Saturday, March 02, 2019

Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


Opening Passage: There are actually two versions of the opening floating around; in one, it opens prior to Chapter 1 with the beginning of the letter that frames the narrative, while in the other it simply opens with Chapter 1. The version I happened to have had was in the latter category:

You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.

My father, as you know, was a sort of gentleman farmer in —shire; and I, by his express desire, succeeded him in the same quiet occupation, not very willingly, for ambition urged me to higher aims, and self-conceit assured me that, in disregarding its voice, I was burying my talent in the earth, and hiding my light under a bushel. My mother had done her utmost to persuade me that I was capable of great achievements; but my father, who thought ambition was the surest road to ruin, and change but another word for destruction, would listen to no scheme for bettering either my own condition, or that of my fellow mortals. He assured me it was all rubbish, and exhorted me, with his dying breath, to continue in the good old way, to follow his steps, and those of his father before him, and let my highest ambition be to walk honestly through the world, looking neither to the right hand nor to the left, and to transmit the paternal acres to my children in, at least, as flourishing a condition as he left them to me.

Summary: Gilbert Markham is writing to his friend and brother-in-law about events that occurred twenty years before. A young widow, going by the name Helen Graham, arrives with her young boy and a servant to rent part of Wildfell Hall; this sets all the locals a-twitch to learn more about her, but she is very unforthcoming. After a somewhat rocky start, Markham and the young widow begin to get along very well, but jealousy and gossip begin to whisper some rather nasty things about Helen, until she is finally forced to divulge her story to him: she is fleeing a malicious husband, Arthur Huntingdon.

Tenant is a story of the dark side of marriage: Helen Huntingdon chooses a husband badly, and it goes from passionate to inconsistent to a spiral of struggle and resentment in a matter of a few years, until she flees in order to protect her child from being corrupted by her husband. It recognizes the value and power of marriage -- but for that very reason, it is not something to treat lightly, because when it goes bad, it goes very bad. And how it can be otherwise? One of the things Tenant recognizes is that human beings are capable of being quite dangerous to each other. This danger is in most cases moderated by social conventions and our desire to look good in front of the world, but within the sphere of a marriage itself, these things at times fall away and we interact with each other without a social buffer. And men in particular (although not solely men) are dangerous creatures; they are far from being only dangerous creatures, but take the mildest-seeming man and there are circumstances that can bring out his fangs and claws. Marriage can work, but it requires that a man take his own dangerousness seriously, and that a woman have more regard for character than for anything else. That granted, a great deal may be achieved even with the most unpromising of materials. One of the arcs I found most interesting in the story is that of Ralph Hattersley. A crass and vulgar man who keeps bad and carousing company, Hattersley ends up being a decent husband, although perhaps never any less vulgar, because he means no harm, and, more importantly, means not to harm. He does, inevitably, because of the company he keeps and the habit he develops, but his marital selfishness is merely taking his wife's good temper too much for granted, and thus he is open to good advice, should it be given. This contrasts with Arthur, who more careless of others and more frivolous in temper and habit, whose selfishness is a willful desire to have his own way without regard for any rule. Despite giving a very dark picture of marriage gone bad, the novel is not anti-marriage; rather, its criticism is of people who treat marriage as if it were not a powerfully sacred thing, and, like all sacred things, requiring both discipline and the cultivation of honest sympathy.

While Helen is the heroine, she does not escape the novel's ceaseless consideration of the flaws of its character. She has a streak of pride (it is what gets her into the mess), and she is only able to get happiness in the end by overcoming it. It's noteworthy, and perhaps all too realistic, that she does not really understand what she has thrown herself into until very late.

Tenant is usually considered to be partly a response to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights; it's not exactly an answer, but it can be read as an attempt to strip away the impressiveness, the romanticization of the overweening passions that bring such destruction in their wake. In Wuthering Heights these things are not presented in a positive light, but they are presented in a striking way, as if they were overwhelming forces of nature. Tenant, a much quieter novel despite its realism about abusiveness, insists on the principle that they are not forces of nature at all, and that they are not overwhelming, so that our giving into them is sordid, almost sickening at times, not striking. Wuthering Heights is usually considered the more technically brilliant of the two, but I'm not sure that this is really fair to Tenant, which is trying to do something considerably more difficult, namely, to prevent the reader from adding an ameliorating sheen as a cover to the awfulness of misstep and wrongdoing in matters of marriage, and yet to do so without being ruthless and (as we say) 'gritty'. Emily has surely taken an easier road than Anne. But Anne has done very well here. There are many ways in which I liked Tenant better than I ever remember liking Wuthering Heights.

Favorite Passage:

‘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, and win a glorious rest at last!

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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