‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte; Structure and the Role of the Antagonist


When re-reading ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ I was struck by many things. I hope I don’t annoy the spirit of Anne Bronte by making a comparison with the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a beginning, though this is not the invidious comparison of the sort that were until recently usually made between her work and that of both her sisters’.

What I want to say is that I had forgotten it was a story within a story. I remembered that it contains a story within a story, just like ‘Wuthering Heights’.

The tale starts with Gilbert Markham, a young man who is a gentleman farmer and wishes he was destined for a less earthy occupation, who is vain and infatuated with the even more vain coquette Eliza Millward, the local vicar’s daughter.

When the mysterious young widow Helen Graham comes to the area, he is at first repelled by her cold, discouraging manner and refusal to reveal much of her personal history.

She even flies into a temper when he discovers a portrait of a handsome, sensual looking young man, whose chestnut curls tumbling over his forehead lead Gilbert to conclude that ‘he thought more of his beauty than his intellect.’ The bright blue eyes show a glint of mischief.

Of course, the reader guesses who this must be long before Gilbert…

The story within a story is the tale that Gilbert reads in Helen’s journal, when after many misunderstandings she at last confides in him.

It recounts the tale of Helen’s disasterous marriage to the charming, lively and enticingly attractive Arthur Huntingdon. This match, based mainly on their mutual physical attraction, is, as Josephine Macdonaugh comments in my Oxford World Classics edition, is as doomed to unhappiness as would be Gilbert’s to Eliza, should he marry her.

Some readers and editors claim that the ‘epistolary method’ creates a distance between the narrator and the reader. I can’t say I have ever found that myself. I found the account of Helen’s disillusionment with Arthur and the failure of their marriage as he gives way to the temptations of alcohol and philandering, recounted as it is in occasional journal entries, tinged with a sense of tragic inevitability precisely because the reader already knows that it ended in Helen’s flight from the marital home.

The second feature that struck me most was a dissimilarity with ‘Wuthering Heights’ in the striking contrast between the appearance of their antagonists—Heathcliff and Arthur Huntingdon.

These are almost completely opposite. Heathcliff is, quite frankly, a miserable so-and-so, so self-pitying that I have always been completely at a loss as to how any reader can find him appealing or sympathetic (and that is leaving aside his unfortunate habit of bullying women and children). Although he has cheated the Earnshaws and the Lintons out of their inheritances, he can find no pleasure in the money he has come by. Instead of dining well, this miser takes porridge for dinner and begrudges offierng a cup of tea to visitors so that the young Cathy hesitates to offer a cup.

He is wholly anti social and we never hear that he drinks or indulges himself in any way; his existence is as Spartan and joyless as a doctrinaire puritan’s.

I’ve written just what I think about Heathcliff as a romantic hero before on this blog and discussed it on a Goodreads thread, and there’s no need for me to repeat myself here.

Here it is, for anybody reading this who might be interested:

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1019195

Here, I want to point out that Arthur Huntingdon is his complete polar opposite. He is the life and soul of the party, full of blithe mischief. He does much harm, but this is through carelessness, vanity, self-indulgence and a lack of moral values rather than through active malevolence of Heathcliff.

Arthur at ‘Wuthering Heights’ would be about as out of place as a doormat that played a jolly tune of welcome.

He betrays almost everyone he knows – Helen and his unfortunate friend Lord Loughborough, whose life he embitters through seducing his wife – more than anyone. Yet, as Marianne Thormalen comments in her intriguing article, ‘The Villain of Wildfell Hall; Aspects and Prospects of Arhtur Huntingdon’ the long term consequences of his destructive life, are, like those of Heathcliff, short lasting. Once these two antagonists have gone, peace and normality is soon restored.

While they are alive, they determine the action through force of character; but their lives are short and their reign of influence transitory.
Heathcliff corrupts by hatred and fear; Arthur through wicked charm and careless indifference to the moral consequences of his wrongdoing.

Anne Bronte was, of course, her sister’s chief confidante in their weaving of the fantasy world of Gondal. I think it very likely that they discussed, not only the fate of non repentant sinners – neither, clearly, believed in damnation – and the long term earthly consequences of their wrongdoing. Certainly, the poetry of each notoriously touches on these points, as does the text of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’(but more about Anne Bronte’s beliefs about Arthur Huntingdon’s final destination next week.)

Another thing that struck me was, yet again, how great a role unconscious influences play a role in our writing and in our creation of characters.

The characteristics of Arthur Huntingdon had largely slipped my mind in the years since I read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’. When I decided that I wanted to create in ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ not a brooding, savage vampire but a jolly, sociable one, I did not consciously think about Arthur Huntingdon, or draw on his characteristics; but the similarities are strongly marked, down to the ‘mischievous twinkle in the eyes’ and the habit of drinking to excess.

I am pleased by that; it’s a fine thing to be influenced by classic English Literature; however, I do have to say that there is a strong resemblance also, to Disney’s John Smith in ‘Pocohontas’. That swagger and gallows humour…Yes, well, we see our characters everywhere…

As Monsieur Gilles, Émile starts each day with ‘a good swill of red wine even before he chewed a piece of bread’ to make himself face each hateful day.

Like Arthur Huntingdon, the wicked and godless Émile Dubois wishes to marry a ‘good angel’ whom he hopes will convert him to good behaviour without too much effort for himself.

But Émile is far more cerebral than Arthur Huntingdon and has a serious-minded streak. His desire to reform is a little more serious, and his love for the innocent and devout girl he marries a good deal deeper than Arthur Huntingdon’s for his.

In the sequel I am s-l-o-w-l-y writing, I plan to return to this theme, apart from introducing some rubber monster men, Kenrick and his right hand man Arthur Williams return, and some more of Émile’s cousin Reynaud Ravensdale.

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