The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: March group read
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Welcome to this March-group read of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant at Wildfell Hall.
I’m a little late setting this group-read up - but there’s still time to get started and hopefully finish it in March.
Let’s discuss the novel - the themes, it’s importance in the Brontë-canon, well, anything related to Anne Brontë and her sisters.
Wikipedia: A great success on initial publication, the novel was almost forgotten in subsequent years. When it became due for a reprint, just over a year after Anne's death, Charlotte prevented its re-publication. Some believe that Charlotte's suppression of the book was to protect her younger sister's memory from further onslaughts. Others believe Charlotte was jealous of her younger sister. Even before Anne's death Charlotte had criticised the novel.
I'm reading the Penguin Classics edition, and have highlighted several excellent notes from the introduction which I will post later.
-“Wildfell Hall is told by two narrators, Gilbert Markham and Helen, in two literary forms (Markham’s letters framing Helen’s diary), concerned with two periods of time (the beginning and end of the 1820s), in two keys. Beginning in the minor key of romantic-domestic social comedy, it moves back in time to the major key of tragic irony in Helens’ inset diary, succeeded by further letters by Gilbert encapsulating a cluster of new letters from Helen.” (xii)
On Brontë's portrayal of women/men:
-“Reviewers, largely themselves male … shocked at the portrayal of women as ‘superior in every quality, moral and intellectual, to all the men, who ‘appear at once coarse, brutal, and contemptibly weak, at once disgusting and ridiculous.’” (xvi)
-“Anne Brontë, herself an educator, analyzed the lack of sense and reason amongst males as the consequence of a value-system based on the worship of machismo. ‘:By G—d he drinks like a man’” was a compliment Lord Byron had proudly reported of himself.” (xvii)
Inequality under the law:
-“As the popular summary had it, ‘Husband and wife are one person under the law, and that person is the husband.’ Anne Brontë’s novel is in part a polemic against these abuses of reasons and human rights. Helen has no redress against her husband’s raids on decency. She cannot obtain a divorce when his adultery with Annabella, and later with ‘Miss Myers,’ the ‘governess,’ is detected … She has no legal right to the pen in her hand, the diary in which she writes, her paints and canvases, her pictures, or the earnings from those pictures; nor can she call her son her own, but must steal him from the house in which they belong. It is important to recognize that the tenant of Wilful Hall lives outside the law; is an outlaw.” (xviii)
Patriarchy, and Helen's fear for her child:
-“Helen’s life is centred in her chid, the second Arthur Huntingdon — bidding fair to become a second edition to the first as the father and his peers ‘make a man of him’ by teaching him ‘to tipple wine like papa, to swear like Mr Hattersley, and to have his own way like a man’ (350) … reconstituting him in the image of the patriarchy which has in turn reproduced and authorized its damaged pattern in father and son from generation to generation.” (xxvii)
Common decency rare in marriage (and a note on class):
-“Gilbert is presented as honourable in intention, ordinary, solid, open to reason … Transposed form farming into landed opulence he will certainly do more good than harm, and the book seems disposed to settle for common decency as a rather rare commodity in the marriage-market of the time. In such competition, Gilbert’s price is above rubies. It seems significant that Helen has to come down a class to find him.”
Preface to the Second Edition:
As the story of Agnes Grey was accused of over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from the life, with a a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration, so, in the present work, I find myself censured for depicting con amore, with ‘a morbid love of the coarse, if not the brutal,’ those scenes which, I will venture to say, have not been more painful for the most fastidious of my critics to read, than they were for me to describe. I may have gone too far, in which case I shall be careful not to trouble myself or my readers in the same way again; but when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is doubtless the more agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts — this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace — there would be less of sign and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.” (4)
July 22nd, 1848
"Then you must fall each into your proper place. You’ll do your business, and she, if she’s worthy of you, will do hers; but it’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you. I’m sure your poor, dear father was as good a husband as ever lived, and after the first six months or so were over, I should as soon have expected him to fly, as to put himself out of his way to pleasure me. He always said I was a good wife, and did my duty; and he always did his—bless him!—he was steady and punctual, seldom found fault without a reason, always did justice to my good dinners, and hardly ever spoiled my cookery by delay—and that’s as much as any woman can expect of any man.” (Ch 6)
#4 - On Brontë's portrayal of women/men - I have to look at this while I read.
I like Brontë's own preface about this - a hint to the literary critics (which were men): All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.".
#5: I really like this quote. Anne Brontë seemed to be ahead of her time in the depiction of domestic abuse - From Wikipedia: "As May Sinclair said in 1913: The slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. In leaving her husband, Helen violates not only social conventions, but also English law". The impact really can't be felt as forcefully today as then, but it is a rather bold novel that did stir things up.
#6: Oh, my what a quote. but it’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you . It's so hard to fathom the expectations they went into the marriage with....
>9 ctpress: I'm glad you're following the thread, too, Joe. Can we convince you to read with us?
To Walk Invisible The Brontë Sisters follows the Brontë sisters in the eventful three-year period that saw them rise from ordinary, unmarried women, to the secret authors of the world’s most sensational literature. See the film Sunday, March 26th, 2017 at 9/8c on MASTERPIECE on PBS. #BronteSistersPBS
-Helen's aunt warns her of the trouble with beauty: "Because, my dear, beauty is that quality which, next to money, is generally the most attractive to the worst kinds of men; and, therefore, it is likely to entail a great deal of trouble on the possessor." ... and cautions her to be wary about the attentions of gentlemen: “Receive, coldly and dispassionately, every attention, till you have ascertained and duly considered the worth of the aspirant; and let your affections be consequent upon approbation alone. First study; then approve; then love.”
-Helen knows the folly of youth when she first encounters Arthur Huntingdon, in spite of warnings from her aunt and uncle that he is "a bit wildish ... destitute of principle, and prone to every vice that is common to youth.”; her inexperience convinces her that she will change him, save him from vice (she presumes, erroneously, that he wishes to be saved)
-it is telling that Huntingdon appears unfamiliar with might constitute the charcater of "a really good man," and assumes this to mean simply a churchgoer; he jests: "I’ll go to church morning, afternoon, and evening, and comport myself in such a godly sort that she shall regard me with admiration and sisterly love, as a brand plucked from the burning. I’ll come home sighing like a furnace, and full of the savour and unction of dear Mr. Blatant’s discourse—’" (Mr Leighton) ... and he proceeds to act the complete ass throughout all of the services he attends
#19: I'll come back to Huntingdon when I get to these chapters. Oh, what a reprehensible character.
Ch. 1: The priest: He had a laudable care for his own bodily health –kept very early hours, regularly took a walk before breakfast, was vastly particular about warm and dry clothing, had never been known to preach a sermon without previously swallowing a raw egg –albeit he was gifted with good lungs and a powerful voice...being a great despiser of tea and such slops, and a patron of malt liquors, bacon and eggs, ham, hung beef, and other strong meats, which agreed well enough with his digestive organs...
Ch. 4: Mrs Wilson: Mrs Wilson was more brilliant than ever, with her budgets of fresh news and old scandal, strung together with trivial questions and remarks, and oft repeated observations, uttered apparently for the sole purpose of denying a moment’s rest to her inexhaustible organs of speech. She had brought her knitting with her, and it seemed as if her tongue had laid a wager with her fingers, to outdo them in swift and ceaseless motion.
-another red flag as to Huntingdon's true character (prior to marriage), but the youth will have their way in love (or what they believe to be love): "No, Arthur, it is not that that displeases me: it is the whole system of your conduct towards your friend, and if you wish me to forget it, go now, and tell him what sort of a woman it is that he adores so madly, and on whom he has hung his hopes of future happiness.” (Ch 22)
-based on what we have seen of Helen in previous chapters, she will pay a dear price for her naivity and her infatuation
Mrs Graham, clearly implying that the notion is ridiculous: "Well, then it must be that you think they (both sexes) are both weak and prone to err, and the slightest error, the merest shadow of pulsation, will ruin the one, while the character for the other will be strengthened and embellished--his education properly finished by a little practical acquaintance with forbidden things...You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others."
I cannot believe how long some of these sentences run on! And the punctuation! The first sentence in Ch 5 has the following: , -- ; , , , ; , , , , , , -- , , , .
Wait. Found more: --! , ? -- ? (That's one sentence!) followed by: -- .-- : :-- , .
How can you have a dash right before a question mark or a period followed by a dash?
-trouble in London, shortly into the marriage: Helen (and I expect all women of the time) is forced to be someone she is not in order to please her husband: “It was something to feel that he considered me a worthy object of pride; but I paid dear for the gratification: for, in the first place, to please him I had to violate my cherished predilections, my almost rooted principles in favour of a plain, dark, sober style of dress—I must sparkle in costly jewels and deck myself out like a painted butterfly, just as I had, long since, determined I would never do—and this was no trifling sacrifice; in the second place, I was continually straining to satisfy his sanguine expectations and do honour to his choice by by my general conduct and deportment ..."
-Huntingdon in a nutshell: “he has no more idea of exerting himself to overcome obstacles than he has of restraining his natural appetites; and these two things are the ruin of him.”
-a "confiscation of property": or, put another way, perfectly legal, abject cruelty: "My painting materials were laid together on the corner table, ready for to-morrow’s use, and only covered with a cloth. He soon spied them out, and putting down the candle, deliberately proceeded to cast them into the fire: palette, paints, bladders, pencils, brushes, varnish: I saw them all consumed: the palette-knives snapped in two, the oil and turpentine sent hissing and roaring up the chimney. He then rang the bell.
'Benson, take those things away,’ said he, pointing to the easel, canvas, and stretcher; ‘and tell the housemaid she may kindle the fire with them: your mistress won’t want them amy more.'"
That's a very good description of Huntingdon, Nancy. And the quote from ch. 40 is chilling in all its cruelty.
Huntingdon mocks religion and the scene where he in the same instance draw a caricature of the priest and afterwards praise the priest to integratiate himself to the aunt speaks volumes. His churchgoing is clearly only a facade.
Helen’s faith I find very strong and independent. She has the nerve to criticize the priest in the beginning of the novel and also put forth her own belief in universal salvation based upon her own reading and interpretation of the Bible. Something that was against the doctrine of the church in that day - and although she’s pious she’s not a kill joy that demands total abstinence of Huntingdon - just moderation so to be able to enjoy the gifts of food and drink and not destroy his health.
Most impressing is the strength she gathers from her faith in God. And she really has no one to turn to but to God. This is a long quote but I love the poetic way Anne Brontë describe the spiritual seeking here with images of nature, wind, sky, moon, stars etc - evoking the Spirits moving:
(Ch. 33) ‘God help me now!’ I murmured, sinking on my knees among the damp weeds and brushwood that surrounded me, and looking up at the moonlit sky, through the scant foliage above. It seemed all dim and quivering now to my darkened sight. My burning, bursting heart strove to pour forth its agony to God, but could not frame its anguish into prayer, until a gust of wind swept over me, which, while it scattered the dead leaves, like blighted hopes, around, cooled my forehead, and seemed a little to revive my sinking frame. Then, while I lifted up my soul in speechless, earnest supplication, some heavenly influence seemed to strengthen me within: I breathed more freely; my vision cleared; I saw distinctly the pure moon shining on, and the light clouds skimming the clear, dark sky; and then, I saw the eternal stars twinkling down upon me; I knew their God was mine, and He was strong to save and swift to hear. ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,’ seemed whispered from above their myriad orbs. No, no; I felt He would not leave me comfortless: in spite of earth and hell I should have strength for all my trials.
There are five notes in the Penguin edition in this passage alone mentioning several places in the Bible and also noting the resemblance to the scene in Jane Eyre where Jane is alone on the heath kneeling.
Gilbert: ‘The truth is, Lawrence,’ said I, ‘I have not acted quite correctly towards you of late –especially on this last occasion; and I’m come to –in short, to express my regret for what has been done, and to beg your pardon. –If you don’t choose to grant it,’ I added hastily, not liking the aspect of his face, ‘it’s no matter –only, I’ve done my duty –that’s all.’
Frederick‘It’s easily done,’ replied he, with a faint smile bordering on a sneer: ‘to abuse your friend and knock him on the head, without any assignable cause, and then tell him the deed was not quite correct, but it’s no matter whether he pardons it or not.’
But this resolution by Gilbert change everything:
"I have promised never to go near that house again while she inhabits it". I could have groaned aloud at the bitter thoughts awakened by this turn in the discourse. But I only clenched my hands, and stamped my foot upon the rug. My companion however, was evidently relieved. "You have done right!" he said in a tone of unqualified approbation, while his face brightened into almost a sunny expression.
It also marks a change in Gilbert as he has to learn to hold his temper and discipline himself waiting for Helen - the restraint in not probing to much when his visiting Frederick is also a mark of his changed character.
Still Frederick does hang Gilbert out to dry and we're not quite sure if he at any point approve of Gilberts attachment to Helen. There's a good tension here near the end of the novel.
Should Gilbert have written to Helen - or tried to get an address out of Frederick? I think so, but I guess it's also comes down to a matter of Gilberts strong pride and stubbornness. Or he does not dare to hope to much.
First her experience whiled married to Huntingdon:
“Arthur never will let me be satisfied with him. I have never, for a single hour since I married him, known what it is to realize that sweet idea, ‘In quietness and confidence shall be your rest’”
That is indeed a bitter pill. Then her advice to Esther:
“You might as well sell yourself to slavery at once, as marry a man you dislike. If your mother and brother are unkind to you, you may leave them, but remember you are bound to your husband for life.”
(a bold statement at the time it was written, I'm sure) - And in the end this poetic description of love:
(where we would say "Money doesn't matter as long as we're in love" - Helen says:)
“the greatest worldly distinctions and discrepancies of rank, birth, and fortune are as dust in the balance compared with the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathizing hearts and souls.”
That's why I love the classic. How poetic, how eloquent, how true.
I read some of it in the Penguin edition, some in Danish translation and also listened to parts of it - read by Alex Jennings and Jenny Agutter.
My ranking of the Brontë haven't changed after this reading. Still "Jane Eyre" in the top spot with "The Tenant" at a close second.
Thank you for the quotes and comments, Nancy and Carsten. Great to have those highlighted. I liked this one, too:
“When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone - there are many, many other things to be considered.”
Having respect for the other, and sharing a point of view, seem to be among those that draw Helen to Markham.
... and also this one, Joe: “When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone - there are many, many other things to be considered.”
Finished the novel this afternoon, thoroughly enjoyed, 4*. Have posted a review.
I'm going to watch the 1996 BBC adaptation with Tara Fitzgerald tonight and/or tomorrow - and post my thoughts on that.
"But for you, I might sink into the grossest condition of self-indulgence and carelessness about the wants of others, from the mere habit of being constantly cared for myself, and having all my wants anticipated or immediately supplied, while left in total ignorance of what is done for me,--if Rose did not enlighten me now and then; and I should receive all your kindness as a matter of course, and never know how much I owe you."
I love that Gilbert is grateful for Rose's complaints and recognizes that it takes effort for his household to run smoothly, and failing to recognize that work is disrespectful and a mark of selfishness.
I enjoyed this 1996 BBC tv-series a lot - in three parts each 50 minutes. Long enough to get the story told with a bit of detail. With Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens and Rupert Graves.
The depiction of the town's gossip is well done, the cloudy and windy moors of Yorkshire is beautifully captured - and the music contribute to the mood which in many places is eerie and bleak. It is a painful watch and the domestic abuse is escalated too much I think compared to the novel. Don't expect an amusing time as with the Austen-adaptations.
Tara Fitzgerald plays the character of Helen well - but I wished there was a little more warmth in her performance - I guess the material doesn't present many opportunities for a smile and a laugh - but near the end when she does joke and smile in a few scenes and it becomes her character well, it's such a relief.
Toby Stephens is excellent as Gilbert - what a great performance - just as I imagined him - and Rupert Graves you really quickly start to dislike (as you should) in the role as Mr. Huntingdon.
I wish it was a four part miniseries and they could have been more faithfull to the ending of the novel. In stead they rush it and alters a lot of the original story ending and they miss some opportunities for Helen to develop as a character - and Gilbert to be more desperate and bewildered than this tv-series show. I think it's a genius ending of the novel and I would have liked to see some of these scenes. I'm giving it 3/5.
I am glad to have read this and believe poor Anne Brontë should get a little more of the spotlight.