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Literature / The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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There is such a thing as looking through a person's eyes into the heart, and learning more of the height, and breadth, and depth of another's soul in one hour than it might take you a lifetime to discover, if he or she were not disposed to reveal it, or if you had not the sense to understand it.
Gilbert Markham to his sister Rose

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) was the second and last novel by the other Brontë sister, Anne Brontë. Set in the 1820s, the novel tells the story of Helen Graham (really Helen Huntingdon), who takes up residence at the mostly-decayed Wildfell Hall under distinctly mysterious circumstances. Helen immediately captures the unwanted attention of the local villagers, many of them nasty gossips. More to the point, she attracts our male protagonist and narrator, Gilbert Markham, who (despite some misgivings) falls passionately in love with her. As Helen's diary reveals, however, there's an insuperable obstacle to any relationship with Gilbert: far from being a widow, she's still married.

The novel sold extremely well at first, a close second to Jane Eyre, but its bracing assault on both drunkenness and the sexual Double Standard earned it a scandalous reputation. In fact, Bronte biographer Juliet Barker says it was "so profoundly disturbing to contemporary ideas of decency that it was to sink without trace for almost 150 years after its conception."


Its plot and characters have often been taken as a sly Take That! to both Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (the latter of which was written at the same time as Tenant). However, that seems unlikely, given how supportive the three sisters were of each other's work, in a time where it wasn't easy for women to publish novels. Despite its early popularity, the novel slipped into relative obscurity following Charlotte refusing to allow the novel to be reprinted in 1850 alongside Wuthering Heights and Anne's own much less popular Agnes Grey, deeming the work to be "an entire mistake," given Victorians were starting to view Helen Huntingdon as an immoral character and proceeding to judge the by then deceased Anne by association. Critics began to dismiss the book as well, believing it to be a mere manifestation of Anne's bitterness over her brother Branwell, while others have described both Rochester and Heathcliff as idealizations from Charlotte and Emily for Branwell. According to historian Deborah Lutz, it is more likely that Charlotte and Emily were simply influenced by Romantic poetry and the Byronic heroes of their youth, as is evident in most of their work, given their real feelings towards Branwell leaned more towards viewing him as some sort of pathetic figure: Charlotte wasn't exactly tender about Branwell in her letters to her friend Ellen Nussey, and Emily, while being the sister who understood him the most, categorically refused to indulge him and wasn't above getting physical with him. Rather, evidence uncovered by Barker reveals that the novel's plot is more likely to have been based on a local case of extreme domestic violence witnessed by the sisters in the context of their father's pastoral work. Notably the Reverend Mr. Bronte's advice to the beleaguered wife was to leave her husband for her own sake and her child's. She took his advice and it worked out for her. The novel's frank treatment of sexuality and marital decay earned it more attention in later years.


The BBC has adapted it twice, most recently in 1996 with Tara Fitzgerald, Rupert Graves, and Toby Stephens in the leading roles.

Tropes used:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Mr. Boarham and Mr. Wilmot for Helen. Mr. Boarham is a particularly interesting case as he would probably have been a better husband for Helen than Huntingdon, but he's still entirely unappealing.
  • Accidental Marriage: Millicent writes to Helen that she honestly doesn't know how she ended up engaged to Mr. Hattersley.
  • Addiction Displacement: Lord Lowborough displaces his gambling addiction with alcoholism, before giving that up as well.
  • The Alcoholic: Arthur Huntingdon. It eventually kills him.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Invoked and savaged. Helen's marriage to Arthur Huntingdon turns out to be an absolute nightmare. Helen manages to convince Millicent's husband, Ralph Hattersley, to reform, but his bad behavior had never been part of the attraction for Millicent, and Helen's contribution is no greater than what a modern marriage counselor would do.
  • Alliterative Name: Helen Huntingdon.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Emphasis on the anguish...
    "One moment I stood and looked into her face, the next I held her to my heart, and we seemed to grow together in a close embrace from which no physical or mental force could rend us."
  • Arc Words: Try to count how many times the word "prejudice" comes up in the first third of the story and the word "pride" in the last third. Interesting.
  • Arranged Marriage: Averted in theory, but Millicent's marriage to Mr. Hattersley looks like one in practice. She writes to Helen that she only said "maybe," but her mother has already started the wedding planning and it's too late now...
  • Babies Ever After: Of the characters who have their conclusions told, the good ones are happily married with large families and the bad ones are either dead or miserably alone.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Averted — Mary Millward, arguably the most consistently moral character in this novel, is a "plain" woman with little in the way of physical attraction. Much to everyone's surprise, she is happily married by the end.
  • Big Brother Instinct: One of the sharp contrasts between Huntingdon and Markham is how well Markham handles Arthur. He plays with Arthur, dotes on him without spoiling him, is protective of him, and defers to Helen's parenting choices, all things Huntingdon won't do.
  • Big Fancy House: Grassdale Manor. Wildfell Hall was this at one time, but has devolved into an Old, Dark House. Or it would have if Anne were more like her sisters, but Wildfell Hall is just rundown and drafty and people are imaginative.
  • Birds of a Feather: The Quiet Ones Mary Millward and Richard Wilson.
  • Brainy Brunette: Played with. Bookworm Helen spends a lot of time over her books and forms some foolish ideas about people and marriage.
  • But Not Too Evil: Part of the novel's initial criticism came from the feeling that Anne's depictions of vice and depravity were too honest, accurate, and undisguised.
  • Byronic Hero: Unlike in the more famous novels of the other Brontë sisters, none of the men remotely qualify as this, but Helen does: mysterious, isolated, and haunted by a dark past and bad decisions of her youth. Her situation in fact bears strong resemblances to Mr. Rochester's in Jane Eyre - trying to get away from and move past a youthful and foolish marriage to an awful person, being a single parent, and facing the challenge of falling in love with a new person while still married - but her moral character is far superior.
  • The Casanova: Arthur Huntingdon, who brags to his wife about his sexual conquests.
  • Character Title/The X of Y
  • Cool Old Lady: Rachel, who is so loyal to Helen that she helps Helen escape Grassdale.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Arthur Huntingdon.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Helen cares for Mr Huntingdon when he is ill, and urges him to mend his ways. He basically doesn't, until he's really about to die, and makes at least some strides towards redeeming himself in her eyes, at least partly spurred on by his fear of Hell. Assuming he's sincere, though he's probably not, it's almost a Heel–Face Door-Slam.
  • Deconstructed Trope: Helen's Love Redeems/Bad Boy fantasy gets brutally crushed by reality.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: Of All Girls Want Bad Boys and related tropes that feature prominently in works such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
  • Destructive Romance: Helen and Huntingdon's marriage.
  • Does Not Like Men: Helen's opinion of the male sex in general is dramatically lowered by her exposure to the worst of their kind during her marriage.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Both Gilbert himself and Mr. Hargrave have aspects of this.
  • Domestic Abuse: A thorough examination of it, to the horror and fascination of the Victorian reading public. In fact, it was Based on a True Story; not Branwell's, but the wife of a local assistant pastor, who visited the Bronte parsonage and told Rev. Bronte exactly what her husband had been doing to her. Rev. Bronte (well known for his liberal views for the time) advised her to take her children and leave him. Eventually, she did. Recovered, she came back to visit the parsonage a few years later — just as Anne was starting on this, her second novel. Arthur resembles Branwell only in that he is not evil, just has weak moral character.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?/The Long List: Rose Markham has a moment where she snaps and rants at her mother for treating her like a slave and her brothers like princes.
  • The Dutiful Son: Gilbert puts his dreams of having some glamorous higher calling aside to take over his late father's farm.
  • Epiphany Therapy: Helen gives some to Mr. Hattersley.
  • Expy: Mr. Hargrave, Helen's stalker who insists he's her Knight in Shining Armor, bears a striking resemblance to Henry Crawford.
  • Extreme Doormat:
    • Millicent Hattersley.
    • Mrs. Markham (Gilbert's mother) has shades of this, which she tries to instill in her daughter — that the duty of a wife is to serve her husband and the duty of a husband is to accept it. Gilbert, who is penning this to his brother-in-law, raises a literary eyebrow at that.
  • False Widow: Helen's initial pose.
  • Farm Boy: Gilbert — he's about as happy in that role as Luke was.
  • Females Are More Innocent: This is constantly used as an argument as to why women need to be shielded from the vices of the world. Helen vehemently argues against this idea, knowing from experience that keeping women innocent will only set them up for future problems.
  • Feminine Women Can Cook: Parodied. Helen shows no interest in the subject.
  • The First Cut Is the Deepest: Helen is deeply traumatized by her relationship with Arthur: when Walter Hargrave offers her his friendship, seemingly without any selfish motive, she says that she can't call him a real friend after only a short acquaintance. In her relationship with Gilbert, Helen is also very suspicious of his true character.
  • First-Name Basis:
    • It's a big deal when you call someone you're not related to by first name, as it presumes great friendship or intimacy. When the very proper Helen uses Gilbert's name and lets him use hers, it shows how much she trusts and cares for him.
    • Conversely, Huntingdon started using Helen's name without her permission, an early hint of his lack of regard for her.
    • Later as her marriage falls apart, Helen stops using Huntingdon's first name.
  • Foil: Lord Lowborough commiserates with Helen over their depressing marriages and mutual betrayal.
  • Foreshadowing: Helen writes that she wishes her husband had some trade or business to occupy his time as she concludes that living his life solely to indulge in idleness, luxury, and alcohol has contributed to his moral decay. She later falls in love with a hard-working (if reluctant) gentleman farmer, whose lower social class doesn't matter to her.
  • Framing Device: Gilbert's letters frame Helen's diary.
  • Freudian Slip: We get a glimpse of Gilbert's ultimate regard for Eliza Millward when he describes her glances as occasionally diabolically... er.. "preternaturally" wicked.
  • Friend to All Children: Mary Millward, a plain girl, who is "loved and courted by all dogs, cats, children, and poor people, and slighted and neglected by everybody else."
  • The Fundamentalist: Reverend Michael Millward.
  • The Gambling Addict: Lord Lowborough. He successfully overcomes it.
  • Gold Digger: Parodied. Jane Wilson never gets a husband she likes and ends up "loving no one and beloved by none—a cold-hearted, supercilious, keenly, insidiously censorious old maid."
  • Gone Horribly Right:
    • Helen tells Gilbert they absolutely cannot be together and that this parting better be the last. Unlike her last Hopeless Suitor, Gilbert complies with her wishes... far too well for her, by the end.
    • Likewise Mr. Hattersley complains that his wife is too passive and goes along with whatever he wants — to which Helen points out that a docile, submissive wife is exactly what he said he wanted.
  • The Hedonist: Arthur Huntingdon and his "friends."
  • Heel–Face Turn: Mr Hattersley, after Helen gives him a Did You Think I Can't Feel? speech on his wife's behalf.
  • Honor Before Reason: Helen, as her society unjustly demanded of all women.
  • Hypocrite: Mr. Hargrave.
  • I Can Change My Beloved: Helen enters into her marriage with Arthur looking forward to changing and redeeming him, only to end up thoroughly miserable. This is also played straight, but realistically, with her friend Millicent. Millicent's husband eventually reforms, however he has an intrinsic urge to be a better man. Huntingdon does not, which is why Helen can't do anything.
  • I Can't Believe a Girl Like You Would Notice Me: Gilbert feels this way after Helen becomes a rich heiress upon her uncle's death.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Gilbert Markham is deeply dissatisfied with his country farmer position.
  • Idiot Ball: Writing your escape plans in your journal while the last person in the world who should see them is in the same room isn't the smartest move (no matter how passed-out-drunk you think he is).
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: Both Hargrave and Arthur Huntingdon try this excuse, not very successfully.
  • In the Blood: Helen's father and her husband were alcoholics, leading her and Frederick to fear for her son's susceptibility to the problem.
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Subverted. Helen takes note of Huntingdon's blue eyes early on, but any symbolic innocence she reads in the color is a lie.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Gilbert and Helen (try to) look at their relationship this way at first.
  • Loved I Not Honor More: Helen refuses to break her marriage vows, unless and until they conflict with her maternal duties.
  • Love Hurts/Love Makes You Crazy: In typical Brontë tradition.
  • Loving a Shadow:
    • Helen and Huntingdon both. Helen thought Huntingdon was a better man than he was and that she could change him. Huntingdon thought Helen would be more submissive and docile.
    • Lowborough loves Annabella and practically worships her, even though she only married him for his title.
  • Lysistrata Gambit: After catching her husband with Lady Lowborough, Helen tells Arthur point-blank that "we are husband and wife only in name."
  • Malicious Slander: Helen runs into this a lot, up to and including accusations that she's had her son out of wedlock.
  • Mama Bear: It's fear for her son, not for herself, that finally pushes Helen to escape.
  • Marital Rape License: Averted, by all appearances, in the book. Helen even refuses Huntingdon access to her bedroom, which shocked Victorian readers. The films aren't so merciful...
  • Marry for Love: Helen and Millicent heartily stress this lesson to Millicent's sister Esther, unwilling to let her make the same mistakes they made. Oddly, the lesson is not "marry only for love" but "don't marry a man you dislike."
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Mr. Boarham, which Helen takes care to let us know is pronounced "Bore 'em." It's very appropriate.
    • Mr. Grimsby, the only one of Huntingdon's friends who makes no efforts to reform.
    • Mr. Oldfield, one of Esther Hargrave's suitors who is "as old as Adam."
  • Momma's Boy:
    • Gilbert's mother spoils him rotten.
    • And Gilbert accuses Helen of turning her son Arthur into one, all because she has trained him to dislike alcohol.
    • Helen reports that Huntingdon's mother spoiled him thoroughly. Huntingdon seems to want Helen to emulate this behavior in their marriage. His jealousy towards his son certainly looks a lot like a jealous older sibling.
  • Moral Guardians:
    • Anne Bronte responded to some of these in the second edition.
    • Within the novel, the Rev. Millward.
  • Mouthing the Profanity: Arthur Huntingdon calls Helen a "confounded slut" when they quarrel and (in uncensored editions) he also labels her servant Rachel an "old bitch."
  • My Beloved Smother: Gilbert has one. People think Helen is one.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Helen's frequent lament to her journal as her marriage falls apart.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits!: In retrospect, Gilbert realizes that while Helen's brother actively did nothing to sabotage their relationship, he did nothing to help them as if he hoped they would drift apart on their own.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Grimsby.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Helen's diary contains a lot of "G-d d—m" or "he said things which I will not repeat here."
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. There are two Arthurs and two Helens.
  • Oop North: The main action takes places in "_____shire" probably Yorkshire.
  • Operation: Jealousy: Arthur flirts with Annabella to spark Helen's jealousy.
  • Parental Abandonment: Helen has both a Disappeared Dad and a Missing Mom. However, she has a good substitute in her uncle and aunt.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Generally averted, though often threatened.
  • Parental Favoritism: Helen and Frederick's father prefers his son over his daughter.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • In typical Brontë tradition, Gilbert is kind and playful with his dog and with little Arthur Huntingdon.
    • When the elder Arthur Huntingdon hits one of his dogs with a book, Helen begins to see what he's really like under all that charm.
  • The Place: Wildfell Hall. It's notable that four houses in Emily's and Anne's novels have "W.H." initials: Wellwood House in Agnes Grey, the eponymous mansion in Wuthering Heights, and Wildfell Hall and Woodford Hall in The Tenant. According to Stevie Davies, both sisters used places and characters in their Gondal cycle as a source of inspiration for their fiction.
  • Prince Charmless: Arthur Huntingdon. He has charm and good looks but no depth of character, moral foundation, or self control, as Helen eventually discovers.
  • Proper Lady:
    • Despite the presence of straight examples, ultimately Deconstructed — the lovely and virtuous Helen utterly fails to keep her husband on the straight and narrow due to his lack of self discipline and crowd of poisonous friends.
    • Millicent Hattersley, though she lacks the 'core of iron.' Her husband complains that dealing with her is like walking on the sands of the beach — soft, yielding, and wearying.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Helen has black hair in long glossy ringlets and a "clear and pale" complexion. She is widely considered to be beautiful, if perhaps a little too thin and pale.
  • Regency England: In the broader sense of the term — the main action takes place in the 1820s.
  • Relative Error: Gilbert mistakes Frederick Lawrence, Helen's brother, for Helen's lover.
  • Scrapbook Story/Framing Device: The novel consists of Gilbert's letters to a friend and Helen's diary.
  • Shrinking Violet: Frederick Lawrence. Gilbert tells that "his heart was like a sensitive plant, that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind."
  • Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace: Invoked but subverted (in the correct use of the term) when Gilbert instantly heads for Grassdale Manor, intending to resort to this trope if he must, when he hears the now-truly-widowed Helen is getting married. Fortunately, he was misinformed.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Helen observes how Millicent Hattersley displays genuine affection and devotion to her husband in the same scenes where he verbally or physically abuses her.
  • Take That!: Perhaps to Jane Eyre (Wuthering Heights also portrays the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine as very destructive and foolish), but the parallels between Rochester and Huntington aren't very strong. An alternative argument is that it's contrasting Rochester's actions with Helen's far more meritorious reaction to a similar (and worse) situation.
  • Thicker Than Water: Frederick helps Helen to run away from Huntingdon. Also deconstructed with their father, who never cared about Helen.
  • The Three Faces of Eve: Helen and her two friends Millicent and Annabella who all marry into the same group of friends form this trio. Helen is the wife, steadfastly devoted to her marriage even when it begins to fall apart; she takes her marital duties so seriously that she returns to Grassdale when Huntingdon is ill to care for him. Millicent is the child, innocent, idealistic, and very passive, needing others to take care of her. Annabella is the seductress, tricking Lord Lowborough into marriage with her beauty and luring Huntingdon away from Helen, the death blow for Helen's love for her husband.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: Mary Millward, the quiet, plain, unattractive girl whom only children and animals love, is happily married by the end of the story.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Arthur Huntingdon and his "friends" keep thwarting Lord Lowborough's attempts to go clean. He never manages to get entirely sober until he gets away from them.
  • Trope Codifier: Widely considered "the First Feminist Novel."
  • Unreliable Narrator: Gilbert Markham, quite possibly as a Shout-Out to Mr. Lockwood.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Arthur Huntingdon and his cadre. Helen muses at one point that her husband might be a better man if he didn't have so much free time.
  • The Vamp: Annabella Wilmot, as Lord Lowborough discovers too late. Gilbert warns Frederick Lawrence that Jane Wilson is not to be trusted before he can choose a similar fate.
  • We Want Our Jerk Back!: Probably unintentional — Helen's response to Gilbert (per her own instructions) learning to control and restrain his passion for her and heeding to her wishes of not taking her husband's death as the greenlight for their own relationship is, "What is wrong with you?"
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Gilbert describes Helen's eyes as "very dark grey, almost black" and a "large, clear and full of soul."
  • What Does She See in Him?: Helen with Arthur Huntingdon, despite her aunt's warnings. Gilbert also later wonders what he ever saw in Eliza Millward.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Gilbert, under the impression that Frederick Lawrence is Helen's clandestine lover, cracks him over the head with the butt end of a horsewhip. Then, Gilbert has the nerve to wonder why Frederick shows so little gratitude for Gilbert's attempt to "assist" him home. He does eventually apologize for it, though.
  • Who's Your Daddy?: Huntingdon fathered at least one of Annabella's children, much to Lowborough's dismay.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: The evening before Helen realizes her husband is having an affair, she hears two of his friends complaining how "that woman" is civilizing and moralizing him — and she gets an unexpectedly affectionate welcome when she surprises him outside. Then she learns that he thought she was someone else, and "that woman" is the Other Woman.