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  • Katherine Dahl

'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall': an Underrated Classic in Four Songs

Illustration of Wildfell Hall (done by Edmund Morison Wimperis)

Odds are you have heard of (if not read) the works of the Brontë sisters: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë were paragons of the Victorian English genre and still remain fairly popular in the modern sphere, even nearly 200 years later. Today, I’ve been motivated by the chilly weather to write about one of my favorite Victorian novels of all time—and one I think is criminally underrated—by Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. A controversial work in its time, the novel challenged conventional social rules and gender roles with its realistic portrayal of marriage, motherhood, and feminine independence through the character of Helen Graham, who arrives mysteriously to take residence in Wildfell Hall on the outskirts of town. Gilbert Markham, a countryman, soon becomes enamored with the woman and her young son, and it is through his eyes that we learn her story.

Pearl Jam's Vitalogy (1994)

It is only through a selfless offering of friendship that Gilbert is able to discover the truth about the reclusive Helen, who offers him a reading of her diary. The diary catalogs her experiences with her marriage to the handsome, but honestly horrible, Arthur Huntingdon. Initially lured by his good looks and affectionate manner, Helen becomes chained to a man with alcoholic and sexually unfaithful tendencies. For a decent amount of time, “she lies and says she’s in love with him”, as stated in the lyrics of “Better Man” by Pearl Jam. She tries desperately to fix things and pretend that “the world [will] come along”, especially because she soon bears his child—named Arthur, as well as a demonstration of Huntingdon’s control issues—and “she doesn’t want to leave” when a wife is supposed to be owned completely by her husband at the time (1848).

Life as We Know It (REO Speedwagon, 1987)

However, Helen soon grows short of temper with her husband’s terrible, controlling behavior and repeatedly confronts him. She “can no longer live with [his] misconceptions” and will “keep telling [him] what’s on [her] mind, even if it’s not what [he] wants to hear”, marking a shift between yearning for a “better man” and a determination to change what she has. So, the second song is “That Ain’t Love” by REO Speedwagon. In this period, Helen exemplifies Anne Brontë’s challenge of gender roles: while many wives would continue to roll over, Helen stands up for herself and her son in a way that’s frankly dangerous given her husband’s alcoholism and violent tendencies.

Helen and Arthur Jr. (The Tenet 1996)

Once talking proves ineffectual, Helen takes the final plunge and runs away from her husband’s home with little Arthur, mostly due to her concern that Huntingdon will try to separate her from her child permanently if given the chance. Her son is her “life, [her] pride, [her] joy,” and “all [she] has,” which means something while she is trapped in her marriage; so, she exemplifies “My Boy” by Elvis Presley. The scandal involved in abandoning one’s husband at this time is immeasurable, yet she does it anyway, thus demonstrating how The Tenet of Wildfell Hall can be considered one of the first feminist novels.

Juice Newton's Quiet Lies (1981)

Given her love for her son, it is mostly Gilbert’s kind treatment of little Arthur that causes Helen to begin to fall in love with him, despite the trust issues she has surrounding men. She remains wary of "getting burned” by it, and she will “never forget the lessons [she] learned” from her previous marriage, but she cannot help caring so much for the only friend she has in her new life. Like in the lyrics of “Falling in Love” by Juice Newton, Helen steeled herself against affection only to meet a man who truly helps her recover her life, who understands everything she has been through and continues to support her despite the scandal. Plus, Gilbert treats Arthur as he would his own son and never questions Helen’s decision to leave. He is a feminist in that way, too, I think.

Helen and Gilbert (The Tenant 1996)

As has become a theme in the books I choose, The Tenet of Wildfell Hall has a happy ending; Helen and Gilbert marry, and it is awesome. While the book is a bit long, it’s worth every word; Helen is a role model, an early proponent for women’s rights, and Gilbert really is a nice guy. She's everything; he’s just Gilbert.

Runner-ups: “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “Child of Mine” by Carole King, “You Don’t Own Me” by Leslie Gore.


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