Friday, January 15, 2010

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I open the musty book and turn the yellowed pages to chapter one. As I commence to read, I experience a simultaneous emergence and decent. Slowly the happy, cloudy layers of Austen that typically clog my brain lift, allowing me a clear view of my fall into a the dark, twisted world of the Brontes. So here I am - wide awake to the cruelty of the world and honestly wanting to crawl back into my Austen dreamland.

So why am I speaking of Anne Bronte on what is clearly an Austen blog anyway? Because I talked myself into to joining the All About the Brontes Challenge on Laura's Reviews, rationalizing the decision by announcing that I will relate all Bronte postings back to Austen (read it here).

I absolutely adored the Bronte's when I first read all of their books in a high school English class devoted to the three ladies. The more tragic and horrifying, the more I gloried in their work. I feel rather differently as an adult: knowing first hand how cruel humans can be to each other, I no longer find anything thrilling about wallowing in such misery. I now have absolutely no patience for a characters like Cathy or Heathcliffe - who, the last time I read Wuthering Heights, seriously tempted me to jump into the novel's pages in order to deliver swift kick in the rear both thoroughly deserve - and fully believe that Mr. Rochester is totally unworthy of Jane's love. So why is that works that enthralled me as a sixteen year old fill me with impatience now? Because like Marianne Dashwood and Katherine Moreland, I have learned the value of regulating my emotions and the dangers of indulging in an excess of sensibility. This is why I have avoided beginning this challenge with Charlotte, in all her blustering passion, instead turning to the far more practical (and sadly overlooked) Anne.

Much has been made of Charlotte's criticism of Austen. In a letter from 1850, she made this famous assessment of her predecessor:
"I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works, Emma -- read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable -- anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, or heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress."

For more Charlotte Bronte quotes on Jane Austen, visit
This passage makes the blood of Janeites boil, but I am not here to defend our favorite authoress. Instead I'd like to highlight the fact that Charlotte was equally deprecating of her sister's book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which she banished to near death by refusing to order a second edition after Anne's death. Here are her words on the subject, also from 1850: "... it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistakeit was too little consonant with the charactertastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer" (visit A Celebration of Women Writers to read more). Just like Cassandra Austen, Charlotte tried to manipulate her sister's image postmortem. Obviously, she did not feel that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an appropriate work for her young, unmarried sister to have produced, presumably due to the horrific image of married life there portrayed.

Jane Austen tells stories of courtship, ending with marriage. Anne Bronte takes us past courtship into the harsh realities of the married state in the 19th century, when women were considered the property of their husbands and had little legal recourse to address any wrongs done to them by their "lord and masters", as Mrs. Elton might put it. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the tale of a marriage gone horrifically wrong, a result of the young lady disregarding her own better judgment and the advice of her guardians in order to marry the rake who has secured her affections. In the marriage between Helen Lawrence and Arthur Huntingdon, we see the probable results of the marriage between Lydia and Wickham, or what Marianne might have looked forward to had she married Willoughby. Before leaving for London for her first season, Helen's Aunt tells her what to look for in a proper suitor, anticipating the disaster to come:
"Remember Peter, Helen! Don't boast, but watch. Keep a guard over your eyes and ears as the inlets of your heart, and over your lips as the outlet, lest they betray you in a moment of unwariness. 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. let your eyes be blind to all external attractions, your ears deaf to all the fascinations of flattery and light discourse. - These are nothing - and worse than nothing - snares and wiles of the tempter, to lure the thoughtless to their own destruction. Principle is the first thing, after all; and next to that, good sense, respectability, and moderate wealth. If you should marry the handsomest, and most accomplished and superficially agreeable man in the world, you little know the misery that would overwhelm you, if, after all, you should find him to be a worthless reprobate, or even an impracticable fool."
This scene reminds me so much of Austen's story Catharine, from her Juvenilia, in which a similarly loving aunt also frets about her niece's fate amongst men:
"Her aunt was most excessively fond of her, and miserable if she saw her a moment out of spirits; Yet she lived in such constant apprehension of her marrying imprudently if she were allowed the opportunity of choosing, and was so dissatisfied with her behavior when she saw her with Young Men, for it was, from her natural disposition remarkably open and unreserved, that though she frequently wished for her Neice's sake, that the Neighborhood were larger, and that She had used herself to mix more with it, yet the recollection of there being young Men in almost every Family in it, always conquered the Wish."
It is highly unlikely that Anne Bronte ever read this unfinished story, but the plot is remarkably similar to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: a young woman is raised by her aunt who warns her of the inconsistencies of men, nonetheless she falls for the first reprobate who seeks to seduce her. We only have the forebodings of this fate in Catharine. Anne Bronte explores this common failing of women to its unhappy conclusion, although she does provide her heroine (eventually) with the appropriate happy ending of finding her true love, the reward for her sufferings.

It seems obvious that Anne, like her sister, had read Austen's published works and in all probability enjoyed them a great deal more. There are several instances in the text in which she seems to echo Austen, at one point even touching on the sedate language of her style of novel, which Charlotte had so little use for: "...I saw too, or rather I felt, that, in spite of herself, 'I was not indifferent to her,' as the novel heroes modestly express it...."This is precisely the kind of language Austen uses. It may not be a direct reference to her work and the sarcastic tone of the line is not exactly flattering to such understated expressions of love, but I feel confident stating that Anne had far more respect for the kind of writing Austen did than her elder sister. Indeed, without Austen as a predecessor, it seems highly unlikely that such a book as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall could have been written.

Much has been made of this story's structure and feminism - very interesting topics, but not what particularly interests me. I enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall much more than I anticipated and look forward to rereading Agnes Gray. I will search for similar underpinnings of Austen in that book (based on the authoress' experience as a governess) of which Charlotte was far more approving. It is when I take on the works of that formidable lady that I fear this attempt to view the Bronte's through the lens of Austen will prove much more difficult. Next month I think I might jump right into that muddle with The Professor, her earliest adult work but the last published.


  1. Anne Bronte is my favorite of the sisters. I enjoyed Agnes Gray more than Jane Eyre, perhaps to the dismay of others. ;) I've yet to read the Tenant of Wildfell Hall but it's on my list.
    Great and interesting post! I really like how you've tied the Bronte's and Austen together.

  2. How interesting! Excellent, Alexa. I also tend to make links and connections among writers and texts while reading books .The Tenant is my favourite novel by Anne and it is second only to Jane Eyre in my The Brontes' Achievements list (Wuthering Heights is the third).
    There just one thing I can't agree with you in this review. It is when you say that we could see the probable results of a marriage between Marianne and Willoughby in Helen and Arthur's sad story. I don't know why but I've always thought Willoughby could have been rescued by Marianne's love for him, I've always been sure he did love her ... if it weren't for money he would have married her. Maybe their poverty would have ruined their love story.

  3. Thank you for the comments ladies!

    Katherine - It's strange, but my feelings on reading these books now is so different than when I was a teenager. Then I adored Charlotte; now I have a greater appreciation of Anne. I admit to being rather sick of Jane Eyre. I still really enjoy the first part of the book, that part that focuses on her childhood, but get very frustrated with pretty much everyone's behavior in the rest of the novel.

    Maria - There is so much sympathy for Willoughby out there. While I find him less rakish than most of the other anti-heroes in Austen, I just can't trust his sentiments as expressed at Cleveland. Now that he is married to a woman he does not care for, of course he is remorseful. But had he married Marianne, who is to say he would have maintained his interest in her? I doubt he would be as bad Arthur, who really is totally unfeeling, but I also have a hard time believing he would have been faithful. Throw poverty into the equation and I do think it would have been a rather miserable marriage, but of course this is open to debate. Nothing makes me more excited than arguing Austen - I would love it if you would attempt to change my mind!

  4. Fantastic review! I love your comparison of Anne Bronte and Austen. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is my second favorite Bronte novel after Jane Eyre.

    I love how Anne goes beyond the happily ever after and shows what can happen when you marry the wrong man (Austen does this also to an extent with Fanny's parents in Mansfield Park). I wish Charlotte would not have held Anne's novel back as I feel it is very underappreciated and actually better than Wuthering Heights . . ..

  5. Thanks Laura. I'm really enjoying the challenge.

    I never really got Wuthering Heights. So many people adore it and hail Emily as the genius of the family, but the characters are so totally despicable I cannot sympathize with them at all (though it hasn't kept me from rereading the book at least four times). I feel like I'm rediscovering Anne and greatly enjoy it. She deserves more attention. When I learned that it was Charlotte who kept this book from achieving renown it made me very angry. How officious and cruel! I need to get over it before I start on her works.