While the name Brontë might not have meant anything to the reading public in 1848, the pseudonym of Bell was very well known. Given the triple punch of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, all the year before, Anne Brontë’s second and final novel under the name of Acton Bell was an instant runaway success… a success stopped cold when Charlotte prevented another printing following Anne’s death. Some say it was jealousy. I doubt that. Considering the shock value within these pages, and the fact that one of the more notorious characters in the book, Arthur Huntingdon, bears a more than passing resemblance in looks, demeanor, and ill habits to their brother, Branwell Brontë (whose additional flaws were passed to other characters), it’s pretty easy to see why Charlotte would have felt a little protective. The question becomes, was she protective of Branwell or of Anne? And even the answer to that question is part of what’s wrapped up in the subtext of this novel. The protagonist of the story may be based on Mrs. Collins, the wife of a local curate who came to their father, Patrick Brontë, seeking advice regarding her husband’s alcoholism and abusive behavior. Seven years later, while Anne was writing this book, Mrs. Collins returned with the story of how she’d freed herself, building a new life for her and her two children. If there’s anything we understand very well by this point, the Brontës’ life was never-ending inspiration for what ended up in their stories. Indeed, learning the stories behind the stories just makes these works that much better, so far as I’m concerned. Just for grins, we’ll add in another source of inspiration. It’s extremely likely that Helen Graham was inspired by Anna Isabella Milbanke, aka Lady Byron, wife of the infamous George Byron. Let me just say, what is seen cannot be unseen. This theory makes too much sense not to be credible.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is framed in epistolary format. The first and third sections of the story are told as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend / brother-in-law regarding the novel’s protagonist, the eponymous tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham. The middle section is taken from Helen’s diaries, wherein she describes her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon, her descent into personal hell in that regard, and the acts she took to reconcile with and eventually free herself from that situation. (Side note: this same bookend narrative format is also used by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes stories such as A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear.)
Somewhere along the way, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall became labeled as the most shocking of all the Brontë novels. Today, most people would probably put that label on the masterpiece of a train wreck that is Wuthering Heights. Emily made nearly every single character in Wuthering Heights as wretched and unlikable as possible. By comparison, Anne backed off a little, thus retaining a little something called sympathy, a most needed attribute if a reader is going to actually care what happens to a character. I not-so-secretly suspect that having Agnes Grey bundled together with Wuthering Heights made Anne’s own debut novel seem somewhat mousy and timid by comparison — which it is, let’s be honest. Seemingly everything seems mousy and timid by comparison, save for maybe George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. See what it takes to out-drama a Brontë these days? Death, death, incest, dragons, death, zombies, and more death. But back on point… As I think it, this book represents Anne’s personal challenge to herself to see if she could raise those dramatic stakes in an effort to stand as an individual in literature, out from under the shadow of Emily and her singular, overpowering work. In both cases, the narrator seems to be the exemplar of humanity, but Anne went out of her way to write what she believed to be a protagonist worthy of compassion. Helen Graham is characterized to be the very model of Christian virtue, even frustratingly so, in a way that only someone as devout in like manner as Anne could write. One can easily see her creating a personal avatar in this character. We do have sympathy with her to a point, especially as the story unfolds within the diaries in part 2, but… there comes a point where you feel like you want to reach in and slap a bitch for being too stupid to live. Or, at least, that was my initial assessment as I was reading. Seriously, what is it with the overly pious that they think they can only get salvation if they buy their way into heaven with all the suffering? I will withstand all the slings and arrows of a living death to prove I am holier than thou! Whatever. One can be moral without being self-righteous. I know enough of Anne’s character to know this is how she was, the most devout of the three Brontë sisters, but it doesn’t excuse it in my eyes. It’s simply obstinate and judgmental. “Place the matter in God’s hands” only works if you feel yourself free to act, trusting that you’ll be moved into place accordingly. But, no… “Martyrdom? Good… line on the left, one cross each…”
Don’t roll your eyes at me in that tone of voice. 0.o Bear with me here, and you’ll see Anne get her rightful praise.
That holier than thou platform took Helen from being an intriguing character with an interesting story to, well… it’s like I say, I wanted to reach out and slap her every time she opened her yap. At the same time, though, as with Wuthering Heights, there were plenty of characters far more worthy of slapping around than Helen (and so incredibly, believably realized), so it really was difficult not to sympathize with Helen’s plight, even if I couldn’t understand why she dealt with it. And that’s where things pick up in the end, because she finally hits a breaking point. It’s seemingly never enough to leave the rat bastard, but it’s enough to dish some back in her frustratingly passive aggressive manner. But we know how it works here. The holier than thou have to wait until the evils of her husband consume him and drop him into his grave before she can gain freedom. I guess that’s what passes for justice here. In the old radio episodes of The Shadow that I’m fond of, the character can’t use his trusty .45s like he does in the novels, so “providence” intervenes when the bad guys slip on a banana peel and fall out a skyscraper window. Same kind of thing here, just written with a far more literary hand as only a Brontë can deliver. Yes, I did indeed compare a Brontë to the canned ham of a 1930s and 40s radio show. Do try to contain your shock and/or laughter. Anyway, as I was saying… it’s important to offer a point that actually justifies Helen’s staying with the guy for so long: for a woman to “escape” from her husband as she finally did was in direct violation of English law at the time. And she finally did escape, not for her own sake, but for the sake of her child not becoming “such a gentleman as his father.” This is where the inspiration from Lady Byron comes into play, because like Anne, she retained that Universalist faith, and both Lady Byron and the character of Helen believe it’s their religious obligation to reform their husbands. In both cases… good luck with that. Well, dammit… Helen is not only supremely sympathetic in light of new evidence, but now we actually need her to win because of her holier than thou nature. I don’t think I’d ever have seen that coming. Well played, Miss Brontë. Well played. See, this is why a little research and preparation is a good thing.
This brings me to the shining point of this novel. No matter how much you love the story or how much you want to slap the characters, Anne proves she’s every bit the dramatic sculptor that her sisters are. While maybe she is somewhat overshadowed by her sisters in the eyes of modern pop culture, she still proudly stands in that triumvirate of literary darlings for a reason that goes beyond mere blood relation. She has a voice, a writing style, and something personal to say that transcends the ages. Her struggle becomes our struggle. Her name is Brontë, a name synonymous with storytelling for a reason.
In the case of Anne Brontë, that reason is that she was ahead of her time. You can tell it because what’s scandalous then is pretty much common now — that’s how that works — but that doesn’t diminish the power of the delivery. It still feels delightfully scandalous! The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story that focuses a spotlight on things that most people in that age simply wouldn’t discuss: traditional gender expectations, alcoholism, mental abuse… you get the idea. In a time when a woman’s place was still well and truly defined, Anne speaks to us through Helen, making her embrace all of these ideas, and showing us just how destructive this thinking is. Sort of spins the earlier assessment of her holier than thou nature on its ear, doesn’t it? Yet, both assessments are true enough, because they have to be. Wonderful thing about women: we’ve grown comfortable in contradiction as a means to survive and thrive. We have to be, the way this world is set up. Maybe that’s the larger lesson in play for Anne, being the most devout of her sisters. It must be difficult for someone so straight-laced to break with the laws of society, but that’s where, for her, God’s law would intervene and overrule so as to wipe that blemish from the record and render it moot. The very fact that Helen did reach a breaking point and acted upon it is precisely where part of the shock would come in the eyes of the readership at that time. It was unthinkable that a woman should have the audacity, let alone the ability, to go through with it. The scandal, the drinking, the abuse… these were shocking enough, certainly. How dare a woman slam a door, literally or figuratively! How dare! To actually leave a husband and set upon a career path of one’s own? No, say it isn’t so! But that isn’t even the best part! Helen becomes an artist of renown (be still, my artistically-inclined heart), a field where women aren’t typically accepted or well known because the culture in play has made it a boy’s club. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Sort of like the world of literature where the best women of that age wrote under a false name, and reviews poured in claiming “no woman could have written this!” Uh-huh… Fast forward a few decades, this novel is now hailed as a landmark feminist novel. Gee, what are the odds? Charlotte gave women a voice in sexual identity, and now Anne has given us a voice in professional identity. Emily… she still gave us a magnificent tire fire just because she needed to see something burn. Say what you will, but over 170 years later, it’s still burning brightly, consistently lighting the way for new readers to come find the Brontë sisters. You know what happens when you read their works? You find that each sister has something to offer that the other two couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t. In its own way, this book heralded the literary revolution that was coming. Not a bad claim for a sheltered daughter of a clergyman.
Sadly, as with Emily, I’ve now read the whole of Anne’s work. All that remains for me to discover of the Brontë canon are the remainder of Charlotte’s works, which is still a considerable amount by comparison. But that sadness speaks volumes of the gift that was snatched away too early, of the lost potential. At least we got this second novel. I don’t understand the under appreciation for Anne Brontë, not after reading this book.