As some of you may know, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is mentioned in The Sex Tourist and is a particularly inspiring book for me.
Published in 1848, under the male pseudonym Acton Bell, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was Anne Bronte’s second and last novel. It was a shocking story for the era that she was living in, as it was the closest thing to a feminist novel that many people had ever read. When Anne died in 1949, her sister Charlotte went so far as to prevent the republication of the novel.
The story is about a mysterious woman, Helen, who flees the abuse and cruelty of her husband, taking her son with her. Arthur Huntingdon, Helen’s husband, has similar qualities to Anne’s own brother, Branwell, who was known for his striking good looks, promiscuity and alcoholism. Helen taking action and leaving her husband would have not only violated the British social etiquette of the time, but would have also been illegal.
The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, a woman that is thought to be a mysterious young widow moves into an Elizabethan Mansion, Wildfell Hall, along with her young son and a servant. Gilbert, the narrator, meets and begins to court Mrs. Graham. He shuns Eliza Milwood, who he had been dating, and she starts to spread rumours about Helen. This includes the fact that Mr. Lawrence (Gilbert’s close friend) was also courting her. Gilbert hears about this and, the next time he sees Lawrence on the road, strikes him. After things settle down a bit Gilbert proposes to Helen. She refuses, but gives him her diaries to read as an explanation.
The second part of the novel focuses on Helen’s diary entries, which describe her marriage to Arthur. Blinded by love she had originally married him, even though he had been involved with other women. When their son was born, Arthur became very jealous of the time and attention motherhood demanded of her. He was surrounded by wild and oppressive friends and publicly flaunted his mistress, especially in a degrading manner towards his wife. When her husband starts to encourage their young child to begin drinking and swearing, Helen makes plans to run away. She writes of these in her diary which her husband reads, subsequently destroying her artist’s tools that she had planned to use to make a living. Her brother, Mr. Lawrence, eventually provides them with shelter at Wildfell Hall.
In the final part of the novel, when Gilbert finishes reading her diaries Helen asks him to forget about her because she is not free to marry him and he graciously obliges. Shortly after, she discovers that her husband has fallen ill and returns to their marital home to tend to him. Arthur dies a very painful death because of his great fear of the afterlife.
A year later, when Gilbert hears rumours of Helen becoming engaged, despite his fear of her rejection (because of her inherited wealth) he approaches her once again. Now that she is free from her abusive marriage, Helen is overjoyed and agrees to be his wife.