Anne Brontë, Anger, and the Resonance of Assault in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Anne Brontë was angry as hell.
Two weeks ago, on a whim and the kind of Brontë kick that good, gloomy autumn weather often inspires in me, I decided to reread The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I hadn’t read it in years but within minutes of cracking the pages, I was struck by this fact all over again: Anne Brontë was angry. Her reputation as the least interesting and exciting of the Brontë sisters, the piety of her novels, and the contemporary accounts of her as mild, meek, and gentle obscure this fact, but she was.
Anne Brontë’s anger is evident in virtually every page of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, her second, final, and most famous novel. In it she depicts, with what was for the time, graphic detail, the physical decline of a debauched rake and the emotional and psychological abuses he inflicts. She exposes how a bad marriages to a bad man can trap, subjugate and oppress a woman. She excoriates a society that is fraught with dangers and seeks only to keep them in the dark.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a sort of layered epistolary novel. Its first and final quarters of consist of letters written by gentleman farmer named Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law looking back on Gilbert’s growing intimacy with a mysterious widow, Helen. Sandwiched in between Gilbert’s letters is Helen’s diary, reproduced in full, detailing her terrible marriage to the reprobate Arthur Huntington. Huntington is utterly dissolute: he is flagrantly adulterous; he consumes both alcohol and opium in excess; he manipulates and abuses his wife, and deliberately corrupts his young son.
Under English law at the time Brontë wrote her novel, women were not permitted to own property separate from their husbands, could not have custody of their children, and could be compelled to return their husbands if they left. Brontë presents Helen’s marriage as an impossible trap: the law does not permit Helen to leave but Helen’s moral integrity and concern for her son’s welfare do not allow her to stay. She endures Huntington’s physical and mental decline and flagrant infidelities until she can endure them no longer and risks everything to leave him.
In depicting Huntington’s decline and his tyranny over a household, it is generally accepted that Brontë drew from life. Her brother Branwell abused alcohol and opium for much of his adult life, and squandered the few opportunities the Brontë family could give him, including when he got fired from a position with Anne’s longterm employers for having an affair with the lady of the house. Indeed, Anne Brontë seemed generally motivated by a strong desire to throw back the veil on all that she had seen and experienced. In her preface to the second edition of the book she stated her intention in writing plainly: “I wished to tell the truth, for the truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.”
Even in this Preface, Brontë’s anger is evident. She chafes against critics that called her novel coarse and brutal and called for her to to be more circumspect in her portrayal of evil. “When we have to do with vice and vicious characters,” she counters, “I maintain it is better to depict them as they are than as they would wish to appear.” As I reread her novel and as the news of the past few weeks unfolded, this particular passage, this passionate resistance of the duplicity of vice and vicious characters, stuck with me. Because I became angry too.
Helen’s decision to leave her husband has been described as the door slam heard across Victorian England. It was an electrifying moment for a society that was in the midst of grappling with the legal rights of women and starting to reckon with women’s subjugation in marriage, the law and society at large. But what struck me when rereading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall weren’t the most dramatic moments of marital betrayal; it was the unsettling familiarity of the smaller, everyday indignities and abuse that characterize Helen’s relationships with all the men in her life, and especially a particular pattern of violation that repeats throughout the novel.
In the early days of their courtship and engagement Helen is infatuated with Huntington and inclined to chalk his treatment of her as his natural passion overwhelming his sense of propriety. But the language Bronte has her use to describe their interactions belies a mounting concern and awareness of their violent tenor. In one of their earliest interactions, Helen records how “[H]e seized my hand and held it, much against my will … ‘Let me go, Mr. Huntington’ … I made a desperate effort to free my hand from his grasp … ‘I will go!’ cried I… the instant he released my hand he had the audacity to put his arm around my neck and kiss me.” This is the first but not the last of many such instances; in another, Helen describes how Huntington “nearly squeez[ed] me to death” and “smothered me with kisses” over her protests and repeated requests to stop.
After a few years of marriage, Huntington’s affection for his wife (such as it was) vanishes, but his violations do not. At a party in their own home, Helen finds her husband kissing his friend’s wife. Huntington adds insult to injury by ridiculing Helen and falls to his knees in front of Helen in a sarcastic public apology. When Helen tries to leave quietly and deny him the reaction he so clearly wants, he follows her up the stairs to block her escape. Helen writes that he “caught me in his arm,” and insisted ‘No, no, by heaven, you shan’t escape me so!’” Helen is victimized but angry: she describes herself “in a passion,” warning her husband against continuing to treat her this way and “looking steadfastly on him till he almost quailed before me.”
Helen suffers similarly at the hands of Walter Hargrave, the brother of one of her close friends (this friend, Millicent, suffers violently at the hands of her own husband). Walter initially appears sympathetic to Helen’s plight and critical of her husband, but Helen (rightly) mistrusts him. Hargrave is what today we might call a Nice Guy(tm). He tries to ingratiate himself with Helen not because is truly her friend, but because he wants to be her lover, and he berates her when she refuses him. Hargrave never directly states his intentions so Helen cannot directly reject him, but she regularly implies that she would not be receptive to his romantic overtures and does not want to hear them.
After discovering her husband having sex with his his mistress, Helen tries to take a moment alone in her library. Hargrave follows her into the room and Helen writes that he “boldly made to intercept me at the door” before grabbing her and launching into a confession of his feelings. He propositions Helen and attempts to play on her vulnerable situation to convince her to become his mistress. Helen describes how he refuses to take no for an answer: “I snatched away the hand he had presumed to seize and press between his own. But he was in for it now; he had fairly broken the barrier: he was completely roused, and determined to hazard all for victory. ‘I must not be denied,’ exclaimed he vehemently; and seizing both my hands, he held them very tight … ‘Let me go, Mr Hargrave!’ said I sternly. But he only tightened his grasp. ‘Let me go!’ I repeated, quivering with indignation.”
This scene, an escalation of even Huntington’s abuses, reads as shocking in its directness, even now. It is, irrefutably, a thwarted rape. Helen extracts herself, only to have Hargrave— calling her his “angel” and his “divinity”— lunge for her again. It isn’t until she literally pulls a knife on him to defend herself that he releases her. And when she does, she notes his reaction with satisfaction: “he stood and gazed at me in astonishment; I dare say I looked as fierce and resolute as he.” As with Huntington, Helen is indignant, fierce, resolute — angry.
Hargrave and Huntington are certainly responsible for the worst of the manipulation and abuse Helen suffers, but not for all of it. One of the most complicated aspects of Brontë’s novel and certainly the most difficult to reconcile is the extent to which the co-narrator and ostensible romantic lead’s treatment of Helen mirrors her treatment at the hands of the novel’s obvious villains. Grappling with how and to what extent Brontë is turning her critical eye on Gilbert would be another essay entirely, but it is worth noting the striking similarities in how Brontë depicts these scenes of groping and declarations of ownership — down to the repeated, specific use of the word seize. It’s also worth remembering Brontë’s stated commitment to depicting vice as it is and not as it would like to appear. Seen in this light, Gilbert’s behaviour becomes, perhaps, Brontë’s own iteration, perhaps, of “yes, all men.”
Like both Helen’s husband and her would-be-lover, Gilbert deliberately ignores Helen’s indirect but unmistakable efforts to rebuff him. When he enters Helen’s hope uninvited he notes she seemed “agitated, and even dismayed at my arrival” and later, after confessing his feelings, he admits to Helen “ ‘You could not have given me less encouragement.’” Gilbert’s letters recalling this period reveals that he has convinced himself Helen rejected him, not because she meant it, but because it gives her “pleasure” to do so. In other words, she may have said no, but he knows she means yes.
Gilbert’s romantic confession bears all the hallmarks of Helen’s similar crises with the other two men. By his own account he holds her against her will and tells her she belongs to him. He describes in his letter: “ ‘you must — you shall be mine!’ And starting from my seat in a frenzy of ardor, I seized her hand and would have pressed it to my lips, but she suddenly caught it away.” Helen does not have to threaten to stab Gilbert to get him to leave, but she does have to ask him four times before he finally agrees to go. Before he leaves, he seizes her hand again and gives it the kiss she previously struggled against.
There was an almost uncanny resonance to reading these scenes: a woman grabbed, held against her will, forced to endure a man’s kisses, and forced to hear him tell her he owns her and will do what he likes. As accusations of sexual assault against Donald Trump have mounted over the past few weeks, sexual assault — not only penetrative rape but molestation, groping, and forced kisses —has been the subject of sustained conversation.
The wider context in which these assaults occur felt uncomfortably familiar as well: one in which a woman’s account will not be believed without a man’s supporting testimony and in which a woman who has already suffered violations is forced to open herself up to further humiliation and expose the details of her pain before anyone will believe or help her.
Moments before Helen is forced to draw a knife on Hargrave, he attempts to manipulate Helen into becoming his mistress by flatly telling her that no one will believe she is fleeing her husband alone; everyone will assume she has a lover, so she might as well take him. When he notices one of Helen’s husband’s friends has been spying on them, Hargrave is gleeful, taunting her with the fact that in the eyes of the world, her virtue is now lost. The truth will not matter. It’s despicable, but it isn’t entirely incorrect. Mere minutes later Huntington arrive and curses Helen for her infidelity. Helen is “indignant” and forcefully denies “yielding” to Hargrave, but their friends all snicker disbelievingly. It is only when she calls Hargrave back to vouch for her and when the other men see his anger evident on his face that they believe her. It takes a man’s testimony to make it true.
Later, when Helen confides in her brother Frederick that she plans to leave her husband, she is forced to go into painful, humiliating detail about the abuse she suffers from her husband to convince Frederick to help her escape: “[H]e looked upon my project as wild and impracticable; he deemed my fears for Arthur disproportionate to the circumstances, and opposed so many objections to my plan, and devised so many milder methods for ameliorating my condition, that I was obliged to enter into further details to convince him that my husband was utterly incorrigible.” Even Helen’s own brother doesn’t believe her. Even he wants proof. The language here — wild, disproportionate, ameliorate — is all too familiar. This same phrasing crops up whenever a woman appears on the news telling her story: she’s crazy. She’s exaggerating. Okay maybe he did it, but isn’t she carrying on just a little too much?
I have had to update this several times in the process of writing it, but at the time of submission, eleven women have come forward to accuse Donald Trump of sexual assault. It has been plastered across the news around the world and is nigh inescapable in North American media. We have all heard, straight from his own mouth, that he loves to grab women by their genitals and forcibly kiss them. We have heard him say you can do whatever you want to a woman when you have a certain kind of power. We have heard some of his victims describe the ways in which he grabbed their bodies or forced them against a wall or held them down and forced his tongue in their mouths. We have heard him then turn around and call these women liars. We have heard people believe him.
To see these same scenarios play out in Brontë’s novel one hundred and seventy years ago makes it painfully clear how little has changed. When I read a novel set in a time when women couldn’t vote, own property, or have custody of their children and I realize that an quick update of Brontë’s nineteenth-century prose could see any one of the scenes she depicts published in today’s news, I’m angry. When I see that twenty-first century “locker rooms” (or buses or airplanes) are little safer for women than nineteenth-century drawing rooms, I’m furious.
Anne Brontë died a few short years after publishing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She did not live to see legislative changes including the Matrimonial Causes Act or Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. She did not live to see the slow hard-won changes to society and law that would have saved the character she wrote and the women she wrote for so much pain. I do not know if she died with a small part of her still angry about the truths she illuminated with her book. All I know is that she wasn’t as mild as she seemed. All I know is if we judge her by the words on the page, her anger did not seem the fading kind.
Great literature resonates; it reaches across time and space and sets your heart ringing like a bell. Great literature urges you to see yourself in someone else and someone else in you. I would never want a great novel to lose that power. But rereading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and hearing the clarion call of Anne Brontë’s anger pealing in time with my own, I can’t help but hope that a time will come when this particular story will resonate just a little less. I hope that one day women will read these passages and see nothing of their life at all. I hope I get to see it in my lifetime.
Until then, I’ll stay angry.