It is quite rare for me to open a classic Victorian novel and have almost no idea what it is going to be about. But that was the case here – I have somehow avoided television and radio adaptations, reviews, blogposts etc – and the kindle edition even removes the clues provided by the blurb and illustrations of the sort shown here. So what is ‘The Tenant’ as I shall now refer to it, about?
It is a traditional three part novel, with a narrative structure that may seem clumsy to a reader used to omniscient narration. Gilbert Markham, a gentleman farmer, writes to a friend about the arrival of a new tenant for the nearby and near derelict Wildfell Hall.. The novel’s opening subverts that used in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, in that instead of a male tenant arriving in a community and being the cause of local gossip and interest, here a mysterious widow, Mrs Helen Graham, is the newcomer. Mrs Graham fascinates and attracts Markham, even though she is the focus for local scandal, the detail of which is never spelt out explicitly but relates to an implied relationship with her landlord, Mr Lawrence.
The central section of the novel is recounted in Helen’s diaries, given to Gilbert to dispel his suspicions about her ‘affair’ with Lawrence, and presumably carefully transcribed by him into his letters. Helen is a much more moralistic character than Gilbert. She tells the history of her relationship with and marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. Huntingdon is a rake, and does little to disguise his flaws from Helen, who foolishly thinks she will be able to reform him. He boasts openly of his dissolute former life with its seductions and affairs:
“His favourite amusement is to sit or loll beside me on the sofa and tell me stories of his former amours, always turning upon the ruin of some confiding girl or the cozening of some unsuspecting husband”. (Chapter 24)
The birth of their son, also called Arthur, exacerbates the problems with their relationship. Helen can stand Huntingdon’s drunkenness and openly conducted affairs, but when he encourages Arthur junior to drink and swear she begins to plan her escape.
The final section of the novel starts after Gilbert’s reading of the diary. By now his ardour for Helen is at full pitch, and the news that she is still married does not deter him. Her moralistic sermons have the desired affect however, and he promises to leave her alone, for six months at least. He complies but is shocked to find out, from her brother, that she has returned to her husband who has fallen seriously ill. Huntingdon dies a squalid if convenient death, leaving the path open for a reconciliation between the now rich widow and the farmer. Despite some minor confusions and misunderstandings, the lovers marry, retire to the country and live happily ever after. It is only at the novel’s conclusion that we learn that the letters have been written to Gilbert’s brother-in-law, a Mr Halford, in the form of a memoir.
In many way ‘The Tenant’ is a conventional romance, with a happy ever after marriage and children at the end of a complex courtship, where the characters slowly discover their feelings for one another. The long separation in the middle of the novel, followed by the reconciliation at the end, is reminiscent of the structure of ‘Jane Eyre’, where Jane exiles herself to avoid temptation. Helen is an extraordinarily strong woman, determined to keep her marriage vows, when she can, care for and protect her son, and keep true to her faith. True love is her reward for these sacrifices. Critics have long identified her defiance of her husband – albeit after years of psychological torment and abuse, including his conduct of an affair openly before her – as the actions of a proto-feminist. She’s certainly a strong determined character, but I think it is important to remember that she returns to her husband as soon as he needs her, putting duty to him above her personal interests, and remains faithful to him despite everything.
I had hoped that the wonderfully named Wildfell Hall would play a central role in the novel, and the portrait of it given by Markham in the novel’s opening chapter promises much:
“Near the top of this hill, about two miles from Linden-Car, stood Wildfell Hall, a superannuated mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark grey stone, venerable and picturesque to look at, but doubtless cold and gloomy enough to inhabit, with its thick stone mullions and little latticed panes, its time-eaten air holes and its too lonely, too unsheltered situation – only shielded from the war of wind and weather by a group of Scotch firs, themselves half-blighted with storms, and looking as stern and gloomy as the Hall itself”.
The narrator then goes on to tell the reader how the garden has run to seed, and all the topiary bush animals have “spouted into such fantastic shapes as resembled nothing in heaven or earth but presented…a goblinish appearance that harmonised well with the ghostly legions and dark traditions…of the haunted hall”.
Who can read that portrait and not expected a traditional gothic novel to follow, with things that go bump in the night and half a dozen or more mad-women locked in the attic? If so they will have been disappointed, because Wildfell Hall is a minor character in the story, a haven for the escaping Helen rather than the venue for any Scooby-Doo style antics. Instead we have a disturbing story of unhappy marriages and domestic violence which must surely have been all the more shocking and transgressive when first published – rich people really didn’t do such things within the confines of marriage, or if they did we certainly didn’t read about it. We are not surprised when Heathcliff is violent towards animals, but when Huntingdon hits out at his favourite cocker spaniel – “He struck it off with a smart blow; and the poor dog squeaked, and ran cowering back to [Helen]. When he woke up half an hour after, he called it to him again; but Dash only looked sheepish and wagged the tip of his tail. He called again, more sharply, but Dash only clung closer to [Helen], and licked [her] hand as if imploring protection. Enraged at this, his master snatched up a heavy book and hurled it at its head” – the violence is a thinly veiled metaphor for domestic violence. This in many ways is more troubling for being hinted at rather than directly portrayed, for example in this sinister description of the casual violence of one of Huntingdon’s debauched friends towards his own wife: (chapter 32)
“I love thee Milicent, but I don’t adore thee’. In proof of his affection he clutched a handful of her light brown ringlets, and appear to twist them unmercifully. “Do you really Ralph?” murmured she, with a faint smile beaming through her tears, just putting up her hand to his, in token that he pulled rather too hard.”
Is ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ a good novel? Well of course it is a classic, but at the same time it is usually ranked below ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’. It shares many features with these novels, the slightly awkward narrative structures, the dark secrets, and troubled love affairs. But a distinct aroma of sanctimoniousness pervades ‘The Tenant’. Helen is rarely very loveable or off her guard, and goodness doesn’t she love to preach!
(Chapter 45) – We are children now; we feel as children, and we understand as children; and when we are told that men and women do not play with toys, and that our companions will one day weary of the trivial sports and occupations that interest them and us so deeply now, we cannot help being saddened at the thought of such an alteration, because we cannot conceive that as we grow up our own minds will become so enlarged and elevated that we ourselves shall then regard as trifling those objects and pursuits we now so fondly cherish, and that, though our companions will no longer join us in those childish pastimes, they will drink with us at other fountains of delight, and mingle their souls with our in higher aims and nobler occupations beyond our present comprehension, but not less deeply relished or less truly good for that, while yet both we and they remain essentially the same individuals as before”.
The supporting cast of minor characters is also weaker in ‘The Tenant’ – they tend to blur into one another and are less clearly differentiated. None of which really detracts from the overall power of the novel.
Two other brief observations. Firstly, this short scene caught my attention. It happens when Helen is running her fingers through Huntingdon’s hair:
“The head looked right enough, but when he placed my hand on the top of it, it sunk in a bed of curls, rather alarmingly low, especially in the middle”.
I can’t find that any critics have picked up on this description (which is not referred to again), but I find it hard to read any other way than that the author is suggesting Huntingdon has an ‘alarming’ depression in his cranium. What the Victorian pseudo-science of phrenology, referred to more extensively by Charlotte in ‘Jane Eyre’ would have made of that depression I can only imagine, but it surely is a heavy hint of the moral depravity to be exposed as the novel progresses, or possibly a propensity to addictive behaviours.
Finally, I am pretty sure I spotted a mistake in the novel’s portrait of the English countryside. In chapter 29 we are told “On a bright…day, in the beginning of July, I had taken little Arthur into the wood that skirts the park … and having gathered a handful of bluebells and wild-roses…”. Anne knew full well that bluebells are a spring flower, having written a poem in their praise, so is this just a simple slip, or something more interesting?