I finished re-reading Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ yesterday.
My impressions of it hadn’t radically changed that much since I first read it in my early twenties. The fact that they hadn’t, startled me; it is disappointing when you re-read something, and find that your viewpoint is the same; you even begin to wonder if your thinking became ossified in your twenties.
I still thought that Anne Bronte as a novelist was underestimated, and I could see how much she had in common with Emily Bronte as a writer of the gothic. As before, I thought she was prepared to defy convention in her writing far more than her sister Charlotte. I thought, again as before, that Arthur Huntingdon was easily as effective, as a Gothic antagonist, virile in a distorted way, as is Heathcliff, but in an entirely different way. As the editor Josephine Macdonaugh says in her introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, both are extremely influential in the course of their short lives, but after their premature deaths, normality is restored and a younger generation turn their back on the miseries of the past.
As before, I had to smile the grotesquely comic scenes where Arthur Huntingdon and his rakish guests disgrace themselves in drunken excess.
Again, as when I read it the first time, I thought that the creation of the character of Arthur Huntingdon was brilliant, a Gothic Villain of the Piece who is anything but brooding and Byronic . He is truly a smiling villain, and once more I thought how much more believable he was than Heathcliff, whom Charlotte Bronte remarks is too inhuman in his in his all-absorbing passions to seem like a man.
Some readers state that they find Anne Bronte’s view of humanity ‘misanthropic’, but on neither of my readings did I find it so (some might say that is because my own view of so-called ‘human nature’ in general at least under our present social order is not extremely high (there are many honourable exceptions).
Anne Bronte is after all writing about an innocent girl’s disillusionment with her attempt to turn a drunken libertine from his destructive descent into a brutalised, prematurely aged roué. His choice of friends is based on those who share his passions for hunting, riding, drinking and debauchery; accordingly, the men, and most of the women, featured in this novel will not have a high moral code. One of these men, Grimsby, is clearly a women hater; still, the fact that two of Huntingdon’s previous four boon companions, Lord Loughborough (whose wife he seduces) and the loutish and insensitive but warm-hearted Hattersley do reform, hardly shows an especially grim view of human nature on the author’s part. Helen also, if rather too aesthetic for modern taste, shows herself to be impervious to Arthur’s bad influence. In a way, in the moral struggle between them, she is the victor after all.
The fourth friend becomes obsessed by the heroine Helen, and works assiduously to seduce her in turn. Invariably repulsed, he equally invariably returns to passionate declarations of devotion. I found his constant attempts rather unbelievable in a selfish, superficial man, and this is certainly a fault in characterisation. So is the fact that Arthur, who is never meant to read anything but hunting journals and newspapers, and to take no notice of sermons, quotes Shakespeare and the Bible rather accurately. I doubt even a wasted good education could account for that.
In fact, I noticed more this time just how the style of the narrators, Gilbert Markham in his direct account and Helen Huntingdon in the story of her disastrous marriage contained in her journal, is frequently too similar.
I did feel far more sorry for Arthur Huntingdon this time round – I thought of him as a silly young man who has a roguish charm which, in fact – and I was unable to work out whether the author intended this – he never entirely loses, even in his later degradation.
When he notes that due to his debauchery, he is ‘not so handsome a fellow as he was’ that he has silver hairs in his ‘beloved chestnut curls’ and worries that he is becoming frankly ‘too corpulent’ I felt unaccountably sorry for him again, for over the course of half a dozen years he ruins his good looks entirely. In the end, even his sensuality is drowned in his obsession with drink.
His behaviour is always outrageously selfish, and his treatment of the infatuated Helen is from the start unthinkingly cruel. Though he certainly marries her for love, he is incapable of treating her fairly as a rational human being, given that his vanity and self-indulgence always motivates his behaviour. When he discovers before their engagement, that as an artist she has made various sketches and paintings of him, he teases her about it unmercifully. When she tears one of these up, he punishes her by flirting with the heartless heiress Annabella Wilmot for days. Finally, discovering Helen in tears, he condescends to propose.
He amuses himself, while Helen is still a starry-eyed bride, with recounting his sexual conquests – not only of experienced matrons – which one might expect in a rake, though most would surely avoid boasting of it to their wife in the interests of marital harmony – but also of ‘confiding girls’.
This latter is a shocking breach of even a rake’s code of conduct. The poor girl realises that in mistaking his light-hearted charm and playful manners for genuine warmth of heart, she has committed herself to a man motivated largely by unfeeling vanity.
Her joyless aunt wanted her to marry a dull, equally insensitive but conventionally ‘good’ man, appropriately called ‘Boreham’ from whose dull clutches the rascally Arthur frequently rescues her during her introduction to society. Her aunt has been married to a rake herself, and thinks any marital fate preferable. Her very opposition to Arthur’s courtship of Helen encourages her niece’s passionate belief in his natural goodness.
By the time they have been married ten months, and Helen is heavily pregnant, Arthur begins to flirt outrageously again with Annabella, now married to his friend Lord Loughborough. When their baby young Arthur is born, he is pleased to have an heir, but is even jealous of Helen’s devotion. All this adds to her gradual disillusionment with him. Bored during the summer, when he cannot hunt (note his name; a telling comment on his own pursuit of Helen, as is noted by the editor Josephine Macdonough), Arthur takes to spending whole summer seasons on wild drinking and general debauchery in London.
A note of grim humour is added to the novel by the account of the drinking sessions enjoyed by himself and his male guests:
‘Arthur seated himself beside poor Millicent, confidentially pushing his head into her face, and drawing closer to her as she shrank away from him. He was not so noisy as Hattersley, but his face was exceedingly flushed…’
‘Hattersley tried cursing and swearing, but it would not do; he then took a number of books from the table beside him, and threw them, one by one, at the object of his wrath, but Arthur only laughed the more…At last he (Arthur) came( upstairs to bed), slowly and stumblingly; he ascended the stairs, supported by Grimsby and Hattersley, who neither of them walked quite steadily themselves….he himself was not laughing now, but sick and stupid..’
When Helen discovers Arthur’s adultery with Loughborough’s wife, she takes a surprisingly hard line for a Victorian wife. She refuses to ‘live with him as his wife’ from then onwards until he sees how much in the wrong he is. As he never does, that is the end of marital closeness between them.
Interestingly in a Gothic Villain of the Piece, Arthur’s behaviour towards Helen remains ostensibly ‘gentlemanly’. He never uses violence against her as he oppresses her. When he starts to encourage his small son to swear and drink alcohol, Helen decides to leave him. When he reads in her journal over her shoulder (motivated, she supposes, by ‘base curiosity’), he remarks as he snatches the book, ‘It seems very interesting, love; but it’s rather long. I’ll look at it another time…’
Realising that she intends to finance her escape by her paintings, he destroys all these and her equipment. However, she enlists the help of her brother and escapes to live in isolation at Wildfell Hall, where the narrator and hero, Gilbert Markham, meets her.
However, at the end, Helen does forgive Arthur Huntingdon. When about a year later she hears that he is dangerously ill and deserted by all, Helen returns to nurse him. In a sentimental novel, he would at once be both repentant and grateful. In this Gothic novel, he is at first incredulous and suggests she does it to flaunt her superior moral stature. At length, however, he comes to realise he genuine desire to help him and to prevent him from dying unrepentant.
He does die unable to feel remorse for anything but his bad treatment of Helen – but – and this is what I liked most about this novel, in both my readings – neither Anne Bronte nor her creation Helen Huntingdon believe in eternal damnation.
She believes, rather, that a different interpretation of the meaning of the Greek phrases mean that nobody – even far worse people than Arthur Huntingon – will be sent to eternal perdition, but only for a period of atonement to fit them for a better world: – ‘How could I bear to think that that poor, trembling soul was hurried away to everlasting torment? It would drive me mad.’
Helen finds happiness with Gilbert Markham, whom she understandably initially despises for his own vanity, but who has been able to transcend it in a genuine love for her.
This novel, for all its weaknesses in characterisation at various points, and for all it’s length – the story itself can’t be far short of 200,000 words – is both intriguing and original. Although it is often melancholy in tone, the overall effect is not one of despair or cynicism.
It is about a failure of an idealistic and devout girl to reclaim a wicked young rake from drink and debauchery. She finds herself paying bitterly for her blithe assumption that she can reform him without too much pain to either of them.
Then, and later in the nineteenth century, romantic novels by such writers as Charles Garvice give ludicrously sentimental and unlikely accounts of the reform of such young men through exchanging just a few sentences with just such an innocent girl. One can see that if Anne Bronte declared that she wrote ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ as a warning to young female readers, it was needed to counteract the influlence of such tales.