Easy Pray?

Exploring the not-so-simple religiosity of Anne Brontë’s best-known heroine

Easy Pray?

There’s a belief in literary lore that readers love either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights but rarely both. This has been confirmed in my own rather unscientific reader surveys: Those who told me they enjoy Charlotte Brontë’s contained, deep burn just can’t handle the wild, over-the-top hysterics of her sister Emily.

Or, put another way, the operatic fire rods who see Heathcliff as an ideal heartthrob are likely to interpret Jane Eyre, by contrast, as a straightforward social novel.   

For my own part, I’m at a loss to pick a clear favorite. Jane Eyre stimulates my thinking and makes my heart race, while Wuthering Heights leaves me with a moony, gothic hangover that makes the books I read on either side of it pale in comparison.

Whatever the variance in style and tone of these two novels, the truth is that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights don’t seem all that different to me. Both stories are concerned with passion, power, social class, and family ties; both are beautifully written and contain dialogue that could, as critic Seymour Krim once wrote, “stutter your butter”; and both explore — and provoke — alarming moral quandaries.

Enter The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the 1848 novel by Anne Brontë, the third and least known of the Brontë authors. Like her sisters, Anne wrote stories that shocked Victorian sensibilities. Chief among the salacious content are the drunken antics of Tenant’s antihero, Arthur Huntingdon, whose bold-faced plans to smuggle lovers into the marriage home have parallels in both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

This overlap was darkly inspired by the life and times of the sisters’ troubled brother, Branwell Brontë, who, like the fictional Hindley Earnshaw and Arthur Huntingdon, drank himself to an early death. All three Brontë novelists also wrote persuasively about unhappy marriages, but aside from these common narrative points, Tenant is another type of book altogether.  

Tenant’s heroine, Helen Huntingdon, isn’t grasping for more in life, nor does she buck against convention, as do Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw. In fact, like many of the characters who populate, for instance, Jane Austen’s works, Helen accepts the terms of what we can only call “patriarchy” and bargains accordingly, using her pristine, unshakable character and artistic prowess as a currency for survival.

When Helen realizes she married a man who is both morally and intellectually beneath her, she tries to reform him through the patient but stern example of an upright, Christian life. But Arthur, a good-time boy, shallow, egotistical, and insecure, self-destructs in the presence of this saintly woman. Helen, for her part, holds herself beyond Arthur’s childish reach, which only quickens his self-induced downfall.

The unhappy story of Helen’s marriage comes to us in diary form as the expanded center of the novel, whose beginning and end are bookended by another epistolary missive from the story’s other main character, Gilbert Markham.

Without a hint of irony, Brontë describes Gilbert as “a gentleman farmer” who falls in love with the mysterious and artistic “widow,” Helen Graham (secretly, Helen Huntingdon), after she moves to his town, alone, with her little son.

Helen’s independence and fortress-like nature are galling to the country people, who spread rumors that she is the mistress of her landlord, Mr. Lawrence. It isn’t long before the love-sick Gilbert, who has tried every ploy to make Helen fall for him, caves and joins them.

Gilbert’s full character is on display when he misinterprets a tender scene between Helen and Mr. Lawrence: “I can crush that bold spirit,” he thinks to himself, and, even more telling, he admits, “I felt disposed to dally with my victim like a cat.”

What is it about this calm, self-possessed woman that draws such ire and dark passion?  

That Helen will eventually be cleared of all suspicions by submitting her personal diary for scrutiny, that the connection with Mr. Lawrence will turn out to be platonic, and that no one, in the end, will blame her for fleeing an abusive marriage, should be of little comfort here. After all, Helen’s testament is contained and guarded by Gilbert’s own account, and He Who Announces Her Happy Ending has proven unreliable and emotionally erratic.    

Gilbert’s maneuvers to win Helen’s hand (gifting a dog to her son, constantly walking past her house, buying her presents), even after she pleads a case for friendship, crash onto irredeemable territory with the most surprising and violent scene in the book, one which brings Gilbert down to (or beneath) the level of alcoholic philanderer Arthur.             

It must be said that Helen has bad taste in men.

But before she can collect her ambiguous reward for a life scrupulously lived, she will do something to astonish and irritate: She’ll return to nurse her dying husband.

In Jane Eyre, our heroine flees Mr. Rochester after finding out about his marriage. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine willfully dies to spite both Heathcliff and Edgar. In both cases, the women preserve their autonomy over the desires and wellbeing of the men in their lives.

In the corresponding moment of reckoning in Tenant, however, Helen does the opposite and martyrs herself, returning to care for the man who burned her paintings, stole her money, and offered her up freely to his friends.

Arthur, upon seeing she’s come back to him, says, “Yes; I’ll give you another opportunity to show your Christian magnanimity” — a line that was meant to repel, but in fact brought me in line with a cynical assessment of Helen’s pieties.

In contrast, it is Arthur who becomes increasingly interesting at death’s door and earns some respect when he sticks to his atheism, giving us all the courtesy of remaining in miserable character right to the end. (Nothing undoes a book like a last-minute conversion.)

Anne Brontë herself was so religious that, when she died, Charlotte wrote, “I let Anne go to God, and felt he had a right to have her.” While I don’t doubt Anne’s religious feelings, I’m reluctant to imagine she based Helen Huntingdon’s character on herself. After all, Anne famously scribbled this doozy of a line when she thought no one was looking: “Sick of mankind and their disgusting ways.”

From day to day I think it must have been Gilbert Markham whom Anne more readily channeled: When she was a governess, Anne tied her students to the table in order to make them work harder. (As the children of Protestant clergy, it seems all three Brontë sisters lashed out against Christian life with coruscating episodes of sadomasochism.)

Helen was likely the type of woman Anne wanted to be, though I’m not sure why. 

I recently exchanged messages with a close friend and co-reader of Tenant. We agreed we didn’t enjoy Helen’s ultra-dutiful rigidity and self-congratulation: “She’s no Hester Prynne,” I moaned, adding that I wouldn’t want to be Helen’s friend.

But here’s the thing: Helen Huntingdon and the rare women who share something of her spirit already know this all too well. And they couldn’t care less what we think of them.  

Dorothy Reno is a senior editor and classic-books columnist for the Independent. If you would like to share your take on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below. You can join Dorothy in reading Rajmohan’s Wife by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (the first novel published in English by an Indian writer), which will be the subject of her next column, in late November.

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