” I will give my whole heart and soul to my Maker if I can, `I answered, ` and not one one atom more of it to you than He allows. What are you sir, that you should set yourself up as a god, and presume to dispute possession of my heart with Him to who I owe all I have and all I am, every blessing I ever did, or ever can enjoy – and yourself among the rest – if you are a blessing, which I am half inclined to doubt.”
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered one of the most shocking of the Bronte sister`s novels; the second and last novel by Anne Bronte, it was published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell. The Tenant of Wildfell hall is one Helen Graham, a single, and very mysterious woman, who naturally becomes the centre of scandal and controversy. An attractive woman who chooses to live alone with her young son, on a large, isolated rural estate, without the protection and presence of a husband was a moral outrage to male dominated Victorian society, where the little lady was supposed to submit herself, body and soul into the care of the man about the house, who was allowed by social convention, to do as he wished with his wife. Like all Bronte heroines, Helen Graham lives the life she chooses, and considers herself at least the equal of any man: and so, she ups sticks from a failed marriage to a wastrel, drunken, wife beater, takes her son in her arms and leaves for an isolated sanctuary in the country.
Surprisingly for a book which flouted Victorian moral conventions, by showing the consequences of marital breakdown, red in tooth and claw, it was a huge success when first published. But it wasn`t the unequivocal success of Jane Eyre – the reviews were very mixed – they all praised it`s vividness, it`s intensity, it`s vigor; but because it depicted graphic scenes of drunkenness and domestic violence, it was considered coarse ( an accusation levelled at sister Emily`s Wuthering Heights) , “….almost to brutality” as one contemporary commentator described it. There was not only some confusion among readers of the Bronte novels, as to whether all the books were written by men or women, but whether they were written by the same author as Wuthering Heights, which itself had had a very unfavorable reception, and was thought outrageous and morally degenerate.
The matter over whether the Bronte novels were written by a man or a woman, preoccupied the novels early readership to a point which is very difficult for us to fully understand now. Victorian society had different standards for the sexes, which is one of the reasons the sisters chose male pseudonyms in the first place; when it was discovered that the novels were indeed written by women, moral outrage cascaded down upon the sisters like a literary ton of bricks. In the preface of the second edition of her novel, Anne tried to answer her critics…………“All novels are written – or should be – for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man could permit himself to write anything which would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything which would be proper and becoming for a man.”
There is some evidence that Anne based the main character of her novel on a real woman, Caroline Norton; she was involved in a notorious case, in which her husband sued her, and took her to court for “criminal conversations”, as it was put, with Lord Melbourne. He had taken her three children from her, because he had custody in law of them – not the wife – she was denied access to them, as if she was an evil woman of ill-repute, and one of the children died while they were in his custody. It was a tragedy , and Anne Bronte would have been very well aware of this case, which led to an Act of Parliament, The Infant Custody Act, where it began to be thought, that perhaps children under the age of seven at least, should not be considered the property of their fathers. It`s difficult for the modern mind to wrap it`s thoughts around so called `Victorian Values`, whereby wives and children were basically `owned` by the husband.
Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall deals with the landed gentry, Anne herself, was the daughter of a clergyman, but she had spent six years as a governess in very wealthy homes; and during that time she said that she had had many, “….unpleasant, and undreamt of experiences of human nature”. A governess was the hired help, and would have sat – as in Jane Eyre – listening to aristocrats discussing her as if she were not there; as such, the governess was almost invisible, as it gave her a very good vantage point from which to take note of behaviour, and what was said.
Anne`s work is still the least known of the sister`s work: after the early death of Anne and Emily, it meant that Charlotte was in total control of their legacy; Charlotte really disliked Anne`s book, and attempted to soften the edges and tone down the “coarseness”, as she saw it, and didn`t think it was good enough for publication. It`s quite possible to read Anne`s book as a critique of Charlotte`s Jane Eyre: Rochester is a rake, who has been reformed by the love of a good woman; whereas, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen marries a known rake, deliberately with the intention of reforming him, but the novel shows that she fails, because in law, a woman is without power to do anything – she is a chattel to be used as her husband so wishes – and the soul of Helen`s husband was beyond even the redemption of a good woman`s love. So she becomes a victim herself. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the anti – Jane Eyre.
It has a wonderful beginning of a mysterious woman arriving at an isolated house, and all of it`s following repercussions. Anne Bronte has had a reputation of being the least radical of the Bronte sisters, simply because her books are not as widely read as those of her sisters: but this is purely through ignorance of her novels; it can be argued that she is the most radical, because she hit all the nails hard on the head that the organized women`s movement then took up.
That education should be the same for boys and girls; the girls shouldn`t be sheltered, while the boys are sent into the world; she showed that the hands of women were tied behind their backs. Their husbands owned them, their property, their body and their children. A woman couldn`t say no to sexual intercourse; if she shut her bedroom door on her husband, she was technically breaking the law. Because Helen took her child and hid him from the father, she was deemed to be an outlaw. There are so many important points of interest in Anne`s book which were subsequently taken up by the social reform movement, which highlighted the terrible predicament of women and children in Victorian society. It`s a terribly important book, as well as being an immensely enjoyable and wonderful drama. A truly great novel, which should be more widely read, and Anne given her full due as a great novelist.