*Please be aware that this book deals with topics of alcoholism, domestic abuse, and mistreatment of a child.
“What is your favorite book?” is a question every book lover hates to hear. It’s something I ponder occasionally and I have put a lot of thought into the subject. I have a favorite book due to the sentimentality attached (The Chronicles of Narnia). I have a book I am proudest to have finished and enjoyed (Les Misérables). I even have books that are heart wrenching and I think everyone should read (In My Hands and Nectar in a Sieve). But one favorite book? I don’t think I can answer that truly, but if I need a quick, simple answer I say Jane Eyre.
I finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall yesterday, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. This book, and learning more about its background, has me conflicted. As I said earlier, one of my favorite books is Jane Eyre. It has been since the first time I read it in the seventh grade. Now, I think it might have been replaced by Tenant. My conflict mostly stems from the authors. Many people attribute Tenant’s lack of popularity to Charlotte Bronte, who prevented a second printing of Tenant after her sister Anne’s death.
Anne’s book was an instant success when it was first published in 1848, but wasn’t reprinted until 1854. How could Charlotte do that? Sisterly jealousy, perhaps? But Charlotte’s own words say that she didn’t think her sister had the experience or maturity to handle such topics as she dealt with. I would make the joke, “who died and left her in charge,” but that’s literally what happened. Anne died at twenty-nine, and the care of her two novels was left to Charlotte. Without her sister’s meddling, I think The Tenant would have surpassed both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in popularity, and especially in the realm of feminist literature. So how can I continue claiming Jane Eyre as one of my favorites and a leader in feminist literature? I don’t think I can, and I don’t think I will. Not only because of Charlotte’s actions to her sister, but because I genuinely enjoyed The Tenant more. It deals with alcoholism, domestic abuse, and infidelity, and tempers these dark subjects with personal faith, female independence, and marrying for love. It’s main characters are better people than Jane and Edward Rochester, and the ‘true love’ is significantly less problematic. There is no malicious deception, no disregard for the other’s morals and beliefs, and genuine care for the welfare of each other.
The negative topics in Tenant are things that still plague our world. I appreciate the way Anne handled them, and I like that we, the reader and narrator, know from the start that Helen’s marriage to Arthur Huntingdon does not last. There were scenes of domestic abuse that were a bit uncomfortable to read, but were helped by the knowledge that Helen and Arthur would eventually escape the situation.
It wasn’t only Helen Huntingdon who experienced abuse and mistreatment by her husband. I could not miss the multiple comparisons in the story. The first is among the young ladies and their respective marriages, but there are also comparisons between the men in the story.
While there are more young women in the book, I want to focus on the four most prominent. Helen Huntingdon, Millicent Hattersley, Esther Hargrave, and Annabella Lowborough. Helen and Millicent are most similar due to their strong sense of morals and similar age, and they both experience verbal and physical abuse by their husbands. However, where Helen will outright reprimand her husband, Millicent is far more passive and quiet. It takes multiple discussions between Helen and Mr. Hattersley, in which Helen shares her friend’s concerns and fears, for Mr. Hattersley to realize the affect he has on Millicent. The second difference is in the end result of their marriages. Mr Huntingdon dies having never repented of his abuse of Helen, and in fact continues abusing and mistreating her until his last breath. Mr. Hattersley, however, takes Helen’s words to heart and makes the effort needed to change for the better. The novel includes a section on how all the characters are a few years after the main events, and we see Mr Hattersley has stopped visiting London and his wicked friends, and he now has a successful horse breeding business and a happy wife. Perhaps Arthur Huntingdon could have had the same, had he been less cruel.
Annabella Lowborough stands in stark relief when compared to Helen and Millicent. It seems she would have been a better wife for Arthur Huntingdon, but we see he eventually tires of her, too. She is described as less virtuous than her two counterparts, and she encourages her husband to pursue a life of drunkenness. She is the perfect foil to the other two women, and serves to further the plot by exposing Arthur’s disregard for his marriage vows.
Esther Hargrave is a young woman full of potential, who is fortunately able to profit from Helen and Millicent’s hard-learned lessons. She represents what Helen could have had, if she had listened to her aunt or had another sensible woman around to advise her. Esther seems to make a better choice in husband on the first try. It seems Mr. Lawrence is a decent man, and certainly won’t mistreat her the way some of the other husbands in this book mistreat their wives.
Helen, Millicent, and Annabella’s marriages are all affected in some way by alcoholism. Helen and Millicent suffer abuse due to the effect of alcohol on their husbands, both verbal and physical. While Millicent’s husband is shown the ill-effect on his family and mends his drinking habit, Helen’s husband is driven to his end by alcohol, and refuses to change even on his deathbed. Annabella causes tension in her marriage by telling her husband he should partake more often. She has a strange view that the boisterous, rough behavior of the other men is true “manliness” and she expresses disappointment that her husband isn’t more like them.
Annabella and alcoholism could not be mentioned together without discussing her affair with Arthur Huntingdon. We know she sees the loud, aggressive behavior which he shows when he’s drunk as manliness, and we know from Helen that he’s an attractive man. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Annabella and Arthur start up an affair. We see the first signs when they openly flirt with each other. Helen reprimands her husband for that, and afterward Arthur and Annabella behave more properly. It turns out to be the eye of the storm that is raging at Grassdale Manor. Annabella uses her influence to convince Arthur to slow down on the drink, but that doesn’t last, just as it didn’t last for Helen. The affair is finally terminated, but only because Lord Lowborough discovers it and takes his wife home. Arthur claims to have grown tired of his lover, and it seems he is the type of man who would never be satisfied, no matter who he married. His fate should have been that of Mr. Grimsby, who died a bachelor, alone and drunk in some tavern brawl.
Arthur’s infidelity proves to be a turning point in Helen’s view of her marriage. Her wedding vows, as a religious ceremony, would have held incredible significance to her since she was so religious. To see them broken, and so openly, as nearly everyone at Grassdale Manor is aware of the affair, would have been an awful blow.
This turning point, when Helen realized her husband has no regard for their wedding vows, contributes to her ability and motivation to leave her husband. She realized there was little hope of him changing, and she desperately wanted to save her son from his influence. This was extremely rare at this time and made her an outcast, as we see when she reaches Wildfell Hall. It was even against the law at the time for a wife to leave her husband and take their children with her. Obviously not an easy decision to make, but it ultimately leads to her total emancipation from Mr. Huntingdon. Without her caution, her husband injures himself, and due to his stubbornness he dies even with her care and nursing. This, plus her uncle’s unfortunate passing, gives Helen a larger amount of independence than any other female character I can remember (from this time period, at least). She is able to marry Gilbert Markham because she wants to, not because it’s necessary.
One of the themes of the novel is personal faith and that marriage will be happier if both parties share similar morals and beliefs. We see that unhappiness in the Huntingdon, Lowborough, and Hattersley marriages, which seems to be due significantly to mismatched values. Had Helen and Lord Lowborough been less virtuous, or their respectives spouses more virtuous, perhaps they would have been happier matches. We also get to see the joy of the Markham and Hattersley (after Mr. Hattersley’s change of heart) marriages. We can also infer, due to Helen’s opinion and familiarity with the pair, that her brother’s marriage with Esther Hargrave will be a happy one. All these marriages are affected by whether the pair agree in terms of morals, standards, and values.
Another theme of the novel is that marriage should be built on mutual love and respect. Helen advises Esther to be practical, but to marry for love. Helen herself ultimately rejects class barriers to marry Gilbert. The novel seems to say “be reasonable and proper, and pursue marriage built on shared morals, beliefs, love, and respect.” I can say, from my limited experience, I agree. Practicality should not be ignored, but if you are going to marry, do so for shared love. Not passions or lust or social status, but genuine, deep love.
My only disappointment regarding this book is the author’s early death. I enjoyed her bravery in tackling a difficult subject and would have liked to have more from her. I’ve already added her only other novel, Agnes Grey, to my “Read Soon” list, and I hope it is just as good as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The story is told from unique perspectives, and offers a glimpse into Victorian marriage which I have not read before. Jane Eyre is written from the perspective of Jane after years of marriage to Rochester, but we don’t get to see her daily life from this perspective. In Tenant, we see what marriage was like for a Victorian woman, through her own eyes.
So, in answer to my earlier question, I believe I can say with certainty, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is my favorite book.
… At least for now.