Saturday, May 28, 2011

403. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte

History: This book was published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell. Probably the most shocking of the Brontës' novels, this novel had an instant phenomenal success, but after Anne's death, her sister Charlotte prevented re-publication of it. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had an instant phenomenal success and rapidly outsold Emily's Wuthering Heights. Within six weeks, the novel was sold out
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered to be one of the first sustained feminist novels. May Sinclair, in 1913, said that the slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. In escaping from her husband, she violates not only social conventions, but also English law. Until the passing of the Married Women's Property Act in 1870, under the law, a wife had no independent legal existence, and therefore had no right to own property or to enter into legal contracts apart from her husband, sue for divorce, or control custody of her children.
Plot: Part One (Chapters from 1 to 15): Gilbert Markham narrates about how a mysterious widow, Mrs. Helen Graham arrives at Wildfell Hall, a nearby old mansion. A source of curiosity for the small community, the reticent Helen and her young son Arthur are slowly drawn into the social circles of the village. Initially, Gilbert Markham casually courts Eliza Millward, despite his mother's belief that he can do better. His interest in Eliza wanes as he comes to know Mrs. Graham. In retribution, Eliza spreads (and perhaps originates) scandalous rumours about Helen.
With gossip flying, Gilbert is led to believe that his friend, Mr. Lawrence is courting Mrs. Graham. At a chance meeting in a road, a jealous Gilbert strikes (with a whip) the mounted Lawrence, who falls from his horse. Unaware of this, Helen refuses to marry Gilbert, but gives him her diaries when he accuses her of loving Lawrence.
Part two (Chapters from 16 to 44) is taken from Helen's diaries and describes her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. The handsome, witty Huntingdon is also spoilt, selfish, and self-indulgent. Before marrying Helen, Arthur Huntingdon flirts with Annabella and uses this to manipulate and convince Helen to marry him. Helen marries him blinded by love and resolves to reform Arthur with gentle persuasion and good example. Upon the birth of their child, Huntingdon becomes increasingly jealous of their son (also Arthur) and his claims on Helen's attentions and affections.
Huntingdon's pack of dissolute friends frequently engage in drunken revels at the family's home, Grassdale, oppressing those of finer character. Both men and women are portrayed as degraded, with Lady Annabella Lowborough shown to be an unfaithful spouse to her melancholy but devoted husband.
Walter Hargrave, the brother of Helen's friend Milicent Hargrave, vies for Helen's affections. While not as wild as his peers, Walter is an unwelcome admirer: Helen senses his predatory nature, something revealed when they play chess. Walter tells Helen of Arthur's affair with Lady Lowborough. When his pack of friends depart, Arthur pines openly for his paramour and derides his wife.
Arthur's corruption of their son — encouraging him to drink and swear at his tender age — is the last straw for Helen. She plans to flee to save her son, but her husband learns of her plans from her journal, and burns her artist's tools (by which she had hoped to support herself). Eventually, with help from her brother, Mr. Lawrence, Helen finds a secret refuge at Wildfell Hall.
Part Three (Chapters from 45 to 53) begins after the reading of the diaries when Helen bids Gilbert to leave her because she is not free to marry. He complies and soon learns that she returned to Grassdale upon learning that Arthur is gravely ill. Helen's ministrations are in vain. Huntingdon's death is painful, fraught with terror at what awaits him. Helen cannot comfort him, for he rejects responsibility for his actions and wishes instead for her to come with him, to plead for his salvation.
A year passes. Gilbert pursues a rumour of Helen's impending wedding, only to find that Mr. Lawrence (with whom he has reconciled) is marrying Helen's friend, Esther Hargrave. He goes to Grassdale, and discovers that Helen is now wealthy and lives at her estate in Staningley. He travels there, but is plagued by worries that she is now far above his station. He hesitates at the entry-gate. By chance, he encounters Helen, her aunt, and young Arthur. The two lovers reconcile and marry.
Review: Outstanding feminist and realistic novel that had phenomenal success. Unfortunately, that success was short. It ended by Anne's death and Charlotte's prevention of re-publication.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall challenged the prevailing morals of the Victorian era. Especially shocking was Helen's slamming of her bedroom door in the face of her husband after continuing abuse, thereby overturning the sexual politics for the time. One critic went so far as to pronounce it "utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls", though another cited it as "the most entertaining novel we have read in a month past." It is considered to be one of the first feminist novels. The main character, Helen, is spirited and forthright, unafraid to speak to the men in her life with frankness. Anne Brontë portrays this as desirable, compared to the meekness of Milicent, who is trampled and ignored by her unrepentant husband. Helen leaves in tow with her beloved son.
Vice is not unique to the men, however; Lady Lowborough's adultery has a particularly devastating effect on her husband, and the malice of Eliza Millward is poisonous to the entire community. The eternal struggle between good and evil is emphasised by heavy use of Biblical references: sinners who repent and listen to reason are brought within the fold, while those who remain stubborn tend to meet violent or miserable ends.
The novel also something resembles Emily's Wuthering Heights. The preponderance of "H" names (Halford, Helen, Huntingdon, Hattersley, and Hargrave) recalls Wuthering Heights, as well as the estate itself — Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights.
The reason this novel is not placed on the same pedestal as the other two is because of the subject matter. In the early 19th century a woman's job as a wife was to pander to her husband's every need. If he was a drunk or an abuser so be it, all she should do is make the most of it. Anne had very different ideas, ideas which are more late 20th century than early 19th century. To leave your husband was in those times unthinkable. To write about alcohol abuse was even more of a taboo. In the preface to Wuthering Heights/Agnes Grey Charlotte wrote that the subject matter in this book was unsuitable and a mistake. Because Charlotte did not think much of it she did not push for its acceptance in the mainstream after Anne's very early death. That was a mistake. There are also rumours Charlotte destroyed a second manuscript of Emily's. Another mistake if it is true.
Opening Line: “You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.”
Closing Line: “We are just now looking forward to the advent of you and Rose, for the time of your annual visit draws nigh, when you must leave your dusty, smoky, noisy, toiling, striving city for a season of invigorating relaxation and social retirement with us.
Till then, farewell,
STANINGLEY: June 10TH, 1847.”
Quotes: "I see that a man cannot give himself up to drinking without being miserable one-half his days and mad the other."
Rating: Very Good.

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