Anne Brontë's Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Rereading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I caved in and let myself skip Helen’s painful awakening to her husband’s true character. At first I couldn’t figure out why that was harder to read than the after-affects when her vulnerability and his cruelty are at their height. But I remembered Mary Karr’s idea, in The Art of Memoir, that “Dumb hope is what it hurts most to write, occupying the foolish schemes we pursued for decades, the blind alleys, the cliffs we stepped off.” Dumb hope must also be what hurts most to read.
I’ve written elsewhere about how much I enjoy The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but on this rereading, I felt Helen’s soapbox moralizing was tedious. I actually found myself whispering, “Oh, shut up!” She talks too long, wearing out her listeners and the reader.
What I don’t know is whether Anne Bronte intended Helen’s religious preaching to be tiresome. I suspect she did, because the book seems to weigh, over and over, the power of actions vs. the power of words, and the dangers of a misalignment between word and deed.
Helen puts too much faith in words because her own integrity is high. She means what she says. But we see with her suitors how ineffective words can be. When refusing Mr. Boarham’s offer of marriage, Helen says, “I found him very troublesome, and very hard to convince that I really meant what I said… Indeed, I am not sure that I succeeded after all…”
We also see how hard it is to choose a husband when words and supervised social interaction are the only clues to character. As Marie says in Willa Cather’s O, Pioneers!, “The trouble is you almost have to marry a man before you can find out the sort of wife he needs; and usually it’s exactly the sort you are not. Then what are you going to do about it?”
We see the ineffectiveness of words when Helen’s aunt tries to dissuade her from marrying Huntingdon, pointing to the dangers of deception. “Yes, they can all play the hypocrite when they want to take in a fond, misguided woman.”
Helen can’t entertain the possibility that her aunt is right about Huntingdon because she has a missionary’s mania for saving Huntingdon from his sins:
“If he has wandered, what bliss to recall him! If he is now exposed to the baneful influence of corrupting and wicked companions, what glory to deliver him from them!”
But Helen’s words are as powerless to change Huntingdon as her aunt’s words have been to open her eyes to the truth.
Deception is a major theme of the novel. Huntingdon deceives Helen. Lady Lowborough is cuckolding her husband. Helen tricks her son, putting “tartar-emetic” in his wine in an effort to make alcohol repugnant to him. (Although, I wonder if we’re meant to excuse this since her actions in correcting her son’s taste are aligned with her belief in the dangers of alcohol?) Helen deceives her Wildfell Hall neighbors, posing as a widow with only a passing acquaintance to Mr. Lawrence, her landlord. Mr. Lawrence keeps his romance a secret. And Millicent Hattersly deceives her husband, never complaining about his drinking and irresponsibility, leaving him to believe that she doesn’t mind.
Interestingly, the deception Helen brings to the neighborhood, also brings clarity. In the web of secrecy, the mean-spirited natures of Eliza Millward and Miss Wilson become evident, while the honest, kindness of Mary Millward shines out despite her plain face and willingness to be a family drudge.
There are characters who keep secrets and characters who ferret them out. Some of the best characters keep secrets and the most unlikeable are often the nosiest.
Gilbert seems to be the most honest person in the book. He can rarely hide his feelings—which makes him an easy mark for vindictive neighbors—and he can hardly contain his impetuous ardor or anger.
The lack of moderation, or inability to contain passion, is a recurring problem in the book. Huntingdon is profligate, but Helen is immoderate also. Her initial love for Huntingdon and her zeal for rescuing him lead her into a disastrous marriage. Of course Gilbert’s unbridled passions lead to recklessness until he learns the dangers of acting on emotions without a firm foundation in truth. His love for Helen is the restraining force that teaches him to be more measured in his responses and to delay gratification.
But Gilbert, in trying to temper his ardor and mind his own business, almost loses his chance with Helen. Anne Brontë doesn’t recommend dispassionate coolness. (Eliza Millward and Miss Wilson are unlikable because of their cool calculation.) One’s actions must be informed by one’s true feelings while still measured through discipline and integrity. It’s by learning this that Gilbert becomes worthy of Helen.