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Content note: This article contains mention of domestic abuse.

When Anne Bronte’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was first published in the summer of 1848, it created quite a stir. In her preface to the second edition, Anne (going under the pseudonym ‘Acton Bell’) addressed accusations that her writing contained ‘a morbid love’ of ‘coarse’ and ‘brutal’ matters: namely, a painfully detailed account of the abusive relationship between Helen and Arthur Huntington. Such a deeply personal (and partially female) narrative amounted to a sort of social blasphemy at the time.

‘I may have gone too far,’ Anne explains to her Victorian readers in the preface. So far, so good for the egos of her most avid critics. Fortunately, however, their initial victory is short lived, for Anne quickly expresses her wish for there to be a ‘less...delicate concealment of facts’ in the social sphere. Facts, for example, of normalised domestic abuse and widespread marital misery. Anne further adds that ‘such characters’ as the estranged wives and irresponsible husbands explored in her novel do exist, whether readers like it or not. In a daring demonstration of defiance, Anne refuses to apologise for her exploration of controversial themes. ‘Be it understood,’ she informs readers, ’when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth… I will speak it.’ Ouch.

Anne concludes her preface with the following comment:‘I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be.’ Here is an example of a woman truly speaking out of her place. As though it isn’t enough for her to write a good book, Anne then has the audacity to meddle in private affairs. And oh, how I love her for it! Maximum meddling is exactly what the Victorians needed. After all, theirs was not the most inclusive and all-encompassing of societies, and that’s putting it kindly: in fact, the Victorian world was filled to the brim with oppressive patriarchal norms and rampant class inequalities. Exploitative relationship dynamics characterised the period, with a sprinkling of extremely powerful social conservatism on top.

“It is really no wonder that The Tenant of Wildfell Hallis a commendable contester for the first British feminist novel.”

Though neither of these conditions are confined to the past, to even so much as challenge these categories in Anne’s time was really quite remarkable. Manipulative and violent behaviour, gender inequality, alcoholism and class divisions are explored in the 380 pages of her novel. To make matters worse for its Victorian critics, these inequalities are questioned and confronted by a woman. In this light, it is really no wonder that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a commendable contester for the first British feminist novel.

The book itself begins in the midst of controversy, setting the tone for things to come. Helen, the protagonist, has moved to the neglected and decrepit Wildfell Hall with her young son Arthur. However, she is not accompanied by a man (a catalyst for untamed rumours if ever there were one). We later find out that Helen left her husband Arthur in response to his reckless, adultering ways. ‘His idea of a wife is a thing...to stay at home- to wait upon her husband,’ she tells us. Most tellingly, this charming and highly philosophical ‘idea of a wife’ does not encompass any obligation nor responsibility on his behalf.

At first, Helen tolerates Arthur’s blatant mistreatment, writing that ‘I had brought all these afflictions… upon myself.’ By conforming to the submissive feminine archetype, Helen remains extremely vulnerable to the tyrannical ways of Arthur, internalising all of the blame. However, the final straw comes when Arthur adds infidelity to his maddening neglect of Helen: Helen informs him that ‘henceforth, we are husband and wife only in the name.’

Immediately afterwards, when reflecting on ‘how fondly, how foolishly’ she loved him, Helen exclaims in a torrent of hurt and anguish: ‘I hate him - I hate him!’

Add the unladylike nature of these words, spoken by a woman of rank, to the fact that Helen departs without Arthur’s permission, and a potion for truly unfettered outrage is born, Victorian style. Safe to say, Helen’s escape was no small and trivial decision, both culturally and legally. For having the strength to leave a very unhealthy marriage, she faces marginalisation, poverty and isolation. So much for social solidarity.

The necessary veil of secrecy of the whole (highly illegal) situation results in Gilbert Markham, who falls in love with Helen, becoming alienated from her. Due to the mystery of Helen’s arrival to Wildfell Hall and in light of vicious rumours, Gilbert begins to suspect Helen of having an illicit affair with Mr Lawrence. A visceral scene of fury swiftly follows when Gilbert violently strikes Mr Lawrence with his whip, leaving him bleeding and completely alone and giving him a sense of ‘savage satisfaction’ (what a lovely suitor). Here is yet another violation of the cosy Victorian armchair read, another literary crime committed by Anne to add to the list.

In any case, it eventually comes to light that Mr Lawrence is actually Helen’s brother, and is putting his reputation on the line to help hide her. Unsurprisingly, Helen can hardly tell Gilbert this fact, considering the inherent danger of her precarious situation. And, even when this specific difficulty is lifted through her husband’s death, (note that Helen does return to care for him in the end), the difficulty of their marked class distinction remains. Helen is, in spite of her scandal, a widowed lady of significant social class; Gilbert is a farmer.


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As probably expected, Victorian society (an exclusivist group in itself) didn’t exactly look warmly upon such matches. They were certainly very concerned in ensuring that their opinions were heard and internalised.

This awkward social context explains the cautiousness adopted by Gilbert and Helen in revealing their eventual engagement. In a particularly poignant part of the novel, Gilbert considers abandoning his mission to ask for Helen’s hand in marriage. He narrates that his ‘heart sank’ when he beheld the stately mansion in which Helen was living and would inherit after her aunt’s death (another breach of Victorian inheritance norms, another literary crime). For one tense moment, it seems as though society’s judgement will stop the two lovers from coming together.

Anne Bronte had other ideas in mind. She still had some meddling magic to be reckoned with. Bringing the two lovers together at the last minute, the novel concludes on a potentially hopeful note with the (albeit somewhat predictable) union of the two. A happily-ever-after may be a bit premature, though, if one considers the psychological implications of Helen’s past trauma, alongside Gilbert’s proven violent traits and selfish inclinations. As we read the novel 200 years after Anne’s birth, we can only cross our fingers that the very deserving tenant of Wildfell Hall can now heal from her troubled past.

Reader, I regret to say that to this night, I remain extremely unconvinced.

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