, so Elizabeth took her place and became the only mother figure that Anne could remember. It was Elizabeth Branwell who shared a room with her tiny niece, and taught both her and Branwell Brontë whilst the other four children attended the school at Cowan Bridge, and it was Elizabeth who helped Anne to develop her strong religious beliefs; Anne’s belief that those who recognise the errors of their ways and who repent can be reformed and redeemed, whilst those who persist in their downward spiral will never achieve peace and happiness.
I can’t help but see Lady Lowbrough as being somehow based upon Lydia Robinson, Anne’s employer at Thorpe Green and the object of Branwells most ardent affections. In ‘Tenant‘ Lady Lowbrough is a relentless temptress, selfish, and destructive with loose morals; to Anne, Lydia must have represented far worse. She was the final push in Branwells descent, she abused her position, broke his heart, and watched him fall over the precipice that he had been teetering on. I wonder if Lydia shared the fate of Lady Lowbrough?
‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall‘ may not have been the story I was hoping for, full of brooding heroes, love-sick heroines, and other Brontë-esque cliches, but I have found more of Anne than I could have imagined. It has made her real, she is not the “quiet, pious one”, she had her own ideas, imagination, and beliefs. She was not afraid of challenging convention, letting the world know that women are strong too; for Anne, it is every bit as much a woman’s world as it is a mans.
Bring on 2020, and the start of Anne’s year at the Brontë Parsonage!!