Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1847)
January 17, 2020 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anne Brontë, bringing the attention of the world to the youngest and least celebrated of the three literary sisters from Yorkshire. The Folio Society has marked the occasion by releasing a new edition of Anne’s second and most substantial novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Now Anne-partisans (the number of which seems to have been quietly growing over the last couple of centuries) can feel vindicated, with this splendid volume in series with the most recent Folio incarnations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. With their somber binding designs touched with gold, compelling illustrations, pleasantly hefty size that is still not too cumbersome for reading, wide margins, and clear, carefully set type, they provide a fitting setting for the words of three groundbreaking women who changed our reading world forever.
If Anne has not always been fully included in this company, it’s not really her fault. All three writers attracted disapproval from moral arbiters of the day, but Anne was the only one to be censored and suppressed by her own sister. When Anne died just a year after the publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which had already gone into a second edition), Charlotte withdrew the novel from circulation, fearing that it cast a negative shadow on her sister’s character. It was only reissued in 1854 with major editorial omissions that have persisted to this day.
Why was the book so frightening to conventional minds? While the other Brontë books have plenty of men behaving badly — bigamy, attempted murder, and psychological and physical abuse are perfectly in order for them — Tenant is the only one that has a woman challenging the bonds of marriage with fully rational moral conviction.
At the time, no matter how bad the man, a woman once married could not escape from him without being judged and blamed. Sadly today, though outer societal structures may have changed, these dark and confining assumptions are still at work. We still need writers who are willing to challenge such strictures, and Anne Brontë is their foremother. In this edition, the illustrations by Valentina Catto incorporate a subtle, almost ghostly photographic element that complements the nineteenth-century text with a touch of modernity.
Tenant suffers from a long opening section that is a poorly-conceived framing device, narrated by an uninteresting and unconvincing male character. (Charlotte might with justification have given some criticism on artistic grounds, rather than objecting as she did to the subject matter.) Some skimming is not inadvisable here.
Fortunately, once we reach the main part of the book, Helen Huntington’s journal, the narrative becomes much more compelling. Her tale of marital deception and disillusionment is heartbreaking but surely not unusual. What is unusual is her decision to reject abuse and exploitation, to risk everything to protect her child, and to stand firm in her own sense of herself.
Helen’s moralizing at times comes too much to the fore, like an object lesson from a teetotaler’s tract; I find her to lack the psychological depth of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe from Villette. Helen also becomes far too saintly towards the end in a death scene that is everything a Victorian heart could desire. But she still lives as a character and draws us into her world, and she is braver and more sure of her own integrity than Jane or Lucy.
Restoring the full text is obviously vital to appreciating Anne Brontë’s achievement, and her true daring. The Folio edition is based on the 1992 version prepared from the original by Oxford University Press; it includes Brontë’s important preface to the second edition that responds to some of the negative comments on her work.
The introduction by historical novelist and Brontë enthusiast Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring, A Single Thread) puts the work into context with some pertinent details, but is not anything terribly special. I confess to wishing that Folio would commission more scholarly introductions that strive for more illuminating and surprising insights. I find them to be usually fairly bland and forgettable in general.
But the words of the author herself are as pointed as one could wish:
“When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are rather than as they would wish to appear.”
Amen, and happy birthday, Anne.