Authors: Anne Brontë
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL
ANNE BRONTË, who was born in 1820, was brought up in the Yorkshire. village of Haworth where her father was curate. She was educated at home and, as a child, she invented with her sister Emily the imaginary world of Gondal, for which she wrote copious chronicles and poems. She held two positions as governess, with the Inghams at Blake Hall and, from 1840–45, with the Robinson family at Thorp Green. As a religious lyric poet, Anne Brontë’s hymns and lyrics rank with those of Cowper. Her first novel
(1847), published under the pseudonym Acton Bell, is in the tradition of fictional spiritual autobiography, written with conciseness, integrity and irony.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
(1848) is a powerful feminist testament, attacking the marriage laws, double standards of sexual morality and the education of men and women. Anne Brontë died at Scarborough in 1849. She was the youngest of the Brontë sisters, whose extraordinary gifts are only now receiving just appraisal.
DR STEVIE DAVIES lectured in English Literature at Manchester University from 1971 to 1984. She left to become a full-time novelist and literary critic. Her novel,
, published in 1987, won the Fawcett Society Book Prize in 1989, and was followed by
Arms and the Girl
Closing the Book
(1994). She has published eleven critical books, the most recent being
Emily Brontë: Heretic
(1995). She has written three books in the Penguin Critical Studies series:
To the Lighthouse, Twelfth Night
The Taming of the Shrew
. She is currently Senior Research Fellow at Roehampton Institute.
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 1848
This edition first published 1996
Editorial matter copyright © Stevie Davies, 1996
All rights reserved
The moral right of the editor has been asserted
‘Sick of mankind and their disgusting ways,’ scribbled Anne Brontë in pencil at the back of her Prayer Book.
In her 1845 diary paper, she wrote of having undergone ‘unpleasant and undreamt-of experiences of human nature’
at Thorp Green, where she had been working as governess for five years. Anne had seen at close quarters her brother’s degeneration and disgrace; the hypocrisy, affectation and abuse of privilege of the gentry class. She had been bereaved; had understood that she would probably never marry and have the baby she craved; had felt her faith severely tested by desperate periods of religious doubt.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
was the testament of this sombre vision. Reviewers reacted with fascinated shock to this ‘coarse’ and ‘brutal’ work, in which élite males degenerate into addicts and libertines.
Charles Kingsley criticized the work as atonal, ‘tortured by a defective chord, in which one false note perpetually recurs’.
The defective chord might be called the key of ‘H’,
in which a system of characters – Huntingdon, Hargrave, Hattersley, echoed by Halford and Helen, and, in ‘G’, Grimsby, at Grassdale – riot against human decency. The ‘H’ characters are more than men behaving badly – drinking, gaming, abusing their wives (and servants, and dogs), squandering fortunes, fornicating – they are hell-bent souls recklessly playing away the hope of heaven, within a patriarchal system that licenses the soulless pleasures of ‘gentlemen’. The cosmic and the domestic occupy the same page; and the realism of the telling coexists with a quality resonant of medieval morality drama and
, moral disease has become a norm.
Charlotte Brontë, who had always for complex reasons babied Anne, failing to recognize her strength of character and originality, wished
had never been written. She recoiled with hot pangs of shock from the account of ugly facts which brought to mind the shattering disintegration of their brother: ‘
it hardly seems to me desirable to preserve,’ she wrote betrayingly to her publisher. ‘The choice of subject in that work is a mistake’,
and she said the same to the public in her ‘Biographical Notice’ of Ellis and Acton Bell. The book was morbid, Charlotte said, the work of ‘a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature’ which, having been confronted at close quarters by ‘talents misused and faculties abused’, felt conscientiously bound to warn others about the dangers, although she ‘hated her work’.
Yet Anne Brontë was and remained a child of Gondal, the land of the imagination she founded with Emily in her childhood – a grown-up child, of course, a rational, realistic, pensive, radically Christian woman. If she had put away childish things, she was still the same person who had acted the characters of seducers, adulterers, warriors, hell-raisers, outlaws and who, though her heart was no longer in the play, had into her mid-twenties improvised with Emily a cast of Gondal characters, all the way to York and back: ‘And during our excursion we were, Ronald Macalgin, Henry Angora, Juliet Angusteena… escaping from the palaces of instruction to join the Royalists’, wrote Emily in her diary paper of 1845.
Echoes of Gondal combined with addictive childhood reading of Moore’s life of Byron, with its account of wild Regency womanizing, gaming, shooting, carousing, and those more recondite pleasures of sacrilege exemplified in dressing as monks and drinking from ‘a human skull filled with burgundy’.
Hence, surely, the bold and free dialogue in the diary section of
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall;
the quality of language caught warm, slangy and sharp from the speaker’s mouth. The scintillating sex-appeal of Arthur Huntingdon and the voluptuous physique of Annabella Wilmot may well be relics of Gondal. Wit, humour and irony, as well as tender passages and lyrical scene-making, are essential to the telling. It is impossible to credit Charlotte’s statement that the author ‘hated her work’.
The title of Anne Brontë’s second novel relates a person to a place – but her surname, Helen ‘Graham’ is an assumed name and the place, the derelict moorland mansion, does not belong to her. Helen therefore is inscrutable to the northern community amongst whom she has sought sanctuary, and exists on their margins as a focus of rumour, gossip, speculation and suspicion. Neither does she wish to be known. She hides behind her pseudonym and buries herself as far off the map as she can retire. The first of the two narrators, Gilbert Markham, is a member of that community, a young farmer with hints of a culture beyond agriculture, whose ownership of the ‘paternal acres’ roots him to the earth, to primogeniture and settled custom. Helen’s ‘real’ name, we later discover, is Helen ‘Huntingdon’ – but she can only be accounted nominally married to her degenerate husband, for ‘my higher and better self is indeed unmarried’ (p. 243), and besides, when a woman has been handed round for the use of anyone who will have her, how far can she count as the offerer’s wife: ‘“I value her so highly, that any one among you, that can fancy her, may have her and welcome”’ (p. 355)? When Helen leaves her husband and chooses an incognito, she homes to her mother’s maiden name (p. 388) to which she feels she has some claim, and returns to the ruined home of her own childhood where Rachel, her servant, said ‘she had often walked with me in her arms, and little thought to come again so many years after’ (p. 391). The ‘tenant’ therefore has a vestigial title to her adopted name and the refuge she leases. But this belonging is known neither to the reader nor to the tattling community, which registers her not as a returnee but as an unknown quantity, bringing in alien values. Into the old-fashioned provincial world retires a strong-minded independent woman, who earns her living as an artist, eloquent, forceful, anomalous. Dispossessed and displaced, she becomes a mysterious object of fascination both to the community and the narrator.
Anne Brontë’s novel is a powerful and disputatious sister-novel to Emily Brontë’s
. The very initials of the place –’W.H.’ – and those of the system of ‘H’ characters (playing on the Heights series, Hindley, Heathcliff, Hareton) spell out this kinship. In both novels, the moorland house is dynastic and the locus of
desire and curiosity. But neither uncanny presences, violent usurpation nor extremes of possessive hatred and need haunt Anne’s hall as they do Emily’s. ‘Wild’ and on the ‘fells’, just off the edge of the community, where culture meets nature, ‘the superannuated mansion of the Elizabethan era’ has already made progress in resolving issues of patrimony by crumbling uninhabitably back into the heath. Human beings have abandoned the place as too wuthering – ‘only shielded from the war of wind and weather by a group of Scotch firs, themselves half blighted with storms’ (pp. 22–3). The phrasing echoes
: ’the excessive slant of a few, stunted firs at the end of the house; and… a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun’ (Chapter 1). Perhaps both houses derive from a common
-hall in Gondal. Emily’s utilitarian Romanticism is answered by Anne’s picturesque rationalism. Whereas Wuthering Heights is a working farm run by hardy, spartan people, the hall of Anne’s novel is the decayed relic of an outworn patrician class, whose armorial bearings dominate the church but whose pretensions are mocked by the recrudescence of mansion into moor. Her ruin is a folly. Its garden displays the heraldic pretensions of a grotesquely deformed topiary sprouting back into the wilderness of nature: ‘the old boxwood swan, that sat beside the scraper, had lost its neck and half its body’ and laurel castellations, warrior and lion guarding the gateway ‘had sprouted into such fantastic shapes as resembled nothing in heaven or earth’ (p. 23). The overgrown garden of Anne’s hall mocks the vanity of human wishes, a late-flowering instance of eighteenth-century Enlightenment consciousness in an author who, following Ecclesiastes and Dr Johnson’s
The Vanity of Human Wishes
, had written a poem entitled ‘Vanitas Vanitatum’:
Should wealth or fame our life employ,
Death comes our labour to destroy,
To snatch th’untasted cup away,
For which we toiled so many a day.
Anne Brontë’s garden of vanity comments on the fabrications of
human architecture and that arboricultural boastfulness which cultivated nature (boxwood, laurel) into an art-work in imitation of nature (swan, lion) appropriated to the self-glorifying iconography of ‘great’ families, only to be overrun by the profusely scathing energies of nature. Anne Brontë’s ancient hall demystifies Gothic. Her ruined house is not haunted. It is simply dilapidated, damp and un-welcoming.
Helen Graham is a transient. At her married home, Grassdale, she was numbered, we later discover, amongst goods and chattels. Anne Brontë brings into full focus the expropriated, estranged nature of women’s lives. Helen can call neither her home nor her name her own.
is a feminist manifesto of revolutionary power and intelligence. Helen ‘Graham’ or ‘Huntingdon’ or ‘Lawrence’ stands as an image of unaccommodated woman, in a landscape of biblical texts as well as moorlands and pasture, in which we plainly see that the daughter of woman has nowhere to lay her head. Paradoxically, her destabilizing inheritance is contradicted by her exceptional strength and stability as a person, with a core of impregnable selfesteem, far more steadfast in herself than the volatile male narrator, plodding through his acres, through whose eyes we first approach and experience her. The dispossessed Helen is transgressive: a challenge both to the narrator and the narrator’s community. She lives alone. She earns her own living; keeps her own counsel and tells the definitive version of her own story.
The reader views not only the narrator’s word-picture of Wildfell Hall but, in a chapter entitled ‘The Studio’, the figure of a woman with easel and oils (the prerogative of the male artist) painting her own picture of Wildfell Hall ‘as seen at early morning from the field below, rising in dark relief against a sky of clear silvery blue… very elegantly and artistically handled’ (p. 46). Anne Brontë’s portrait of the artist as a fee-earning young woman trebly trespasses on the domain of the masculine: female artists dabbled in water-colours or sketched decoratively in pencil or pen and ink; ‘ladies’ did not engage in trade; and, besides, the tools of her trade in this case count as stolen. The artist’s materials noted by Markham on entry are formally the property of her husband – a point Anne Brontë concisely
makes in Chapter 40 when Huntingdon burns her materials – ‘the oil and turpentine sent hissing and roaring up the chimney’ (p. 365) and has the easel, canvas, stretcher and half-finished picture carted off for a larger conflagration. Then he laughs in her face. For what’s hers is his; but what’s his is not hers. Hence, Helen must sell her pictures under false names: ‘Fernley Manor, Cumberland, instead of Wildfell Hall’ (p. 47). Names, for the author who wrote pseudonymously as ‘Acton Bell’ rather than Anne Brontë, to protect herself from the unjust criticism meted out to women authors, were a place of hiding to the woman who wished to publish her fiction without publicizing herself. The Parsonage at Haworth, on the threshold where the village community met the wild fells, was a retreat in which to be securely oneself. The fugitive heroine covers for an anomalous author at odds with the male-dominated society in and against which she had formed her vagrant personal truth.
is told by two narrators, in two literary forms (Markham’s letters framing Helen’s diary), concerned with two periods of time (the beginning and end of the 1820s), in two keys. Beginning in the minor key of romantic-domestic social comedy, it moves back in time to the major key of tragic irony in Helen’s inset diary, succeeded by further letters by Gilbert encapsulating a cluster of new letters from Helen. Both frame and core narratives are spiritual testaments in the tradition of Puritan spiritual autobiography – Richardson’s epistolary novels on the one hand, Bunyan and the Puritan conversion narratives and spiritual journals on the other. But the outer, epistolary, witness, is subordinate to and changed by the inner diary witness, and though spatially his account encompasses hers, spiritually hers dominates, rebukes and transforms his. The central diary represents an individual’s authoritative personal witness to the fruit of traumatizing and chastening experience, ‘experience’ being a key-word. Appropriating themes from Richardson’s
and more especially
(the sexual pursuit by a libertine of a virtuous woman under family pressure to accept an obnoxious suitor), Anne Brontë transfers what in Richardson was shown in letters into the private testimony of the diary: things outward and
visible are converted to confessions inward and spiritual. Richardson has his heroine write giddily to her friend:
And then the secret pleasure intruded itself, to be able to reclaim such a man to the paths of virtue and honour: to be a
means, if I were to be his, of saving him, and preventing the mischiefs so enterprising a creature might otherwise be guilty of, if he be such a one. (Letter 40, p. 183)
Anne Brontë’s Helen writes, to herself:
there is a secret something – an inward instinct that assures me I am right. There is essential goodness in him – and what delight to unfold it! If he has wandered, what bliss to recall him! If he is now exposed to the baneful influence of corrupting and wicked companions, what glory to deliver him from them! – Oh! if I could but believe that Heaven has designed me for this! (pp. 152–3)
For Richardson’s rapist, Lovelace, Clarissa is ‘that angel of a woman’ who never falls from grace but, like a greater Eve, endures her 1,500-page trial of virtue (p. 430) transcendently. The male author turns his heroine face-outwards so that we can all enjoy her. The transactions of Helen’s diary are soliloquistic, moving from naïve self-delusion to the recognition that ‘I am no angel’ (p. 267). Though Arthur Huntingdon echoes Lovelace’s assumed name of ‘Hunting-ford’ (
, p. 417) and has some of his qualities of Godforsaken levity, Lovelace’s predatory sexuality is realized in the vulpine Hargrave, a more minor character. For the nineteenth-century woman author, the question of chastity is secondary to problems of integrity, truthfulness, affection, motherhood, livelihood. The framing letters in
communicate outwards to an imagined reader (Halford) and to ourselves as readers how ‘the old Adam’ may be charged and changed by the private words of a compulsive truth-seeker and truth-teller. Helen’s words build on the Word, and the seriousness of her attempt to account for her life stands in contrast to the mindless ‘small talk’ of Markham’s community: ‘“;I was wearied to death with small-talk,”’ she tells him – ‘“nothing wears me out like that I cannot imagine how they
go on as they do.”’ Gilbert cannot help ‘smiling at the serious depth of her wonderment’
Anne Brontë’s novel is profoundly concerned for the integrity of the word: it examines the abuse of language in the small talk of women, the big talk of men, in prattle, insult, gossip, curses and the bearing of false witness both through lies and self-delusion.
searches toward a communication which will be communion: ‘the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathizing hearts and souls’ (p. 485).
The opening section (Chapters 1–15) reveals Gilbert Markham as first cousin to Emily Bronte’s Lockwood – an unreliable narrator, fundamentally a decent man in a novel not rich in human decency especially amongst males, but with a little of the oaf, a little of the cad. Subject to swerves of feeling, he is sometimes silly and imperceptive, often kind, generous, sympathetic, and willing to grow in spirit – that is, if such growth will turn Helen into Helen Markham. Flouncing and exploding, manipulative and irresponsible, he rises to displays of prodigious learning (‘So we talked about painting, poetry, and music, theology, geology, and philosophy…’ (p. 73)), and sinks to peevish sulks or twaddling conferences with his irritating brother Fergus. Markham’s tenderness for animals and children would have spoken eloquently for him in Anne’s book. As he falls in love with Helen, he and the community fall out of love with one another. The stranger, with her outlandish values, provokes and threatens parish norms as endorsed by the comic vicar, Reverend Millward, who regards Helen’s attempt to immunize her son against alcohol as ‘“criminal, I should say – criminal!”…“contrary to Scripture and to reason to teach a child to look with contempt and disgust upon the blessings of Providence”’ (pp. 42–3). Markham’s mother amiably but vacuously polices the community’s patriarchal values in the home, where she ensures that her elder son is nicely spoilt, fed, fussed, and endorses the scandalous rumours circulating about the stranger at Wildfell, for ‘“I always thought there was something odd about her. – You see what it is for women to affect to be different from other people”’ (p. 89). Social comedy after the manner of Jane Austen characterizes Markham’s letters but they also incorporate glimpses of another, emotionally and intellectually ampler world, as the text rises in a chapter entitled ‘A Controversy’ to the style of a novel of
ideas. In a powerfully argued Miltonic debate about experience, choice and temptation, Helen contests the segregated education of male and female, with its over-protection of girls and over-exposure of boys.
The intimation of worlds beyond the insular tea-party world of innuendo and rumour recurs in the view of the sea in Chapter 7, ‘The Excursion’, which kindles the haughty and sombre Helen into ‘a smile of exalted, glad intelligence as her eye met mine’ (p. 65). Anne Brontë recaptures the magic of her own sea-visits to Scarborough which would call her back as she was dying: it was her version of the ‘oceanic feeling’ which Emily Brontë associated with the moors. After Anne’s death, Charlotte was to remember her in large vistas: ‘the distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon’.
The woman artist at the cliff-edge who ‘plied her solitary task’ recalls Anne Brontë’s pencil-sketch of a young girl looking out to sea in valediction or welcome, towards a sun that is rising or setting. But even here the low style is held, as the callow, magnetized lover–narrator hovers round the artist, aspersing plain women, ‘grumbling’, wheedling, sulking. Later, in a spasm of jealous rage, Markham astoundingly beats her supposed lover, Lawrence, delivering ‘a powerful blow’, for which, even with the advantage of twenty years’ mature consideration, he does not know whether to claim ‘credit’ or ‘blame’. Then he leaves him for dead. Later he uncouthly apologizes. The unstable tone of this episode repelled reviewers, who felt, like E. P. Whipple in the
North American Review
that Markham ‘would serve as the ruffian of any other novelist’ but ‘seems to be a favourite with the author’.
It was generally assumed that Acton and Ellis Bell were one person, ‘violent’, ‘coarse’ and ‘brutal’.
fails to comprehend its twin narrators as does
in its system of ‘Chinese box’ encapsulations.
Markham’s character constantly flies asunder, and whether the author or the character cannot hold him together is at times unclear. Maybe Anne felt men did not really make sense, a suspicion that has occurred to women before and since. As Charlotte Brontë wrote to Miss Wooler, ‘You ask me if I do not think men are strange beings. I
do indeed – and I think too that the mode of bringing them up is strange.’
Any flaw in design is not fatal. In some respects the instability vitalizes the link between the inner and major plot told by Helen’s diary and the outer domesticated realism: for the males of
Wildfell Hall are
unstable. Ironically, they are what men have conventionally called women:
varium et mutabile semper
. Branwell Brontë, himself driven by violent rages, directionless impulses, hypersensitive outbursts, wrote of his
, Charles Wentworth, ‘as to fixed detail of character, he had none’.
Markham describes himself indulgently as ‘a little bit spoiled by my mother and sister, and some other ladies of my acquaintance’ (p. 36). ‘Spoiled’ men are the tragic centre of the novel. Huntingdon is so totally spoiled that he can never grow up; Markham emerges from the narcissism that makes his judgements shallow (his preference for the silly and mean Eliza, his dismissiveness of the ‘nonentity’, plain Mary Millward). The infantile basis of the conditioned male psyche is humorously explored in the figure of Huntingdon, jealous of his own baby as a competitor for mother’s attentions (‘“That’s more, in one minute, lavished on that little senseless, thankless oyster, than you have given me these three weeks past’” (p. 242)), for Arthur is also ‘“a little selfish, senseless, sensualist”’, from cradle-days petted and privileged, and the novel asks: what if babies ruled the world?
It answers: they already do.
Reviewers, largely themselves male, naturally took exception to this depiction of males as either infantile or depraved.
Sharpe’s London Magazine
was shocked at the portrayal of women as ‘superior in every quality, moral and intellectual, to all the men’, who ‘appear at once coarse, brutal, and contemptibly weak, at once disgusting and ridiculous’.
pointed out that all that was good or attractive about Acton Bell’s male characters ‘is or might be womanish’.
The author had searched the males of her acquaintance for signs of a higher nature: she had not found it conspicuous in a range of men from the lovable but unreliable William Weightman, to violently authoritarian men like her employer Joshua Ingham of
Blake Hall, and especially Branwell and his drinking cronies. Indulged as the only boy in a family of six, Branwell was a temperamental being who would ‘drive his first through the panel of a door’ to find relief from his powerful feelings: warm-hearted and void of purpose, he drifted into the arms of the fraternity of debauch. Anne Brontë, herself an educator, analysed the lack of sense and reason amongst males as the consequence of a value-system based on the worship of machismo. ‘“By G—d he drinks like a man”’, was a compliment Lord Byron had proudly reported of himself.
To hold your liquor was accounted then as now a sign of virility. Anne Brontë’s analysis, linking the mild case of Markham with the terminal case of Huntingdon, also bonds the debate in the opening section with the demonstration in the diary account, where the men pass round their needful alcohol like a baby’s bottle, stupefying themselves and creating mayhem for the women to clear up. At Linden-Car, the community expresses its view, through derision, that for a woman to guard and guide her son is to turn him into ‘“the veriest milksop that ever was sopped”’, ‘“you’ll spoil his spirit, and make a mere Miss Nancy of him”’ (pp. 31, 33). Helen’s diary, the testimony of experience, ironizes this prejudice, for the fraternity of the bottle is revealed as the real milksops, a gang of soaks who urge one another on to ‘“seize the bottle and suck away’” (p. 193), in a perpetual uproar, like children bereft of supervision. They remain in the equivalent of a ruffianly childhood, running amok, fighting, throwing things, cursing for effect, shamelessly baring their addled brains to public view. Huntingdon is in effect hardly literate: he unlearns the art of letter-writing and fails to compute his finances. Grimsby, who prides himself on his capacity to ‘“take three times as much as they have tonight”’, cannot tell a saucer from a cup for the purposes of pouring cream, and mistakes the sugar-basin for a slop-bowl (p. 275). All are at the stage of resourceless children requiring the stimulation of amusements, their sole occupations being gaming and hunting. Helen’s letters quoted in the final part of Markham’s narrative conclude the demonstration with a final terrifying proof of the construction of ‘“the veriest milksop that ever was sopped” ‘ by male upbringing and privilege, in the pathetic death of Huntingdon,
utterly dependent, helpless, clinging to ‘mother’. For he has no soul to call his own.
Helen’s diary builds a case against the marriage laws of Anne Brontë’s day, in the light of this disastrous acculturation of males. Several years after the publication of
, the case of Mrs Norton focused the deep injustice of the marriage laws.
Her husband brought legal actions against her on the grounds of adultery with Lord Melbourne. When she was proved innocent, he deprived her of her children, refused her maintenance, and claimed what she had earned for herself by writing pamphlets, all of which he could legitimately do, since a married woman was feme covert, having no legal existence in her own right and hence no right to own property (being herself property), save in the form of the ‘settlements’ of statute law. As the popular summary had it, ‘Husband and wife are one person under the law, and that person is the husband’. Anne Brontë’s novel is in part a polemic against these abuses of reason and human rights. Helen has no redress against her husband’s raids on decency. She cannot obtain a divorce when his adultery with Annabella, and later with ‘Miss Myers’, the ‘governess’, is detected; though as a male and a peer, Annabella’s husband can. She has no legal right to the pen in her hand, the diary in which she writes, her paints and canvases, her pictures, or the earnings from those pictures; nor can she call her son her own, but must steal him from the house in which they belong. It is important to recognize that the tenant of Wildfell Hall lives outside the law; is an outlaw. The uncontrollable ‘baby’ has legal right of control over the self-commanding woman.
These themes extend the logic of Anne Brontë’s ‘governess’ story,
, which examined the education of young males at the stage where they bond with other males in contempt of women. Uncle Robson applauds the sadism of young Tom, as ‘with fiendish glee’ he salivates over the pleasure of torturing and dismembering baby birds:
a good un!…Damme, but the lad has some spunk in him too! Curse me, if ever I saw a nobler little scoundrel than that! He’s beyond petticoat government already: by G—, he defies mother, granny, governess,
and all! Ha, ha, ha! Never mind, Tom, I’ll get you another brood tomorrow.’ (Chapter 5)
Agnes’s mercy-killing is seen as a sin against the God-given right of a human boy to mutilate a ‘soulless brute’. But who is the soulless brute: human boy or helpless animal? If Anne’s first novel taught its reader to reassess the doctrine of ‘spunk’ and to inquire what was meant by ‘nobility’ when applied to male behaviour, it also brought into relief the trampling of ‘petticoat government’ over which the male establishment straddles, gun in hand, mimed by the fledgeling male ‘with his legs wide apart, his hands thrust into his breeches-pockets’ in ‘an ecstasy of delight’ – a posture at once ludicrous, shameful and dismaying. Since maternal values were equated with nurture, tenderness, restraint and reason, such ‘petticoat government’ would also be Christian government.
takes this analysis a step further. The males swagger with their guns. Their sports are blood-sports. In a horrifying image, the amorous Huntingdon ambles over to Annabella and Helen ‘all spattered and splashed as he was, and stained with the blood of his prey’ (p. 161). For the female of our own species is also the object of male ‘sport’ and the stain Huntingdon wears will widen to include some of Helen’s life’s blood. His ‘friend’ Hargrave soon joins the hunt for prey by subjecting Helen to a campaign of what would today be called sexual harassment. The phallic gun of the sportsmen dominates the novel (Markham too shoots game on his estate) and the shooters time their year according to the hunting calendar: ‘“Are you too busy making love…” ‘, Helen’s uncle joshes Huntingdon, ‘“to make war with the pheasants? – First of October remember!”’ (p. 185). Anne and Emily had kept a pet pheasant along with the geese in the outhouse: in her 1834 diary paper, Emily had noted: ‘I fed Rainbow, Diamond, Snowflake, Jasper phaesant’ [sic].
Branwell killed pheasants and grouse on the moors and painted himself with his unarmed sisters in a now lost portrait called ‘The Gun Group’, weapon raised, dead birds displayed on the table before them. As Hargrave seeks to compromise his wife, Hattersley is outside the door, ‘busy with his ramrod and his gun’ (p. 358), ready to accompany his friends in a pheasant-kill, and
shortly discharges against Helen ‘a volley of the vilest and grossest abuse’ at the thought that she is engaged in an adulterous liaison. Having rammed the charge down into the barrel of one gun, the sportsman turns in legitimized violence against his wife, whose defences are the pen, the mind, and the palette-knife of her trade turned outwards (p. 358). Yet these are potent defences, and Helen does not go the way of Lucrece and Clarissa.
The power to make this feminist statement derived from Anne Brontë’s Christian belief: she represents a development of radical Protestantism which insists on the right and duty of the individual to interpret the Scriptures for herself in the light of the Spirit’s promptings, and to make known her understanding. The Authorized Version of the Bible is warp and weft of the discourse of
, both as a code of belief and behaviour and as a sacred poem, a polyphony of voices, speaking not only of the comfort and admonition of the Gospels, especially Jesus’ parables (Dives and Lazarus, the house built on sand, the sower, the talents, the grain of mustard seed) but in prophetic condemnation of social evils (the ‘vanity’ motif of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Proverbs) and the mourning voice of affliction and exile (Lamentations, Job, the Psalms). The strong-minded woman author gives the flabby-minded male narrator initially only a casual and shallow understanding of Scripture: he quotes speciously and spends his time in church ogling the beautiful stranger. Later, having read the diary and under the influence of Helen’s passionate spirituality, he will be caught up unawares into her vision of eternity, and, awed into serious appraisal of the Christian vision for the first time in his life, will be alarmed at the glaring prospect, not of hell but of heaven: ‘“But can
, Helen, contemplate with delight this prospect of losing me in a sea of glory?”’ (p. 405). The commonplace mind (and Gilbert claims to be no more than an ordinary, shabby, wanting man) is shocked and baffled by a mind like Helen’s – and her author’s – to which the Absolute is literally real. The voice of the diary is rich and deep with biblical allusion, strenuously expressing the depths of Helen’s clarifying suffering and dark enlightenment, in the aftermath of her
giddy, tragic marriage-choice. Anne Brontë’s Protestant vision encompassed awareness of the depravity to which fallen people could sink, along with a refusal of the doctrine of hell, which she believed incompatible with a God of Love. Helen’s debate with her pious but untender aunt concerning the destination of the ‘reprobate’ (Chapter 20) trades conflicting biblical texts. Here Anne Brontë plays out on the page the agonizing personal conflict which in an illness of 1837 had brought to her bedside the Moravian minister, James La Trobe, to lead her to a belief in universal salvation – a conflict which occupies many of her lyric poems, with their sense of unworthiness and their yearning tenderness towards Jesus:
I cannot say my faith is strong,
I dare not hope my love is great,
But strength and love to Thee belong,
O, do not leave me desolate.
Anne’s lyric poems, which she called ‘pillars of witness’
recorded a hope without which she felt her spirit would fail her that ‘Even the wicked shall at last / Be fitted for the skies’ (‘A Word to the Calvinists’, 37–8). It was a desperate issue, always a source of introspective conflict, to which she accorded the status of ‘hope’, never a dogmatic certainty; and
articulates that conflict, not its resolution. Anne Brontë had been subject to periods of religious doubt when, like Branwell, she wondered if God existed at all; and, if he did, could he care for her? Her austere quatrains wrestle with doubt. Branwell too had wrestled and been thrown. Then he had run away:
‘Tis something far more dread
Which haunts me in my dying bed!
I have lost – long lost – my trust in Thee!
I cannot hope that Thou wilt hear
The unrepentant sinner’s prayer!
So, whither must my spirit flee
For succour through Eternity?
attempts to encounter the terrors which were the
converse of Branwell’s self-consciously Byronic defiance of heaven. Huntingdon, more trivial and worldly than Branwell, becomes a shallow Faustus in his ending: ‘“But death
come – it is coming now – fast, fast! – and – Oh, if I
believe there was nothing after!”…“I
repent; I only fear.”’ (p. 445). After his death, Helen clings to her hope that her husband’s soul ‘is not lost, and God, who hateth nothing that He hath made,
bless it in the end” ‘ (p. 447). It is necessary for a secular reader to appreciate that Anne Brontë took her faith with literality: if God was real, he was real not nominally, hypothetically or on Sundays, but in the here-and-now of every day, in an urgent sense. But people do not see him; the material world is mistaken for reality, while the air throngs with transparent agencies of light and the legion shadows of evil. They do not hear their own casual blasphemies blackening their tongues and turning all their speeches into self-damning ironies. The drama of the ‘diary’ narrative uncovers the eternal implications of casual deeds and conventional language, especially the language of profane love. ‘“Sweet angel, I adore you!’”, says Huntingdon, manipulating Helen with exploitative demands and familiar touching of her body; but her aunt interrupts, ‘And I left him, muttering maledictions against his evil angel’ (p. 147). Rescued from the attentions of the unappealing Mr Wilmot, she feels ‘It was like turning from some purgatorial fiend to an angel of light, come to announce that the season of torment was past’ (p. 146). But the season of torment is just beginning, and the bright-haired, beautiful young man is racing his fellow reprobates down the road to hell – and winning.
is a dissenting sister of
, it is also spiritual kin to Charlotte Brontë’s
. Sharing the passionate truth to self of Charlotte’s novel and with something of the mutinous energy of Jane’s ‘I’, which begets itself in the reader who shares her journey, the ‘diary’ section of
(Chapters 16–44) also represents its territories as landscapes of the mind, viewed in the light of eternity. Jane makes Bunyanesque linear passage from one emblematic resting-place and tempting-place to another – from Gateshead, through Lowood, Thprnfield, Whitcross, to Moor End, whence, having acquired an independent inheritance and the romantic
equivalent of the Puritan ‘call’, she circles back via the destroyed Thornfield, the site of Rochester’s atonement, to sanctuary at Ferndene. But Helen’s journey, from Staningley to Grassdale, escaping to Wildfell, only to return via Grassdale to Staningley, ultimate sole heir to both, is viewed both retrospectively and prospectively from the way-stage of Wildfell. The ‘progress’ is therefore not as clearly marked. The struggling, implicated quality of human life is more evident in
as Helen is tainted by the corruption she cannot escape: ‘I HATE him! The word stares me in the face like a guilty confession, but it is true: I hate him – I hate him!’ (p. 308); ‘Instead of being humbled and purified by my afflictions, I feel that they are turning my nature into gall’ (p. 313). Grassdale bears a weight of symbolic meaning comparable with the pilgrim’s sojourns in
: at first it is a fool’s paradise, then a false paradise. Lush and tender descriptions of its natural beauty are blighted not only by the loneliness of Huntingdon’s absence but by the lurking of a snake in the grass, Hargrave, a cold comment upon the intemperately warm-hearted attempt to master Jane by Rochester. Insinuating himself into Helen’s good graces in a scene of wistfully Edenic beauty, Hargrave resembles Milton’s Satan’s slyly ingratiating approaches to Eve in
. The sense of paradisal innocence is conveyed by a tenderly observed scene of play between mother, nurse and child in the grace of a ‘sweet, warm evening’ in the park:
I was standing with Rachel beside the water, amusing the laughing baby in her arms with a twig of willow laden with golden catkins, when greatly to my surprise, he entered the park, mounted on his costly black hunter, and crossed over the grass to meet me. (pp. 246–7)
This sinister figure again penetrates the lyrical scene of Helen kneeling before her baby, ‘having gathered a handful of bluebells and wild roses… and presenting them, one by one, to the grasp of his tiny fingers’ (p. 250). Hargrave, the dark mounted figure on the ‘costly black hunter’ hunts Helen with sexual threat which culminates in the chess-game of Chapter 33, so reminiscent of the chess-scene in Middleton’s tragedy,
Women Beware Women
Grassdale represents a paradise already lost in the moment of enjoyment: Helen must
substitute for its idyll the Miltonic ‘paradise within thee, happier far’ (XII. 587) in her flight from its bounds. The house becomes a hell on earth, and the repeated ‘hell’ chimes with Helen’s name. Her sufferings culminate in the detection of Huntingdon and his mistress in sexual play in the shrubbery, where Helen’s husband swears ‘“by all that’s sacred”’ that he no longer loves his wife (p. 303). In this moment of absolute affliction, the prose deepens to a throbbing biblical intensity reminiscent
of Jane Eyre
: in the extremity of need is vouchsafed a breathing of grace and the fellowship of the creation in a vision of the stars: ‘I knew their God was mine, and He was strong to save and swift to hear’ (p. 303).
One of the novel’s triumphs is to make Arthur Huntingdon not a fiend incarnate but an immature, boyish figure, with real gaiety, some warmth and charm, who feels as deep a tenderness for his wife as he knows how to feel. Possessive and despotic in his initial affection for Helen, he lavishes affectionate attention on her, and craves total attention in return. Jealous of all that distracts her from him (‘when he sees me occupied with a book, he won’t let me rest till I close it’ (p. 208), Huntingdon has no inner resources and hence is easily bored, filling the time when Helen runs out of amusements for him by ‘lolling’ beside her on the sofa trying to arouse her jealousy by spinning tales of former amours. Their honeymoon is a bizarre scamper round Europe, which is no novelty to him and whose fascinations he begrudges to his wife ‘in as much as it proved that I could take delight in anything disconnected with himself (p. 203). Objecting to her religious devotion, he explains that ‘“it is enough to make one jealous of one’s Maker – which is very wrong, you know; so don’t excite such wicked passions again, for my soul’s sake” ‘ (p. 204). Helen’s locking of her door against her spouse is a memorable act of feminist defiance; it is also an episode in a banal household row, which reflects credit on neither party. The next morning Huntingdon seethes with malign sulks; it rains; he yawns, fidgets, drinks, bangs doors and strikes the cocker spaniel off ‘with a smart blow’. The dog retreats and, when its master wants to pet it again, cleaves to Helen and will not come. ‘Enraged at this, his
master snatched up a heavy book and hurled it at his head’ (p. 212). Helen lets it out Such minor fracas are proleptic. Helen will love; be abused; recoil in anger and hurt; and, for her recoil (interpreted as rejection) be rejected; then she will reject in earnest. The particular quarrel is resolved within the chapter, in which the tension is broken by her yielding to his not very abject penitence and caresses. But it sets up a pattern of deterioration which is mercilessly inexorable, for Helen’s very character in its forthrightness and integrity have the ironic effect of alienating her husband. The narrative moves in a rhythm of mounting misery with pauses and reprieves; chapters end on upbeats of hope or downbeats of apprehension as skilfully managed dynamic scenes of quarrel are played out, in which both manoeuvre for advantage. ‘What shall I do with the serious part of myself?’ ends Chapter 22 ominously. ‘I trust we shall be happy yet,’ Chapter 24 falteringly concludes.
Long before Helen has consciously recognized her bad bargain, the reader has understood that there is nothing to Arthur Huntingdon. It is not that he is an intrinsically evil person. He is a brat. The centre is painfully hollow. Even Huntingdon seems conscious of this absence of something vital in his human make-up: gentle when ill after his first major debauch, he turns thankfully to Helen, as though her resources could serve for them both. A real pathos surrounds him. But he must fill his emptiness with excitement and intrigue, and in the measure that Helen withdraws from this compulsion, she helps to empty him further, so that he must have more gratification. He pours drink into himself; fills his house with the roaring fraternity; courts that fine animal, Annabella; abuses Helen. Helen’s tenderness is hard to kill; its durability is expressed when she sees a letter in Hargrave’s hand, ‘with Arthur’s still beloved hand on the address’ (p. 251). The author does not allow us to forget how sexually attractive and childishly appealing Huntingdon is: how puzzled (when he can be bothered to think) by the circumstances he is creating. But Huntingdon’s behaviour is not an isolated instance; it belongs to a social norm for élite males. In the confraternity, Anne Brontë studies the dynamics of group mentality, the mutual reinforcement of male ‘club’ behaviour. The melancholy and Byronic Lord Lowborough’s
betrayal to drink, drugs and suicidal despair, taunted with unmanliness by his ‘friends’ and his adulterous wife; Hattersley’s abuse of his ‘invitingly meek and mim’ wife, the timorous Milicent; the cynicism of Hargrave’s sexual approaches and Grimsby’s squalid antics represent a group code which not only legitimates but authorizes infantilism as a norm. Hattersley is redeemed; Hargrave repelled; Lowborough divorces, to begin a new life: only Huntingdon is entirely destitute of hope. Anne Brontë focuses the nihilism attendant on terminal weakness and self-indulgence; spoilt in this life, he is spoilt for the next world. We smile at his Branwellian antics in church, perusing his Prayer Book upside down, adopting a ‘puritanical air of mock solemnity’: ‘“I’ll come home sighing like a furnace, and full of the savour and unction of dear Mr Blatant’s discourse –”’ (p. 174). Bran well too had monkeyed about in his pew and had a running joke about how ‘two fireballs’ (brandy with egg) make the tippler ‘a brand plucked from the burning’
– Wesley’s favourite text for his own conversion. Branwell too had been spoilt, and lost. As his friend Grundy put it, ‘he was just a man moving in a mist who lost his way’.
The reality of such loss and such burning are borne out in Huntingdon’s death-scene, an evasion of ‘repentance’ by one who has misplaced his soul and now, in extreme need, cannot lay claim to it: ‘“I’m not going to die yet. – I can’t and won’t.” ’ He clings to the person who has kept hers (‘“Helen, you
save me!” ’) and tries to grapple her down into the grave with him, to answer for him. His last words are ‘“Don’t leave me!’” (pp. 441–7). He dies, indeed, without being weaned.
Helen’s testament is a story of double temptation and double failure: Huntingdon’s and her own. The diary throws the mature woman of 1828 back to her susceptible, needy and spirited girlhood at the beginning of the decade, the pert niece of a severe aunt whose anxious piety is counter-productive in provoking mischievous answers. When Aunt Maxwell points out the horror of finding your husband ‘“a worthless reprobate, or even an impractical fool”’, Helen flightily wonders, ‘“But what are all the poor fools and reprobates to do, aunt?”’ and mentions the danger of depopulation (p. 132). The levity in Helen is evidently fair game for Huntingdon’s
sparkling flightiness: but Helen is a complex, deep, and deepening character. The notion she boasts of ‘saving’ her irresponsible spouse – a favourite female myth of the mid-nineteenth century – is exposed as rash arrogance, the tragic flaw of pride which brings her falling headlong. It unleashes in Huntingdon a Nemesis whose black taunts she has herself invited: ‘“Yes,
, my immaculate angel…”’ (p. 441). Helen’s diary plots her downward course into disillusion, hurt, rage, moral petrification and embitterment. To her alarm, she begins to adapt to the debased norms of Grassdale,
till I am familiarized with vice and almost a partaker in his sins. Things that formerly shocked and disgusted me now seem only natural… Fool that I was to dream that I had strength and purity enough to save myself and him! (p. 262)
Her temper sours; her tongue lashes out, for ‘I am no angel’ (p. 267). Helen wrestles not only against her husband but against herself, for her own soul. The two climaxes of action come in Chapter 33, the anguished scene in the shrubbery in which she comes face to face with her husband’s adultery; and Chapter 40, the centre of violation, in which Huntingdon rakes through her diary, discovers her savings and has her paintings burned, a spiritual rape. Huntingdon’s early proposal to ‘“Let me have its bowels then”’, as he eviscerates her portfolio, and rifles the contents (p. 160), proleptically foreshadows the vandalizing of Helen’s inner and private world and the destruction of her means of subsistence.