Those Brontë sisters were such rebels. First, along comes Charlotte with Jane Eyre, pointing out that people should marry for love, rather than social position or money. Then came Anne with lesser-known novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, where the wife deliberately leaves her abusive husband. Both concepts were radical — almost unknown in their era.
Tenant is the story of Helen Huntingdon, a young woman who marries possibly one of the nastiest male literary characters ever created. Husband Arthur is narcissistic (spoiled rotten as a kid?), constantly complains about trivial things and delights in tempting other people into wickedness. He drinks and eats to excess, doesn’t mind turning people against one another and has no respect whatsoever for others’ privacy.
You have to wonder why Helen fell in love with him and married him in the first place. Maybe she thought she could reform him — handsome and witty bad boy reformed by good woman. Arthur’s basically a button-pusher — he loves to get people mad and laughs at them when they do.
Gradually, Helen’s love for Arthur turns to hatred by two things — Arthur’s affair with his friend’s wife (can we say tacky?) and Arthur’s attempts to corrupt her son (also named Arthur). The kid’s only a few years old and Arthur’s getting him to drink alcohol, swear and say nasty things about his mum.
Arthur Sr. underestimates his wife, though. Not smart. Mama bear’s going to protect her cub at any cost.
Helen runs away with her son and faithful servant, Rachel. The three of them settle into Wildfell Hall, where Anne assumes the last name of Graham, paints in peace and earns a living by selling her paintings. She mostly abstains from the society of her busybody neighbors, but gradually falls in love with local farmer Gilbert Markham. She has a hard time of it because some of the busybody neighbors start spreading spiteful rumors about her.
This book was so good, I had a hard time putting it down. It was addictive. I kept wanting to know, “What happens next? What happens next?” Plus, I wanted to see what happened with Arthur Sr. and if he got what he deserved. I liked Gilbert and how he stuck up for Helen against the gossips. (Atta boy!) And he’s a good influence on her kid.
It’s a soap opera before there were soap operas. If they adapted this storyline with modern characters (similar to “Scents and Sensibility”), there would be a lot of characters that viewers would understand.
I also liked how the book was written. Anne Brontë used an interesting literary technique that I’ve rarely seen. It’s told in the form of letters from one character to another as well as a section of Helen’s diary, so it’s very easy to piece together the story.
There are elements of Anne’s brother in the story, such as his addiction to alcohol. I have to wonder if Anne ever met an Arthur Huntingdon in real life. Hoo, boy.
I thought it was a good love story, so I’m writing about it today since it seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day. If anyone’s interested, Tenant is also a 1996 movie with Toby Stephens as Gilbert, Tara Fitzgerald as Helen and Rupert Graves as Arthur Sr. Below is a Tenant video, set to the music of the Westlife version of “The Rose”. Have fun watching, period drama fans, and Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!