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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: March group read

75 Books Challenge for 2017

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Mar 6, 11:50am Top

Welcome to this March-group read of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant at Wildfell Hall.

I’m a little late setting this group-read up - but there’s still time to get started and hopefully finish it in March.

Let’s discuss the novel - the themes, it’s importance in the Brontë-canon, well, anything related to Anne Brontë and her sisters.

Edited: Mar 6, 11:58am Top

Anne Brontë is the little known sister of Emily and Charlotte who's famous for Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

Wikipedia: A great success on initial publication, the novel was almost forgotten in subsequent years. When it became due for a reprint, just over a year after Anne's death, Charlotte prevented its re-publication. Some believe that Charlotte's suppression of the book was to protect her younger sister's memory from further onslaughts. Others believe Charlotte was jealous of her younger sister. Even before Anne's death Charlotte had criticised the novel.

Mar 6, 4:24pm Top

Thanks for setting us up, Carsten! I'm 5-6 chapters into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and thoroughly enjoying, in spite of the fact that my reading time is very limited right now.

I'm reading the Penguin Classics edition, and have highlighted several excellent notes from the introduction which I will post later.

Edited: Mar 9, 11:59pm Top

As noted in my post above, here are the notes I highlighted from Penguin's Introduction by Stevie Davies:

On narrators:
-“Wildfell Hall is told by two narrators, Gilbert Markham and Helen, in two literary forms (Markham’s letters framing Helen’s diary), concerned with two periods of time (the beginning and end of the 1820s), in two keys. Beginning in the minor key of romantic-domestic social comedy, it moves back in time to the major key of tragic irony in Helens’ inset diary, succeeded by further letters by Gilbert encapsulating a cluster of new letters from Helen.” (xii)

On Brontë's portrayal of women/men:
-“Reviewers, largely themselves male … shocked at the portrayal of women as ‘superior in every quality, moral and intellectual, to all the men, who ‘appear at once coarse, brutal, and contemptibly weak, at once disgusting and ridiculous.’” (xvi)
-“Anne Brontë, herself an educator, analyzed the lack of sense and reason amongst males as the consequence of a value-system based on the worship of machismo. ‘:By G—d he drinks like a man’” was a compliment Lord Byron had proudly reported of himself.” (xvii)

Inequality under the law:
-“As the popular summary had it, ‘Husband and wife are one person under the law, and that person is the husband.’ Anne Brontë’s novel is in part a polemic against these abuses of reasons and human rights. Helen has no redress against her husband’s raids on decency. She cannot obtain a divorce when his adultery with Annabella, and later with ‘Miss Myers,’ the ‘governess,’ is detected … She has no legal right to the pen in her hand, the diary in which she writes, her paints and canvases, her pictures, or the earnings from those pictures; nor can she call her son her own, but must steal him from the house in which they belong. It is important to recognize that the tenant of Wilful Hall lives outside the law; is an outlaw.” (xviii)

Patriarchy, and Helen's fear for her child:
-“Helen’s life is centred in her chid, the second Arthur Huntingdon — bidding fair to become a second edition to the first as the father and his peers ‘make a man of him’ by teaching him ‘to tipple wine like papa, to swear like Mr Hattersley, and to have his own way like a man’ (350) … reconstituting him in the image of the patriarchy which has in turn reproduced and authorized its damaged pattern in father and son from generation to generation.” (xxvii)

Common decency rare in marriage (and a note on class):
-“Gilbert is presented as honourable in intention, ordinary, solid, open to reason … Transposed form farming into landed opulence he will certainly do more good than harm, and the book seems disposed to settle for common decency as a rather rare commodity in the marriage-market of the time. In such competition, Gilbert’s price is above rubies. It seems significant that Helen has to come down a class to find him.”

Mar 9, 11:00am Top

Also in the Penguin edition I'm reading: a note from Anne Brontë: given the era in which she is writing, she needs to defend her novel, however distasteful that may have been for her. But she goes on to make her point that contemporary society and the state of marriage is based on a concealment of facts. Go, Anne!

Preface to the Second Edition:
As the story of Agnes Grey was accused of over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from the life, with a a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration, so, in the present work, I find myself censured for depicting con amore, with ‘a morbid love of the coarse, if not the brutal,’ those scenes which, I will venture to say, have not been more painful for the most fastidious of my critics to read, than they were for me to describe. I may have gone too far, in which case I shall be careful not to trouble myself or my readers in the same way again; but when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is doubtless the more agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts — this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace — there would be less of sign and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.” (4)

Anne Brontë
July 22nd, 1848

Mar 9, 11:04am Top

Interesting quote from Ch 6, in which Gilbert tells his mother that he expects to find pleasure once he is married in seeing to his wife's happiness and comfort. But she corrects him: such is not a man's job. Speaks again to the ingrained patriarchy, and all of the inequality it embodied — it was bad enough for men to have such expectations, but worse that women shared them, publicly at least! What a breath of fresh air The Tenant must have been to forward thinking women of the time, and how scandalous to the establishment.

"Then you must fall each into your proper place. You’ll do your business, and she, if she’s worthy of you, will do hers; but it’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you. I’m sure your poor, dear father was as good a husband as ever lived, and after the first six months or so were over, I should as soon have expected him to fly, as to put himself out of his way to pleasure me. He always said I was a good wife, and did my duty; and he always did his—bless him!—he was steady and punctual, seldom found fault without a reason, always did justice to my good dinners, and hardly ever spoiled my cookery by delay—and that’s as much as any woman can expect of any man.” (Ch 6)

Mar 9, 1:17pm Top

>4 lit_chick:, >5 lit_chick:, >6 lit_chick: Thank you. Those are very helpful.

Edited: Mar 10, 5:14pm Top

Thanks for sharing these excerpts, Nancy.

#4 - On Brontë's portrayal of women/men - I have to look at this while I read.

I like Brontë's own preface about this - a hint to the literary critics (which were men): All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.".

#5: I really like this quote. Anne Brontë seemed to be ahead of her time in the depiction of domestic abuse - From Wikipedia: "As May Sinclair said in 1913: The slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. In leaving her husband, Helen violates not only social conventions, but also English law". The impact really can't be felt as forcefully today as then, but it is a rather bold novel that did stir things up.

#6: Oh, my what a quote. but it’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you . It's so hard to fathom the expectations they went into the marriage with....

Mar 10, 5:13pm Top

#7: Glad you're following the thread, Joe :)

Mar 11, 10:56am Top

>8 ctpress: I haven't read that Wikipedia entry, but this is excellent, Carsten: The slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. In leaving her husband, Helen violates not only social conventions, but also English law. Yes! This reiterates the point in the Introduction that Helen is an "outlaw": It is important to recognize that the tenant of Wilful Hall lives outside the law; is an outlaw.” (xviii)

>9 ctpress: I'm glad you're following the thread, too, Joe. Can we convince you to read with us?

Mar 11, 12:22pm Top

>9 ctpress:, >10 lit_chick: Thanks, Carsten and Nancy. Yes, you've convinced me. I've just started, but I'm reading it with you. :-)

Mar 11, 2:05pm Top

>11 jnwelch: Yay! That's great, Joe!

Mar 11, 2:55pm Top

Excellent, Joe. Welcome on board :)

Mar 12, 3:21am Top

Well, since I read Jane Eyre in February, just finished The Madwoman Upstairs this week, and I have pre-ordered Mr Rochester I have to try to fit this one in, too! Now I just need a copy...

Mar 12, 3:34am Top

Also, just read this on MichiganTrumpet's thread:

To Walk Invisible The Brontë Sisters follows the Brontë sisters in the eventful three-year period that saw them rise from ordinary, unmarried women, to the secret authors of the world’s most sensational literature. See the film Sunday, March 26th, 2017 at 9/8c on MASTERPIECE on PBS. #BronteSistersPBS

Mar 12, 12:16pm Top

Welcome, Kim! Delighted to hear about "To Walk Invisible The Brontë Sisters." If you have an ereader, you'll easily find a free copy of The Tenant at Gutenberg.org.

Mar 12, 5:09pm Top

Hi Kim - I've read about this new movie "To Walk Invisible" - interesting because it should deal a lot with the Brontë sisters relationship to their brother and his alcoholism and ill health - of course one of the reason we have "The Tenant" - that experience in the family. Hope you can get a hold of a copy of "The Tenant" and read along with us.

Mar 12, 7:45pm Top

-Helen's aunt warns her of the trouble with beauty: "Because, my dear, beauty is that quality which, next to money, is generally the most attractive to the worst kinds of men; and, therefore, it is likely to entail a great deal of trouble on the possessor." ... and cautions her to be wary about the attentions of gentlemen: “Receive, coldly and dispassionately, every attention, till you have ascertained and duly considered the worth of the aspirant; and let your affections be consequent upon approbation alone. First study; then approve; then love.”
-Helen knows the folly of youth when she first encounters Arthur Huntingdon, in spite of warnings from her aunt and uncle that he is "a bit wildish ... destitute of principle, and prone to every vice that is common to youth.”; her inexperience convinces her that she will change him, save him from vice (she presumes, erroneously, that he wishes to be saved)

Edited: Mar 12, 7:52pm Top

Ch 20:
-it is telling that Huntingdon appears unfamiliar with might constitute the charcater of "a really good man," and assumes this to mean simply a churchgoer; he jests: "I’ll go to church morning, afternoon, and evening, and comport myself in such a godly sort that she shall regard me with admiration and sisterly love, as a brand plucked from the burning. I’ll come home sighing like a furnace, and full of the savour and unction of dear Mr. Blatant’s discourse—’" (Mr Leighton) ... and he proceeds to act the complete ass throughout all of the services he attends

Mar 13, 1:47am Top

>16 lit_chick: Thanks. Have my copy!! Skipping over the chapter comments until I get caught up. Turning the page....okay, well, hitting the "Next" arrow key. ; )

Edited: Mar 13, 8:23pm Top

#18: I have just come to this chapter 18 today - The aunt did her best to warn Helen, but unfortunately to little avail. Sensible words "First study; then approve; then love. Of course a young heart have its own ways when it comes to first love/infatuation.

#19: I'll come back to Huntingdon when I get to these chapters. Oh, what a reprehensible character.

Edited: Mar 13, 8:23pm Top

I really enjoy the opening chapters which reminds me of Jane Austen's wit - I know there's darker themes looming but I just smiled and giggled a lot as Anne pointed out the vanity and gossip of the small town and her description of some of the characters.

Ch. 1: The priest: He had a laudable care for his own bodily health –kept very early hours, regularly took a walk before breakfast, was vastly particular about warm and dry clothing, had never been known to preach a sermon without previously swallowing a raw egg –albeit he was gifted with good lungs and a powerful voice...being a great despiser of tea and such slops, and a patron of malt liquors, bacon and eggs, ham, hung beef, and other strong meats, which agreed well enough with his digestive organs...

Ch. 4: Mrs Wilson: Mrs Wilson was more brilliant than ever, with her budgets of fresh news and old scandal, strung together with trivial questions and remarks, and oft repeated observations, uttered apparently for the sole purpose of denying a moment’s rest to her inexhaustible organs of speech. She had brought her knitting with her, and it seemed as if her tongue had laid a wager with her fingers, to outdo them in swift and ceaseless motion.

Mar 13, 8:40pm Top

>22 ctpress: Great quotes, Carsten. I love the humouous wit, too: "tea and such slops" ... "the sole purpose of denying a moment’s rest to her inexhaustible organs of speech." LOL!

Mar 13, 8:47pm Top

Ch 22:
-another red flag as to Huntingdon's true character (prior to marriage), but the youth will have their way in love (or what they believe to be love): "No, Arthur, it is not that that displeases me: it is the whole system of your conduct towards your friend, and if you wish me to forget it, go now, and tell him what sort of a woman it is that he adores so madly, and on whom he has hung his hopes of future happiness.” (Ch 22)
-based on what we have seen of Helen in previous chapters, she will pay a dear price for her naivity and her infatuation

Mar 13, 11:38pm Top

Ch 3 I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion of how boys and girls are exposed to the wider implications and trials of life during this time. I love that Mrs. Graham is a very forward thinker and in favor of women's rights!

Mrs Graham, clearly implying that the notion is ridiculous: "Well, then it must be that you think they (both sexes) are both weak and prone to err, and the slightest error, the merest shadow of pulsation, will ruin the one, while the character for the other will be strengthened and embellished--his education properly finished by a little practical acquaintance with forbidden things...You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others."

Mar 14, 1:52pm Top

>22 ctpress: I loved that description of Mrs. Wilson in Chapter 4. What a wit AB had!

>25 Berly: I liked Mrs. Graham's straightforward (and logical and modern) challenges to accepted thinking in this chapter, too. I imagine this book got quite a turbulent reception when it was published.

Mar 14, 4:07pm Top

Thoroughly enjoying everyone's notes, quotes, and comments. Yes, I imagine the novel got quite a frosty, turbulent reception, too, on being published!

Edited: Mar 14, 5:50pm Top


I cannot believe how long some of these sentences run on! And the punctuation! The first sentence in Ch 5 has the following: , -- ; , , , ; , , , , , , -- , , , .


Wait. Found more: --! , ? -- ? (That's one sentence!) followed by: -- .-- : :-- , .

How can you have a dash right before a question mark or a period followed by a dash?


Edited: Mar 14, 11:40pm Top

Ch 25:
-trouble in London, shortly into the marriage: Helen (and I expect all women of the time) is forced to be someone she is not in order to please her husband: “It was something to feel that he considered me a worthy object of pride; but I paid dear for the gratification: for, in the first place, to please him I had to violate my cherished predilections, my almost rooted principles in favour of a plain, dark, sober style of dress—I must sparkle in costly jewels and deck myself out like a painted butterfly, just as I had, long since, determined I would never do—and this was no trifling sacrifice; in the second place, I was continually straining to satisfy his sanguine expectations and do honour to his choice by by my general conduct and deportment ..."
-Huntingdon in a nutshell: “he has no more idea of exerting himself to overcome obstacles than he has of restraining his natural appetites; and these two things are the ruin of him.”

Mar 19, 1:27pm Top

Ch 40:
-a "confiscation of property": or, put another way, perfectly legal, abject cruelty: "My painting materials were laid together on the corner table, ready for to-morrow’s use, and only covered with a cloth. He soon spied them out, and putting down the candle, deliberately proceeded to cast them into the fire: palette, paints, bladders, pencils, brushes, varnish: I saw them all consumed: the palette-knives snapped in two, the oil and turpentine sent hissing and roaring up the chimney. He then rang the bell.

'Benson, take those things away,’ said he, pointing to the easel, canvas, and stretcher; ‘and tell the housemaid she may kindle the fire with them: your mistress won’t want them amy more.'"

Mar 20, 5:59pm Top

#29: "-Huntingdon in a nutshell: “he has no more idea of exerting himself to overcome obstacles than he has of restraining his natural appetites; and these two things are the ruin of him.”

That's a very good description of Huntingdon, Nancy. And the quote from ch. 40 is chilling in all its cruelty.

Edited: Mar 20, 6:12pm Top

It’s interesting to note the religious ideas put forth in The Tenant.

Huntingdon mocks religion and the scene where he in the same instance draw a caricature of the priest and afterwards praise the priest to integratiate himself to the aunt speaks volumes. His churchgoing is clearly only a facade.

Helen’s faith I find very strong and independent. She has the nerve to criticize the priest in the beginning of the novel and also put forth her own belief in universal salvation based upon her own reading and interpretation of the Bible. Something that was against the doctrine of the church in that day - and although she’s pious she’s not a kill joy that demands total abstinence of Huntingdon - just moderation so to be able to enjoy the gifts of food and drink and not destroy his health.

Most impressing is the strength she gathers from her faith in God. And she really has no one to turn to but to God. This is a long quote but I love the poetic way Anne Brontë describe the spiritual seeking here with images of nature, wind, sky, moon, stars etc - evoking the Spirits moving:

(Ch. 33) ‘God help me now!’ I murmured, sinking on my knees among the damp weeds and brushwood that surrounded me, and looking up at the moonlit sky, through the scant foliage above. It seemed all dim and quivering now to my darkened sight. My burning, bursting heart strove to pour forth its agony to God, but could not frame its anguish into prayer, until a gust of wind swept over me, which, while it scattered the dead leaves, like blighted hopes, around, cooled my forehead, and seemed a little to revive my sinking frame. Then, while I lifted up my soul in speechless, earnest supplication, some heavenly influence seemed to strengthen me within: I breathed more freely; my vision cleared; I saw distinctly the pure moon shining on, and the light clouds skimming the clear, dark sky; and then, I saw the eternal stars twinkling down upon me; I knew their God was mine, and He was strong to save and swift to hear. ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,’ seemed whispered from above their myriad orbs. No, no; I felt He would not leave me comfortless: in spite of earth and hell I should have strength for all my trials.

There are five notes in the Penguin edition in this passage alone mentioning several places in the Bible and also noting the resemblance to the scene in Jane Eyre where Jane is alone on the heath kneeling.

Mar 20, 7:41pm Top

>32 ctpress: Excellent points about the strength of Helen's faith, Carsten. This says it all, doesnt it: I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. And as a Victorian woman preparing to leave her husband, there really is nowhere ror her to turn but to her faith.

Yesterday, 6:20am Top

I enjoy the relationship between Gilbert and Frederick. The scene where Gilbert apologizes to Frederick of beating him is quite funny and also moving. It marks a change from jealousy to respect and beginning of a friendship.

Gilbert: ‘The truth is, Lawrence,’ said I, ‘I have not acted quite correctly towards you of late –especially on this last occasion; and I’m come to –in short, to express my regret for what has been done, and to beg your pardon. –If you don’t choose to grant it,’ I added hastily, not liking the aspect of his face, ‘it’s no matter –only, I’ve done my duty –that’s all.’

Frederick‘It’s easily done,’ replied he, with a faint smile bordering on a sneer: ‘to abuse your friend and knock him on the head, without any assignable cause, and then tell him the deed was not quite correct, but it’s no matter whether he pardons it or not.’

But this resolution by Gilbert change everything:

"I have promised never to go near that house again while she inhabits it". I could have groaned aloud at the bitter thoughts awakened by this turn in the discourse. But I only clenched my hands, and stamped my foot upon the rug. My companion however, was evidently relieved. "You have done right!" he said in a tone of unqualified approbation, while his face brightened into almost a sunny expression.

It also marks a change in Gilbert as he has to learn to hold his temper and discipline himself waiting for Helen - the restraint in not probing to much when his visiting Frederick is also a mark of his changed character.

Still Frederick does hang Gilbert out to dry and we're not quite sure if he at any point approve of Gilberts attachment to Helen. There's a good tension here near the end of the novel.

Should Gilbert have written to Helen - or tried to get an address out of Frederick? I think so, but I guess it's also comes down to a matter of Gilberts strong pride and stubbornness. Or he does not dare to hope to much.

Edited: Yesterday, 6:46am Top

There's so many great quotes I want to share - but let me just add three here that deals with Helen's view of love and marriage:

First her experience whiled married to Huntingdon:

“Arthur never will let me be satisfied with him. I have never, for a single hour since I married him, known what it is to realize that sweet idea, ‘In quietness and confidence shall be your rest’”

That is indeed a bitter pill. Then her advice to Esther:

“You might as well sell yourself to slavery at once, as marry a man you dislike. If your mother and brother are unkind to you, you may leave them, but remember you are bound to your husband for life.”

(a bold statement at the time it was written, I'm sure) - And in the end this poetic description of love:

(where we would say "Money doesn't matter as long as we're in love" - Helen says:)

“the greatest worldly distinctions and discrepancies of rank, birth, and fortune are as dust in the balance compared with the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathizing hearts and souls.”

That's why I love the classic. How poetic, how eloquent, how true.

Yesterday, 6:44am Top

OK, so I finished "The Tenant" this morning. This was my third reading - and it has gone from a four star, to four and a half star - and now I'm giving it a five star. Just enjoyed it so much this time and know I will return to it again in a few years.

I read some of it in the Penguin edition, some in Danish translation and also listened to parts of it - read by Alex Jennings and Jenny Agutter.

My ranking of the Brontë haven't changed after this reading. Still "Jane Eyre" in the top spot with "The Tenant" at a close second.

Yesterday, 9:08am Top

I finished and loved The Tenant in Wildfell Hall, too.

Thank you for the quotes and comments, Nancy and Carsten. Great to have those highlighted. I liked this one, too:

“When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone - there are many, many other things to be considered.”

Having respect for the other, and sharing a point of view, seem to be among those that draw Helen to Markham.

Yesterday, 4:44pm Top

Great notes, everyone! Love this quote, Carsten: “the greatest worldly distinctions and discrepancies of rank, birth, and fortune are as dust in the balance compared with the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathizing hearts and souls.”

... and also this one, Joe: “When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone - there are many, many other things to be considered.”


Finished the novel this afternoon, thoroughly enjoyed, 4*. Have posted a review.

Group: 75 Books Challenge for 2017

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