Beautiful Books: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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.


Back to the Moors: Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847, Folio Society, 1991)

Illustration by Rovina Cai

Wuthering Heights has never been my favorite Bronte novel. I first read it in high school as one of the required texts for my British Lit class (the gloomy purplish Signet Classics cover is still stamped on my brain). All the characters with similar names, who persisted in marrying each other in various combinations, were terribly confusing, not to mention the complicated double framing device and the baffling Yorkshire dialect. I remember being struck by Catherine’s declaration “I am Heathcliff,” and including it in an essay, although I have no idea what else I wrote about. I’m sure that most of the passion and drama went right over my fifteen-year-old head.

I’ve read Wuthering Heights several times since then, but still found it a depressing story about unlikeable people. The last time I decided I probably wouldn’t pick it up again. I love Charlotte, I appreciate Anne, but Emily and I do not connect — I thought.

Then Girl with Her Head in a Book invited me to her December readalong, and I said yes. One more time, why not? And to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying it. Maybe because I was prepared for the perplexing and grim aspects, I didn’t find it overly perplexing or grim at all. Yes, Heathcliff and Catherine say and do terrible things, but it’s almost like watching a great storm sweeping over the Yorkshire landscape: their tremendous, alien passions make them more akin to a force of nature than  human beings. As I started to look elsewhere for the actual human impact of the story, I began to realize how brilliant and multi-layered this novel is.

For instance, this time I noticed how involved and culpable Nelly Dean, who tells most of the story, actually is. No mere detached narrator, she lies, withholds information, and manipulates situations — with the best intentions, no doubt, but often in her own self-interest as well. These small moral slidings may seem minor in comparison to the grand depravity of a Heathcliff, but are they really? Oh Emily, you are clever indeed. Who is worse, the one who unabashedly displays his moral failings, or the one who doesn’t even notice them?

And then there is the question of where the moral center of the story truly lies. In its complex construction, so confusing to my teenage self, Wuthering Heights starts not with the childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff, which is in the past of the novel, but with the younger generation (as witnessed by an obtuse outsider). Why is a lovely young girl trapped at the isolated house of Wuthering Heights, under Heathcliff’s diabolical power? How did the young man who ought to be the master of the house become reduced to the status of an illiterate servant? Even as we delve into the tormented past that created such wrongs, the possibility and hope of these two individuals being freed from their bondage remains the seed of the whole narrative. Its fulfillment at the end is what makes this often unbearably dark novel not a tragedy, but a story of redemption. (Heathcliff, notably, is never redeemed, never succumbs to nineteenth-century conventions of deathbed repentance; with his strange, mysterious death, his furious thirst for revenge simply fades away, as every storm or tempest must eventually die down and come to rest.)

In fact, all of these characters taken together form a picture of the human being. We all bear within us the fury and vengefulness of a Heathcliff, the pettiness of a Hindley, the capriciousness of a Catherine — though we might not act out such impulses so freely or so hurtfully. And though we may be repulsed by Heathcliff’s murderous tendencies, we can’t help but be moved by his cry at the loss of his great and only love, “I cannot live without my life — I cannot live without my soul!” Such primal forces usually work within us only unconsciously, but finding them expressed in narrative form may help us to understand and own them. Meanwhile, we also all carry the smug, self-satisfied conventional perspective of a Nelly Dean, not questioning the rightness of our own actions, and it’s equally important to recognize this part of ourselves. And we bear the potential to learn, to change, and to create new, fruitful relationships, as do young Cathy and Hareton.

These subtler aspects of the story are often ignored or omitted altogether, as in the Laurence Olivier film, to concentrate on Heathcliff and Catherine’s bizarre relationship as if it were a great romantic love story (which it decidedly is not). This truncates and distorts Emily Bronte’s achievement. Her insight into the furthest reaches of the human heart was much greater than that, and I’m glad I finally came to realize it.