The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Infidelity in Victorian England: Double Standards Based on Gender and Class
Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wild fell Hall is a novel in which the plights of the female protagonist overlap with the issues faced by the majority of women in the Victorian Era of England. The book raises questions of the Brontës’ family’s sisters own experience with infidelity, alcoholism, and overall debauchery pertaining to the men in their life. The sisters shared the two men closest to them, Branwell and their father Patrick, as well as the escapades that came with these family members, specifically Branwell. Branwell was well known for his inability to keep a job, however he is more similar to Arthur Huntingdon, the abusive antagonist of the novel, in their shared love of alcohol, gambling, and adultery whether within their own respective relationships or the relationships of other prestigious community members. Huntingdon’s wife Helen is the female protagonist of the novel, though she faces criticism throughout for her inability to detach herself from her physically and emotionally abusive husband. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an introduction to a more shocking variety of the Brontës’ literature; the novel covers topics that were not considered acceptable for social conversations, but aimed more towards the Victorian women who felt gossip was just as acceptable as intellectual conversations. However, it is not simply about adultery, but also the unfair repercussions women in this time period faced vs. their male significant others, and how those below a certain social class could not legally separate because of the literal high cost of divorce. There lies the motivation of Helen Huntingdon to stay somewhat attached to the man she married; as a woman in this time Helen’s rights were already diminished; by divorcing her husband, Helen faced the very real possibility of losing her son, any money she brought into the marriage, and all standing in the social world.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is based around the obsession surrounding the newest occupant of a long-forgotten vacant building. While she does not make it easier on herself by hiding, the people of the surrounding area are instantly overtaken by a necessity to know and understand the beautiful woman who has just moved in. Helen Graham is her name, and she leads a quiet life with her young son Arthur, both are purposely removed from the hustle and bustle of the local town. This unwillingness to throw herself into the social scene causes a frenzy in itself; local males are interested in the prospect of a new woman to woo, while local females are instantly jealous of the splash this young woman is not attempting to make. Soon our main protagonist, Gilbert Markham, finds himself unable to ignore the gossip and slander of the townspeople that do not know her and vows to make it his mission to uncover the entire truth around her spontaneous arrival and the questions that surround it. He learns the woman’s name is actually Helen Huntingdon, and, over time, it is revealed she is on the run from the alcoholic, abusive father of her only child who shares his father’s name. She has assumed a different name and taken on this quiet persona in an attempt to prevent him from coming and taking not only their child, but any chance said child had at growing up to be a young man of exceptional character. However, it becomes quite clear that Helen is incapable of severing her relationship with Arthur Huntingdon completely; his hold on her is legal as well as emotional and Helen cannot help but be drawn back to him in his time of need. As Arthur is preparing to die Helen returns to his side to make him as comfortable as possible, though it is not until after his death that she herself can truly be free and comfortable. Throughout this time Gilbert has not heard from her or of her until there is announcement for her marriage. Quickly he races to her, only to find that the wedding is between Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s brother, and Helen’s friend, Esther Hargrave. Though he fears Helen is far above him in terms of status and wealth, the two come back together as lovers and marry. Victorian England is a setting in which women were more often than not seen as lesser than their male counterparts; whether it be in the world of business transactions or relationships, though these two were often synonymous. Marriage, especially in the gentry, was more about the social, political, and economic ramifications than the wants of the two young adults involved. (Nicolaou 8) Feelings were often considered unnecessary to a new relationship, instead couples would learn to live with each other and eventually produce children to carry on the family legacy and, more importantly, the family name. A natural consequence of these relationships was the mistreatment of significant others through adulterous behavior; often these secret relationships were between the male head of the household and a young lady who has caught his eye, if only for her forbidden nature. Beginning in the era of King Henry VIII, an aura of cynicism surrounded marriage as his own divorce cracked the already fragile relationship between subject and king. From there secularization took ahold of England “…the most common eighteenth-century term to indicate changing attitudes towards religion was the spread of ‘infidelity.’” (Patricia Corfield 1) Defined in the dictionary as transferring from the power of the church to a civil or lay power, marriage was no longer a sacred bond between man and woman; instead, families looked to merge their blood lines in hopes of saving money as well as keeping the gentry in its safe, little, bubble. Desire to marry outside of one’s class was either seen as incredibly rebellious and idiotic or insanely optimistic, depending on the direction one would like to move on the class pyramid. These are the building blocks on which marriages of a purely financial or social sort were based.
Growing up with an older brother such as Branwell, Anne Brontë was exposed to a life of hard drinking, opium addiction, and blatant favoritism based on gender; though this life was not her own. As Patricia Ingham notes, Branwell was “talented, vain, ambitious, but given to dissipation and depression. (Ingham 9) Anne was merely a bystander watching the life of her brother, three years her superior, as he drank away his business opportunities, any formal training he received, and any sort of creative outlet that had come his way. His painting career was going nowhere and his inability to write left the remaining Brontë sisters to write literally for their lives. They would now become the breadwinners of the household as they all quickly realized the men in their life could not provide such a comfort. Branwell is important to the idea of infidelity and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because of his own brush with infidelity, or more specifically a married woman. (Spark 17) Furthermore, his dangerous lifestyle is perfect inspiration for the antagonist of the novel, Mr. Huntingdon; as mentioned before both Arthur and Branwell seem to take kindly to a bottle of whatever alcohol is closest accompanied by rather inappropriate, shameful behavior. Lisa Surridge writes about the comparison between animals who have been abused by their owners, and women who have faced abuse from their husbands though she admits this comparison was first made by Anne Brontë. Anne found the “female passivity” and “doctrine of the closed home” in novels pre-dating her own disgusting; the attempt to normalize marital abuse in these novels was in disagreement with the ideals in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. (Surridge 73) There is also a discussion of the meaning of masculinity within this novel, Helen faces drunkenness, marital infidelity, gambling, and swearing from Arthur, yet his friends do not see this as abuse. Rather, in the upper-class circles Mr. Huntingdon was a part of this behavior was seen as manly, as noted by Juliet McMaster. This is a statement not only about the differing views on marriage and the treatment of women, but also about how members of varying social classes approached married life. The “masculine domestic behavior” noted by Surridge was deliberately chosen by Anne Brontë as a way to portray the unacceptable treatment of woman in the Victorian regency.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a novel that exposed a dark secret among many Victorian upper-class families. The discussion this novel began was one many husbands and even a few wives did not want to have; Anne Brontë brought the very real issue of abuse and adultery into the private home and created a dialogue on a topic that previously remained in the shadows. This was not Anne’s first encounter with adultery however; her brother, Branwell, as mentioned previously, had been responsible for assisting his mistress and boss in committing adultery against her husband. Branwell thus provided an obvious inspiration for the antagonist of TWH, though Anne had hoped he would grow from his experiences and exit a life of blasphemous behavior, no such day ever came. It seems Anne was not the only one who wished her brother would feel remorse for his life of sin and worldly pleasures; Charlotte also had hopes that Branwell would seek forgiveness and repent, especially in his last days on this earth. (Thormählen 119) This is one additional parallel between Arthur Huntingdon and Branwell Brontë, both found themselves on their death bed with loved ones wishing they would seek God and the forgiveness He so openly offers. However, Branwell finally strays from his alter-ego, he repents and asks God to accept him and to forgive him for the life he has lead.
The build-up of deceitful behavior at his first post comes to a head when Anne so kindly gives him work at the same estate as herself. Though this gives Anne a front-row seat to the drama that will unfold it also casts a shadow on the Brontë name throughout the tutoring and governess world. Perhaps Anne had just grown too frustrated with Branwell’s selfish actions and his disregard for how these actions would affect the very sister that helped him to earn his job, but her creation of the character Arthur Huntingdon is easily a direct comparison to her brother. His choice to carry on an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of the man who was not only Branwell’s boss but also Anne’s. (Spark 18) For close to three years this affair carried on under the nose of these two Brontës’ employer, though when it ended Branwell had become so deeply involved that he believed it was truly love, a claim backed up by no one. (Lewis) This plays quite a role in the creation of Mr. Huntingdon and, by complete accident, exemplifies the process of infidelity and the reactions once it is found out.
Helen Huntingdon’s biggest fears regarding her husband Arthur come from a place of true terror; taking away her son is a completely legitimate option for him, as he is the male in the relationship and therefore has quite a few more legal rights and options regarding the fate of his son. Even though Arthur is the one who has committed adultery in his relationship with Helen, she knows she must abide by his wishes to stay in the house until she can figure out a way to literally escape her marriage and her own home. In Victorian England, there were few laws that supported women in their attempts to legally divorce their husbands and even fewer to assist them in winning possession of any sort of estate, wealth, or even the children. This is not to say a man attempting to receive a religious and secular divorce had it easy; the hoops most husbands had to jump through were somewhat ridiculous and included getting two witnesses to testify to the relationship’s good-standing before the wife committed adultery. This being said it was often found that adultery in women was a “…sustained campaign by her husband to find enough proof to justify a divorce.” (Nicolaou 107-108) Much like the observations of Anne on her dearest and only brother Branwell, Helen Huntingdon noticed the increase in the pattern of drinking, gambling, and general moral decay in her husband as time went on. Though for a man this would have been enough to begin the case for a divorce, Helen did not have the servants on her side to be her witnesses or to even corroborate her side of the story. Seeing as Mr. Huntingdon was the head of the household he could guarantee these servants regular employment for keeping their mouths shut or for saying whatever he needed them to, especially when it came to his loveless relationship with Helen. This wasn’t a rare occurrence in Victorian England, servants often were used in divorce cases as witnesses for the husband who could afford to keep them on the payroll once his wife was gone. (Nicolaou 109)
Another difficulty of divorce in the Victorian Era was the cost; the price to leave a loveless marriage was around $64,000 in today’s estimation. (Nicolaou 108) This means that those below a certain social class could not be guaranteed a divorce at all, often resulting in separations where both parties were still legally married with no interest in being together at all. For women, it was necessary to consider social standing in a marriage not only to increase her own wealth if the marriage is to succeed, but also because if the marriage fails she needs to have options in considering a divorce. (Nicolaou 20) Furthermore, social classes came into play as men who beat their wives often resided in the higher social classes where gossip was kept to a whisper and offering to help was not a feasible option lest you commit a social atrocity. The men of the upper classes have also been taught that wives are similar to “…domestic animals abused by their owners.” (Surridge 73) These men were able to hid behind their money and influence to ensure they’re discretions, in this case physically, emotionally, and mentally beating their wives, was not an issue with local law enforcement or government. Comparably, men in even slightly lower classes who held less local influence and who had less money still could not hide behind such privilege. Gilbert is our best example of this and he is seen as “puppy” by Helen (Brontë 14) until he truly begins “exerting rule” over those who surround him. (Brontë 8)
Nicolaou, Maria. Divorced, Beheaded, Sold: Ending an English Marriage 1500-1847. Pen and Sword, 2014.
“Real-Life Brontë scandal.” York Press, 8 Nov. 2011, www.yorkpress.co.uk/features/features/9372502.Real_life_Bront___scandal/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017.
“Branwell Bronte Biography.” Haworth, www.haworth-village.org.uk/brontes/branwell/branwell.asp. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017.
Spark, Muriel. The Essence of the Brontës : A Compilation with Essays. Carcanet Press Ltd, 2014.
Valbuena, Olga L. Subjects to the king’s divorce: equivocation, infidelity, and resistance in early modern England. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2003.
Thormählen, Marianne. The Brontës and Religion. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Surridge, Lisa A. Bleak Houses : Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Ohio University Press, 2005. Ingham, P. (2006). The Brontës. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Surridge, L. A. (2005). Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Voice and Consent in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The modern idea of consent usually refers to sexual consent, something that the average adult is ideally intellectually capable of providing or withholding. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), Anne Brontë weaves a feminist manifesto through a humble woman’s rejection of an abusive marriage. Much like some of Anne Brontë’s predecessors such as Frances Burney’s Evelina and even Emily’s Wuthering Heights, the narrative is told through multiple perspectives and stories. Initially Helen Graham seems to be an object as she is the center of attention, gossip, and mystery. However, Anne Brontë moves Helen beyond the reader’s expectation and gives her the ability to consent—whether in saying no to her former husband’s tyrannical behavior or consenting to marry Markham in the end—that is realized despite the majority of her presentation being from Markham’s perspective. This essay will discuss how Anne gives Helen a voice and the ability to consent (similar to the modern idea of consent) in an otherwise patriarchal society, allowing the novel to become a radical text despite its reliance on an older narrative style.
Brontë subtly asserts her feminist narrative voice through her depiction of marriage and its flaws. In Elizabeth Langland’s article “The Voicing of Feminine Desire in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” she describes Helen Graham’s diary entries as “nested” within Gilbert Markham’s male authorship and masculine narrative voice (Langland). Because of this, it may seem difficult to see the novel as a radical text, but she declares that the narrative within a narrative as interacting functions that allow for the voicing of Helen’s desire. A large part of this is seen in how Anne depicts Helen’s marriage with Arthur Huntingdon for what it is: abusive, violent, and manipulative. Even before they marry, Helen’s physical mannerisms depict that he is unwelcome and has potential for danger: “But I had not wandered far before my solitude was interrupted by the only person that could have disturbed my musing, at that moment, without being looked upon as an unwelcome intruder; Mr. Huntingdon came suddenly upon me.…immediately I felt his strong arm round my waist and his warm kiss on my cheek, while his keen and gleeful salutation, ‘My own Helen!’ was ringing in my ear. ‘Not yours yet,’ said I, hastily swerving aside from this too presumptuous greeting” (Brontë 146) Helen has an introspective moment to herself to pray and is interrupted with the reality of an unwelcome marriage—specifically through Arthur’s claim of Helen as his own. Even before their marriage, she rejects this advance of ownership and pushes away from his grasp, emphasizing that she is withholding consent to be treated like an owned object. She later does eventually express desire and love for the rakish Arthur against all odds, but the reality of his alcoholism, gambling, potential adultery, and manipulative behavior force her to consider an alternative to her situation. Despite being the most religious and pious of the Brontë sisters, Anne paints a picture of the brutal reality of marriage’s potential to fail, implicating that the finality of marriage should perhaps be reevaluated. She shows how trapped Helen is in a marriage that is ultimately harmful to her and her son’s mental and physical well-being. By exposing the conflict between married ideals and actual married lives, she allows Helen to practice consent and withhold it, ultimately by choosing to escape Arthur with her son. Despite any religious piety, she recognizes that moral objectivism of staying in a terrible marriage is misguided and should be challenged.
Furthermore, Helen’s consent and voice build through her occupation as a professional painter. At first, Helen has no choice but to marry Arthur because she has no familial connections or other fiduciary options. However, she cleverly evaluates her resources to be able to choose to escape her toxic marriage. As a painter, she professionally and analytically approaches her work and deviates from the male gaze’s preconceived notion of the passive female artist. Arthur believes her work to be purely autobiographical or symbolic of her own identity, as seen in his surprise when Helen gives the female subject of her painting light hair rather than dark hair like her own. While Helen’s paintings do have the ability to become a projection of her desire, they more so give her autonomy rather than solely serve as plane for her hopes and fears to manifest. Because she has the talent and enjoyment for painting, she grounds herself in her abilities and takes pride in her work, allowing her to become more comfortable with expressing her emotions in result.
Helen’s consent and vocalization of desire is expressed most positively in her eventual acceptance of Graham Markham. In one of the in final scenes of the novel, it is clear there has been a power shift from Graham to Helen. Helen offers herself (for love and marriage) to Graham through a symbolic alignment with a rose that she finds in the garden: “Look, Gilbert, [the rose] is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals.—Will you have it?” (Brontë 411). Though the reader is only given this moment through Graham’s perspective, Helen’s bold yet wholesome offering moves him to intense emotion and exemplifies not only his feelings for her but the progressive results of a woman expressing desire. After entering a marriage on the premise that she will have to “bring up” the husband from a bad place, Helen reevaluates her desire and expresses them carefully but clearly to attain the relationship she wants. When she cannot read Markham’s reaction to the rose (though the reader knows he is emotionally affected by her offer), she clarifies her intention: “The rose I gave you was an emblem of my heart…would you take it away and leave me here alone?” (Brontë 412). Thinking he misunderstood her, she simplifies what she desires from him, directly voicing vulnerability and a wish that was most likely unusual for a woman at the time to express. Though a humble, pious mother, Helen does not hesitate to express her innermost feelings to show Graham that she desires him, showing her autonomy as a proto-feminist character, despite her expression being shown through Graham’s male narrative voice.
Of the three Brontë sisters, Anne paints in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall perhaps the most honest and controversial picture of domestic abuse and the failure of the law during the time period to protect women from unstable husbands. Helen is able to escape her bad situation, but for many women made powerless through marriage, it was probably not so optimistic. However, Anne regardless gives Helen autonomy as an artist, the ability to provide or choose to withhold consent, and a voice for her desire in the novel, canonizing the text as a proto-feminist effort. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall could even be seen as a response to Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings in the late eighteenth century about female suffering in unloving, manipulative marriages. Though a fictional take on an upper-class female’s position, Anne Brontë’s novel radically gives say—and even more radically, longing—to a woman who is taken advantage of in marriage, challenging female readers to learn from Helen’s experiences, analyze their own relationships, and ultimately find an escape from abuse.
Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Langland, Elizabeth. “The Voicing of Feminine Desire in Anne’s Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Gender and Sexuality in Victorian Literature and Art (1992): 111-123. Document.
Windows as Liminal Spaces in The Tenant of Wildfowl Hall
The Brontë sisters utilized particular spaces in their novels as places of transgression and feminine power, often allowing characters to transcend the confines of civil society, and to commune more closely with the natural world. In Jane Eyre, different spaces such as Gateshead, Lowood School, Thornfield Hall, and Ferndean Manor allowed Jane varying levels of agency in her life and her relationships. Emily Brontë created a tense triad between Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange, and the moors in Wuthering Heights; the energies tied to the estates and the spiritual wildness of the natural world influenced the behavior of the characters throughout the novel. Anne Brontë’s use of space and of windows in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall subtly communicates ways in which the characters transgress social and emotional norms.
Tenant is a novel of tempestuous emotion and trauma, coolly swathed in the textual layers of Gilbert’s letters, Helen’s diary, and Anne’s writing as a whole. The dynamic use of space as a filter allows for the characters’ emotions to be fully felt and confessed. Brontë artfully uses transparency of windows as spaces for transgressive interactions; windows almost attain the status of pseudo Christian confessional. Three specific scenes in Tenant harness the liminal power of the window to emphasize the boundary being approach, crossed, or broken. During Huntingdon’s pursuit of Helen, he literally enters the library by jumping through a window. When Helen shares Millicent’s powerful letters with Hattersley, he must move to the window to fully process his emotions. Finally, at the end of the novel, Helen and Gilbert almost humorously pass in and out of a window to retrieve a white Christmas rose before eventually agreeing to marry. These three instances use the window almost as a processing structure through which to reveal truths and experience vulnerability.
Huntingdon’s unusual entrance through the library window metaphorically continues the ‘hunting sport’ he is returning from; he “threw up the sash, and sprang in” (135) through the window from outside, inappropriately interrupting Helen’s creative work in pursuit of her as his ‘prey’. Huntingdon literally transgresses the spatial boundaries dividing the interior and exterior world, and also violates the norms of proper movement between spaces. The unusual entrance foreshadows Huntingdon’s interruptive character in Helen’s life, and unnatural nature of their later marriage, in which he violates the ordinary boundaries and laws of marriage through adultery (as well as psychological abuse).
Later in the narrative, Helen reveals letters from Hattersley’s wife for him to read; this revelation, which utilizes the written word of a woman as a direct and potent influence on a man’s morality, must be processed by Hattersley near a window in the library. Hattersley’s vulnerability upon hearing his wife’s true opinions are manifested in his bodily reactions of blushing and crying, as well as an element of introspection and emotional processing that takes place while “staring out of the window”. Reading Millicent’s letters provides transparency and enlightenment, both of which are physically manifested with the structural presence of the window. The transparency of windows allows for honest communications between men and women; truth is allowed to ‘pass through’ the gender norms that ordinarily separate candid interactions.
The most significant and literal window-based transgression in Tenant is also a romantic flirtation and a culmination of the novel’s marriage plot. Additionally, it is told from Gilbert’s male perspective rather than Helen’s female one, though all scenes in the novel were created by a female (Anne Brontë), emphasizing the feminine voice over the male. Helen communicates her feelings for Gilbert by “[throwing] open the window and [looking] out” (411) and picking a flower, which she then presents to him as “an emblem of [her] heart” (412). When he misunderstands, she throws the rose back out the window and shuts the window “with an emphasis”; he then leaps out of the window to retrieve it, and the moment is saved. Interestingly, his jump out of the civilized world and into the natural world neatly parallels Huntingdon’s earlier movement from the natural into the civilized; Gilbert, in contrast, brings a physical part of nature back into the boundaried interior, which is further reflected in his genuine and truthful love for Helen. The scene is particularly transgressive because Helen almost proposes to Gilbert, asserting her claim over the narrative and reversing traditional gender roles of a Victorian marriage plot. The window is an essential element of the spatial and emotional organization of the scene; Helen accesses the symbolic rose, which allows her to transgressively and openly express her love for Gilbert. The scene allows the characters to finally reach an element of emotional transparency after several miscommunications and misunderstandings throughout the novel.
Anne Brontë’s harnesses the visceral power of space and transparency to directly express deep emotion. She also describes the structural boundaries of the physical world as a way for the characters in the novel to breach social and gendered boundaries. The liminality of the window-spaces in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall often transparently express the deeper themes of the text itself, as well as the reality of the female experience in modern Victorian society.