Love and marriage as it used to be

THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL by Anne Bronte (1848) with an introduction by John Weeks (1979)

Most educated people have heard of the Bronte sisters—Charlotte Bronte, who wrote Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte, who wrote Wuthering Heights.  I didn’t know there was a third sister, Anne Bronte, until one of her novels was selected by my novel-reading group.

Her best-known novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a shocker in its day, which is why Charlotte didn’t want it to be republished after Anne’s death.

What made it so shocking?  The heroine was a wife who’d run away from her husband.

Marriage then was an iron-clad contract.  Indeed, someone who broke off an engagement could be sued for breach of promise.  Once married, the woman was transferred from the authority and protection of her father to the authority and protection of her husband.

England in those days was a patriarchy—a real one.

Married women could not own property.  Everything a wife owned, including what she earned herself, belonged to her husband.  The husband could even take her children away from her.

Marriage was the transfer of the woman from the authority and protection of her father to the authority and protection of her husband.  The only truly independent women were, like Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, fatherless, unmarried and in possession of sufficient property to support themselves.

Many Victorian novels tell of unhappy marriages and abusive husbands, but the wife, if she is to expect any sympathy from the reader, must do her best to put up with it.  Freedom only came when the abusive partner died, which, iIt must be said, very commonly happened in not only in novels, but in real life.)


We begin with reminiscences of Gilbert Markham, a classic unreliable narrator.  He’s a nice young man working on the family estate, oblivious to what is going on around him, but providing enough information that the reader can see what he is blind to.

For example, he is unaware of how his mother and sister cater to his needs and wishes because the man of the house comes first.  He doesn’t notice how the desperately the young women in his circle want and need to get married.  What for him is an amusing flirtation is, for them, a question of their whole futures.  The women in my novel-reading group said his is typical male behavior.

Gilbert’s attention is captured by a mysterious Helen Graham who has moved into a remote, previously-vacant house called Wildfell Hall with her small son.  She is cold and stand-offish, especially to men, but also lonely.

They gradually grow closer, despite his blunders, based on his tendency to act impulsively after jumping to false conclusions.

Finally she gives him a diary that tells her back story.

The diary begins six years earlier, in 1821.  Helen is a bookish, artistic 18-year-old girl, raised by her aunt and uncle after her father died.  They love her, but keep her ignorant of the facts of life.

She has no opportunity to meet eligible young men her own age.  There aren’t any schools as we know them or workplaces open to respectable young middle-class women.

She is courted by unattractive, middle-aged friends of her uncle.  Since they all have reasonably good character and reasonably good incomes, her uncle sees no reason why she shouldn’t accept one of them.

She is attracted to a handsome, witty bachelor 10 years her senior named Arthur Huntington.  He drinks too much and gambles too much, but has a bad-boy vibe that attracts her.  Her aunt warns her against him, very rightly as it turns out, but is of no help in finding a more suitable mate.

Helen agrees to marry him, with the mistaken idea that she will reform his character.  It turns out they have nothing in common.  They make a half-hearted attempt to get along and soon give up.

Huntington spends more and more time in London, carousing, gambling and having sexual affairs (the last is implied) and drawing down the family fortune.     Helen is left at home at Grassdale Manor with her little son, Arthur Jr., born a year after the marriage.

Helen Huntington

Bronte provides a masterly portrait of Huntington sinking deeper and deeper into drug and alcoholic addiction.  I think this is the part that Charlotte and some of the book reviewers found hard to take

Sometimes Huntington hosts his drinking companions at home, and Helen has to serve as hostess.  They are inseparable, but not really friends.  They do not wish anybody well.

One is poor Lord Lowborough, a sober alcoholic, much ridiculed by the others.  He is the victim of his predatory, gold-digging wife, Arabella, who carries a sexual affair with Arthur.

I have to say that Helen, although an admirable person, would not have been a joy to live with.  She is devoted to literature, art and church-going, but doesn’t attempt to share her enthusiasms with her husband.  Nor does she make an effort to share his one harmless pleasure, horseback riding.

Given the circumstances, I can’t really blame her for this.  Notice I am writing about her as if she was a real person, with an existence independent of the printed page.  That shows the greatness of Anne Bronte as novelist.

The break comes with Huntington tries to wean little Arthur away from his mother’s influence.  Up until then, she has regarded it as her Christian duty to remain with her emotionally abusive husband.  She now fears that if she leaves little Arthur to his father’s influence, he will go to Hell.

Helen (and presumably Anne Bronte) believed that Hell was a literal place, not a metaphor as so many religious people do today.  She was, however, a Christian universalist.

She believed suffering in Hell would not be eternal, but only sufficient to be a just punishment for sin and to bring the sinner to repentance—something like the Catholic Purgatory.

So she makes the break and leaves for Wildfell Hall, which was owned by her father.  Huntington would have had the legal authority to go after her and force her to return.  But he chose not to bother.

Now the story returns to Gilbert’s viewpoint.  She tells Gilbert she likes him well enough, but they can’t continue their relationship because she is already married.

A year later she is called to the bedside of her husband, who is dying.  In a horrifying passage, she tells how he died in fear of death and of the possibility of Hell, yet honest enough to admit that he was not really sorry for how he had lived, but only afraid of what came next.

Soon after she came into an inheritance.  Death of bad characters and inheritance of money by good characters commonly happen at the end of Victorian novels.

She is now free to marry Gilbert, but he nearly messes things up by his tendency to jump to conclusions.  She tests his commitment, then agrees to marry him.

It is a happy marriage because the two of them are decent people, have common interests and respect each other as human beings and not just for the roles they play.

 Gilbert would not have been the dominant partner.  Which is fine.


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not out of date, not completely.  Battered women’s shelters are filled with wives whose husbands are more abusive that Arthur Huntington.

Yet we also have a large segment of society in which the idea of marriage as a binding life commitment is forgotten.  Young people live together openly or have sexual relationships before they get married.  If the marriage doesn’t work out, they break it off with no hard feelings.

Yet it seems to me these enlightened people manage to find ways to make themselves unhappy just the same.  I’m divorced.  I’m glad to be free of the restrictions of the Victorian age.  But I’m uneasy about  liquid modernity, in which there are no fixed commitments, everything can be renegotiated and the only permanent thing is change.


An Entire Mistake: The Suppression of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Nick Holland on his In search of Anne Bronte blog.

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One Response to “Love and marriage as it used to be”

  1. Linda White Says:

    Thank you for the review, Phil. Sorry we never had a wrap up session but I am glad you thought the book worth reading.


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