Throughout January I listened to the audiobook version of Clare Harman’s excellent and very sensible biography of Charlotte Bronte on my drive home from work each evening. I always think January is the bleakest of months and I don’t particularly enjoy long stretches in the car at the best of times so as the days passed I was surprised to find myself looking forward to my cosy night-time drives with the Brontes. As the audiobook was drawing to a close I wanted to prolong that nice companionable feeling a bit longer so I went on the hunt for a new-to-me Bronte novel in all the (three) bookshops close to my office. I had an idea that it might be a good time to read Agnes Grey or Villette or (ideally) some of Emily’s poetry, but alas, it was not to be.
The best I could manage was a rather tatty copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which I found squished at the end the Bronte section in Waterstones. It followed a whole shelf and a half stuffed full with beautiful copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights which made me feel a little sad for poor, overlooked Anne Bronte. I was pretty certain I’d read this already (and didn’t think much of it) but my memories were pretty hazy so I parted with the cash and it came home with me. It turns out that the book I read fifteen years ago was possibly one of those abridged versions mutilated by Anne’s horrified publishers in the years after her death. It was definitely much shorter than the version I’ve just read so I had a hard time reconciling this version with the one I very vaguely remember from back then. It’s nice in a way because it made the book feel new-to-me all over again.
Anne’s publishers subjected the book to pretty heavy editing after her death to mitigate some of the negative publicity that both of Anne’s published novels seem to have attracted. It seems highly unfair now but I expect the novel’s themes were pretty shocking to readers of the time (“Wildfell Hall it hardly seems to me desirable to preserve”, wrote Charlotte later. “The choice of subject in that work is a mistake”). This is the story of Helen Huntingdon and her radical decision to flee from a drunken, womanising husband after years of torment at his hands. Much of Helen’s story is told in diary format but it’s sandwiched between letters written several years later by Gilbert Markham, her only friend during her months in exile. For once, I wasn’t a huge fan of the diary/letter style but only because it feels like such a direct, confrontational novel; I think it needs a more direct style of narration perhaps.
“… for, since he and I are one, I so identify myself with him that I feel his degradation, his failings and transgressions as my own; I blush for him, I fear for him, I repent for him, weep, pray and feel for him as myself; but I cannot act for him and hence I must be, and am, debased, contaminated by the union, both in my own eyes and in the actual truth…”
My main fascination with this novel lies in the fact that it so obviously draws upon Anne’s own experiences with her brother Branwell’s decline into alcoholism and drug addiction. It must, I think, have been a bitterly uncomfortable book to write and it gives you a strange sense of how impotent the sisters must have felt as they watched their brother rage and waste away the opportunities offered to him as the only son in the family. The injustice of their situation is mirrored in Helen’s powerlessness to do anything for herself or for husband. Of course, in the eyes of the law and the church Helen’s property is Arthur’s property, she is Arthur’s property, so she is completely at his mercy. Her decision to run away is a radical one but leaves her vulnerable to rumour, suspicion and condemnation.
I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to based on my experiences with the abridged version fifteen years ago. I’m reluctant to spend too much time comparing it to the other Bronte novels I’ve read but I will say that it doesn’t have the romantic brutality of Wuthering Heights but it’s not as restrained as Jane Eyre either. Anne clearly didn’t feel shy about portraying a very real and very common, but rarely discussed, problem in all its grubby sordidness or to say that it wasn’t fair to deprive women of any power to help themselves in situations such as this. The writing isn’t as polished as her sisters’ perhaps but while the subject matter (and all the moralising) may feel a little dated now it’s a much braver novel than it perhaps gets credit for.
I detested Gilbert Markham more than I hated Helen’s wicked husband but it’s weirdly refreshing every now and again to read a Victorian novel in which the menfolk are unremittingly awful in every possible way.