The name of the book was intriguing, the blurb fascinating, so I decided to plunge into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall right after I finished Pride and Prejudice. Besides, I wanted to compare the writing style of Jane Austen with Anne Bronte’s. Bronte arrived on the scene a little later, but I did want to know if all British women writers had the same staid way of expressing themselves. They seem, more or less, to be quite formal in their approach, not as easygoing as their American counterparts, perhaps. But I shall have to wait till I finish another reading of Little Women to make the fair comparison that I want to- so that will have to wait. Coming back to Wildfell Hall, I wasn’t a bit disappointed. It was extremely engrossing, a true portrait of what young people had to contend with then, and still do.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the story of Helen, a young woman who is led into marriage with a dissolute, brash young man on the strength of her innocent passion. Despite warnings from her aunt, Mrs. Maxwell, that Arthur Huntingdon is not the right man for her, Helen marries him with the idea that she can reform him and turn him into the angel he was never destined to be. Mrs. Maxwell’s prophecy comes true, and Helen is left to cope with her ill fortune on her own. Huntingdon turns out to be a philanderer, getting into a relationship with his friend’s wife besides other women. This and other discoveries turn Helen completely against her husband, and she decides to run away to a place where she can be free of his presence and raise their son, Arthur, to be the gentleman his father never could be.
Helen’s arrival in a new parish as a single married woman raises quite a few eyebrows, and gossip spreads like wildfire. She settles down to a quiet life with her son and her maid, painting to earn her living. But society doesn’t leave her alone, and matters grow worse when a young man, Gilbert Markham, the ‘beau of the parish and its vicinity’, as she calls him, gets attracted to her. More challenges beset Helen, and she is forced to take steps to prevent unwanted relationships. Things end happily, however, and Helen is restored to the position of dignity that she deserves.
Anne Bronte published the book under the pseudonym Acton Bell; in the mid-nineteenth century, female writers were not really accepted. The same people who advocate free speech now were detractors of the idea then, and it was quite a progressive story for those times, as the faults of men were not expected to be publicised in such a manner. Some critics claim to have seen through the pseudonym and figured out that Acton was, in fact, a woman. While the liberation of women seems to form the undertone, the book is not exactly about the profligacy of men. It has its share of lascivious female characters, in the shape of Annabella Wilmot; a snobbish woman who cannot put her education to good use, in the form of Jane Wilson, and others who take pleasure in putting down others of their own kind. The book might be called rebellious, but its story is one that takes place in every town, everyday. Many young women fall prey to the designs of people they do not know; young men are victimised by vices best avoided.
Anne Bronte wrote this novel for a purpose. She says in the preface, making references to Huntingdon and his companions, and to Helen, that she wouldn’t consider the book written in vain if ‘one rash youth’ or ‘one thoughtless girl’ had been prevented from making the mistakes these characters had. Instead of sparking off debates over whether Helen had her freedom curbed first by a profligate man and then a more civil one, or if Anne Bronte was influenced too much by her sisters’ writing, I think this book should have been appreciated for what it is. It is not a sunny, sweet romance, but reality. Without being preachy, it has lessons for life.