Readalong: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte (ii)
When we left Helen, heroine of Anne Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she was stoically enduring an unwise marriage that had turned out not to be as idyllic as she had hoped. The marriage turns from bad to worse as Huntingdon spends more and more time in bad society, making promises he cannot keep, drinking and gambling and eventually having an affair with the wife of a friend. After much agonising, and after many - far too many, the modern reader might say - second chances, Helen leaves her husband and takes her mother's maiden name, Graham, making her living as a reclusive artist in Wildfell Hall.
Tenant was a controversial novel when it was published, with frank depictions of alcoholism, adultery and other debauchery deemed unsuitable for ladies to read - and no doubt for a lady to have written! For a woman - who in those days would have had no independent rights, unable to own property or sue her husband for divorce - to be found to be married but separated from her husband must have been scandalous. The ideal Victorian wife was "the angel in the house," the selfless, submissive wiife devoted to making her husband happy without any thought for herself. Despite marrying against the advice of her relations, Helen is not generally a thoughtless or irresponsible woman. For a large part of her narrative, her attitude seems to be that as she chose to marry Huntingdon, she must take the consequences, and set a bad husband a good example by living a virtuous life. But is it virtuous to remain in a loveless, somewhat abusive marriage? What about when Arthur commits adultery with Lady Lowborough, the wife of a friend? When Helen knows about her husband's dalliances, is it right for her to tell the other wronged spouse, or remain silent in the hope that he will not be hurt by what he doesn't know? Her decision to put up and shut up turns out for the worse, and when the truth comes out, Lord Lowborough is hurt far worse for her silence.
Helen wrestles with her conscience, continuing to live with Huntingdon, though not as husband and wife, for a long time. She comes to realise that being a good person herself is not enough to reform an unrepentant scoundrel, and that being a "good wife" can be more damaging than to outrage society and her conscience by abandoning her husband. The last straw is Huntingdon's influence on their son, only an infant but already encouraged by his father to imitate his foul language and love of drink. Helen realises that the only way to stop little Arthur from turning out like his father is to take him out of Huntingdon's reach, where he cannot be corrupted. Helen's motives can surely not be faulted, and in the modern day this would be the logical course of action,but Anne Bronte must have raised a few eyebrows of her Victorian readership in her presentation of the conflict between being "respectable" and doing the right thing.
Anne Bronte always seems to be the forgotten sister, overlooked in favour of the more famous Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but Tenant is a brave, groundbreaking novel which deserves to be better known.