Tuesday, 28 March 2000

Anne Brontë: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 464

Anne Brontë's best known novel is much less famous than those of her sisters. It is easy to see why; though it contains much which is praiseworthy, its faults are far more obvious.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall starts with the arrival of a mysterious stranger, apparently a widow, at the nearly derelict, remote, Wildfell Hall. After inital antipathy, local farmer Gilbert Markham senses a growing attraction between Helen Graham and himself. She eventually feels that she needs to reveal her past to him, and gives him a diary covering her disastrous marriage to the alcoholic Arthur Huntingdon. Then she receives word that Huntingdon, from whom she had fled to safeguard her son, is dangerously ill, and returns to their marital home to nurse him.

The novel falls into three sections: the initial friendship between Helen Graham and Markham; the diary of the Huntingdon marriage; and the events following the reading of the diary by Markham. The major strength of the novel, also an important feature in the works of Anne's sisters, is the depiction of gradually changing emotion, particularly in this case Markham's changing attitude to Helen Graham. The diary section is also very powerful in evoking Helen's growing despair at her husband's descent into alcoholism. This, and Huntingdon's initial charm, are modelled on Anne's brother Branwell, and it is a sufficiently honest and unredeemed portrayal to have caused trouble between Anne and her sisters.

The weaknesses of the novel are more structural. It supposedly takes epistolary form, being a collection of letters sent by Markham to a friend. The problem is that it reads more like a (fairly) continuous narration than a series of letters, for a large number of reasons. Markham also reveals things to his friend which he has been asked to keep secret, and which he has not even passed on to his mother and sister. (He definitely desires to do so, because he wants to refute malicious gossip about Helen Graham which is passing round the neighbourhood.) We learn nothing about the friend to whom the letters are addressed, not even where he met Markham, and no one in Markham's circle seems to know him at all. (No information about other people is ever passed on except incidentally as part of the main story.) Markham never responds to anything written by his friend (whose letters are not included), and he never writes about anything which is not germane to the novel's plot, so we don't even know what interests Markham (other than good looking widows). The inclusion of the diary is a little strange, as there is no real way that it can be included among the letters. So Anne Brontë has to include it as though it were written out from memory, which is absurd (it forms over a hundred pages of the novel). She more or less abandons the idea of the letters at the point when the diary is introduced, by remarking that it should begin a new chapter. The diary itself suffers from similar weaknesses where its content does not fit its supposed form. It is confused, for example, about whether it is a diary written at the time of the events it records, or a commentary written much later. Remarks such as "I have found it much easier to remember her advice than to profit from it" imply the latter, while the external descriptions of the diary and its dated entries imply the former.

Though the reader is conscious of these defects while reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it remains an engrossing read. Its picture of the virtuous woman trapped by society in a marriage with a rapidly degenerating alcoholic is very powerful, particularly as the cruelty with which she is treated is principally mental stress rather than physical abuse.

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