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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Textual Relations April 2021 Reading

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the second and final novel by the English author Anne Brontë. It was first published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell. Probably the most shocking of the Brontës' novels, it had an instant and phenomenal success, but after Anne's death her sister Charlotte prevented its re-publication in England until 1854. The novel is framed as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend about the events connected with his meeting a mysterious young widow, calling herself Helen Graham, who arrives at Wildfell Hall, an Elizabethan mansion which has been empty for many years, with her young son and a servant. Most critics now consider The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be one of the first feminist novels.

Anne Brontë was an English novelist and poet, and the youngest member of the Brontë literary family. She was the daughter of Patrick Brontë, a poor Irish clergyman in the Church of England. Anne lived most of her life with her family at the parish of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors. Otherwise she attended a boarding school in Mirfield between 1836 and 1837, and between 1839 and 1845 lived elsewhere working as a governess. In 1846 she published a book of poems with her sisters and later two novels, initially under the pen name Acton Bell. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, was published in 1847 with Wuthering Heights. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was published in 1848.

Anne died at 29, probably of pulmonary tuberculosis. After Anne's death her sister Charlotte edited Agnes Grey to fix issues with its first edition, but prevented republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This is one reason why Anne is not as well known as her sisters. Nonetheless both of Anne's novels are considered classics of English literature.

Seeing as this book is over 100 years old I think it is okay to openly discuss the novel as we read it.
 
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Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I'm really excited about doing this and An Extraordinary Union back-to-back, since they're romance novels at very much the opposite ends of multiple spectra.

I'm also excited because I'd somehow missed or forgotten that the novel is presented as a series of letters. I really loved that as a framing device in Sorcery & Cecelia.
 

FelixSH

(He/Him)
Up to now, I have read Jane Eyre from Charlotte, and Agnes Grey, from Ann Bronte. Both were great fun, but Agnes Grey felt more grounded to me. I'm looking forward to read this one, and general something new from these sisters.
 

Rosewood

The metal babble flees!
(she/her)
Epistolary novel! Nice, those always seem to go fast.

Anne died at age 29. Barely got her life started, poor thing.

I read Jane Eyre as a freshman in high school, which was, um, a minute or two ago and that is all my experience with the Brontes.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
One of my coworkers has a friend who did an Anne Bronte biography; she noted that the Project Gutenberg edition is a commonly edited/condensed version of the novel. Her recommendation is the 1996 Penguin Classics or 2017 Vintage Classics editions. I've linked the Kindle ebook of the 1996 Penguin Classics edition; I haven't had any luck yet tracking down an ebook of the Vintage Classics edition.
 

Rosewood

The metal babble flees!
(she/her)
Oops, I already picked up the Oxford World Classics version from 1993. It does make me curious what the differences are between it and the Penguin or Vintage, how substantial they are.
 

FelixSH

(He/Him)
Thanks for the info, Egarwaen. I'm now really glad that this got picked up here, I would have read the wrong version elsewise.

I found a bit of information, with regards to these different versions here. According to that site, the letter that starts the novel, before the first regular chapter, is missing:

Shortly after Anne's death, Charlotte made it known that she did not want 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' to be re-published, and the publishers respected her wishes. However, shortly before Charlotte's demise, in 1854, the London firm of Thomas Hodgson issued a one-volume edition. Hodgson performed extensive editing of the novel, removing many sections of it including the opening letter to 'Halford' and the chapter headings. Other omissions ranged from single words to almost complete chapters: some sections were completely re-arranged in an attempt to compensate for the omissions. The editing was reputedly performed in the interest of economy, as Hodgson tried to produce a 'cheap' copy of the book. It resulted in a weakening of the whole structure of the novel; and, unfortunately, most subsequent English editions, including those eventually produced by Charlotte's publisher, Smith-Elder & Co., followed this text.

So, it seems like one can recognize the changed version by looking for the letter to Halford, which the novel should start with. The version on Project Gutenberg, for example, doesn't - it starts directly with chapter 1. "You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827".

I have not found an epub for download, but there is a website called wikisource.org. I have never heard of that site, and at first glance, it seems to collect old literature. Including The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. There, the book is split into three volumes, and the first one starts with the chaper "To J. Halford, Esq.", before Chapter 1. So that should be the correct one.

There is unfortunately no complete file ready for download, but the site is a wiki, so it consists only of text. So it should be easy to just use it for reading, no matter how weak your connection is.
 

Rosewood

The metal babble flees!
(she/her)
Okay, it looks like the ebook (kindle specifically) version I have is the second edition of the 1993 Oxford, from 1998, because it has the introduction by Smith. Since it is the Clarendon edition, I'm sure it's fine. It definitely has the letter at the very beginning.

Not far in, it looks like this isn't an epistolary novel. Aside from the conceit that the text of the book was included with a letter*, it's a novel written in first person.

*I had a little chuckle over the setup of the letter. "You seemed to be hurt about the lack of quid pro quo in our recent conversation, Halford, so here you go. 400 pages' worth."
 
Obligatory

 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
Beaton occasionally posts comics on her Twitter.

So far there’s a couple of things that really stand out to me. First is the younger brother’s apparent comic relief role. Second is that I think the footnotes in this edition are occasionally reaching or missing the point - for example they identify the decaying hedge sculptures outside the hall as evidence of an abandoned primitive reversion theme, which seems to unnecessarily preclude other thematic links.

But mostly what stands out is how the radical setup here - a single woman with a son who she is trying to raise contrary to conventional wisdom - has become practically a traditional setup for modern romances.
 

Rosewood

The metal babble flees!
(she/her)
The footnotes in the edition I'm reading mostly point out deliberate Bible quotes, and the odd vocabulary word.

(edited) The Audible freebie has the initial letter, and according to one review is missing a handful of pages from ch. 28. So I'm not sure what edition is being read from.

I enjoy 19th century novels along these lines, with a smallish cast bouncing off of each other, and/or having fallen into habitual patterns of relating to each other over the years. As the new face in town, Mrs. Graham will surely cause some changes and/or disruptions. It'd be too easy for me to say she's a character ahead of her time, but she was written in her time, so she is of her time, y'know?
 
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I've been kind of burnt out on Victorian literature for a couple years, just the level of repression and the obsession with class is too grating to me. That being said I've read a lot of that literature and there's a lot in this book that, as noted, could work in a modern setting. But there's a lot that is really steeped in Victorian weirdness and weird rules that are tiresome.

Not far in, it looks like this isn't an epistolary novel. Aside from the conceit that the text of the book was included with a letter*, it's a novel written in first person.

*I had a little chuckle over the setup of the letter. "You seemed to be hurt about the lack of quid pro quo in our recent conversation, Halford, so here you go. 400 pages' worth."

Well, it becomes one again, but it's with another huge-ass letter/diary. I initially misread that she tore a few leaves from the end and gave him the rest, I thought ti. I was baffled as to how this huge section fit on a few leaves.

It's also still always somewhat out of place to me that he knocks Lawrence out and that nothing really comes of it? If THAT doesn't make you think of a modern romantic comedy I don't know what would. Personally I don't like Gilbert at all, there's so many smarmy and insufferable personality traits. But one minor thing that really annoyed me was how right after he finishes reading the diaries his first thoughts are of himself:

The rest was torn away. How cruel -- just when she was going to mention me!

And while Eliza was ultimately kind of a dick he was still pretty shitty to her. The beach outing day seemed really sad, when he just suddenly started ignoring her.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I'm really enjoying this. The descriptions are a bit long-winded for me a times, but I've been trying to concentrate on them, and when I succeed they're wonderfully evocative. I agree that Gilbert's pretty unlikeable, though I think that's on purpose. The footnotes in my edition identify his little digression at the start about how while he's a farmer, his mother had always believed he was above that, etc as being the author's way of clearly identifying Gilbert as an eligible partner for Helen, but I think that's the wrong tack. I think that's an early hint that Gilbert has an insufferably inflated opinion of himself.
 

Rosewood

The metal babble flees!
(she/her)
I think Gilbert is... okay. He's definitely young, unformed, somewhat lazy when it comes to thinking about or moving toward his future as an actual adult. His younger brother is a waste of space.

End of ch. 6 has an interesting conversation between Gilbert and his mother. Mother is arguing for women living their lives in service to men, Gilbert for the reverse or for a more equitable situation. Mother: "...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." Interesting choice of word there, pleasure. At the end of the chapter, Gilbert asks Halford: "...is that the extent of your domestic virtues; and does your happy wife exact no more?"

Still early goings, though. We'll see how well Gilbert's actions and stated/implied principles match up.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I've reached the diary segment!

I actually think Gilbert's assault on Lawrence is really interesting, and really serves to highlight why, despite his copious flaws and rough edges, Helen is willing to give Gilbert a chance. He lashes out, but is immediately consumed with guilt over having done so. He tries, awkwardly, to make amends, does a poor job of it, and alternates between self-recrimination and justification. Still his guilt seems to be one of his motivations for finally listening to Helen, and I think she sees that. Perhaps I'm stretching a bit here, but I think there's a thematic link to Gilbert's farming work, and the contrast between farmed and tended land and wilderness - the theme being that the process of civilization, of taming one's worst impulses, is a constant process that requires active engagement?
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
Toward the end of chapter 17 I am loving the way Helen is using exactly the same arguments Mr. Boarham used to try to woo her when justifying her attraction to Mr. Huntingdon to her aunt.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
I just started this morning. And, as always when I read Victorian fiction I find myself jealous of all the free time everyone seems to have. Then I recall what made all that leisure time possible and feel bad for wanting it.

I do love the way the descriptions go on and on though.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I just started this morning. And, as always when I read Victorian fiction I find myself jealous of all the free time everyone seems to have. Then I recall what made all that leisure time possible and feel bad for wanting it.

Even with Gilbert, you're talking about the extremely wealthy. He characterizes himself as a "gentleman farmer", and while he does work, he owns ample land and his work consists of directing laborers rather than exerting himself.

I've finished the diary segment and I'm back with Gilbert. I'm going to finish the book before breaking things down more, but I've got Thoughts.
 

Rosewood

The metal babble flees!
(she/her)
It's been going slowly for me--more life's fault than the book's--and I am on Ch. 9 or 10. Gilbert's affections--or, perhaps more accurately, his sexual attention--has transferred from Eliza to Mrs. Graham. Eliza and Jane are spreading rumors about the provenance of her kid.

I'm getting hints from the thread that the story is told from someone else's point of view later, and since Gilbert isn't very interesting to me, I'll look forward to that.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I want to lead by saying that Anne Bronte’s descriptions are lovely and evocative. They deliver a truly incredible sense of place and depth. She’s clearly got tremendous affection for the British countryside, especially the coasts.

I was also impressed with how the story presented Helen, as a single mother, as a desirable romantic partner even before Markham becomes aware of her substantial wealth and social position. That aspect of the story seemed very ahead of its time. Similarly, I can see Markham’s social climbing - a lower-class man successfully romancing a higher-status woman - as being very daring and progressive.

As a romance, I thought Markham and Helen’s courtship - and its mirror in Helen and Arthur Sr’s courtship - was more interesting than satisfying. Markham is, frankly, still a pretty self-centered and egotistical person. His pursuit of a friendship with Lawrence solely to circumvent his promise to Helen is unbelievably repulsive. It feels like Bronte is aware of this and highlighting it through Markham’s unreliable perspective, but I’m not confident in that reading. My interpretation of the characters is that Lawrence is briefly thrilled to have someone who actually wants to be his friend, and then immensely disappointed when Markham’s ulterior motives become clear to him. In using this behavior, I felt like Bronte was really trying to sell Markham’s suitability as a partner on spiritual and theological grounds. He may not always act correctly, or even well, but he is spiritually aware and seeks to act morally.

The theology was fascinating, if occasionally a bit clumsy. Though as the footnotes in my edition pointed out, such was common for temperance fiction of the period. I think Bronte’s advocacy for universalism and the contrast she draws between it and prevailing Anglican doctrine (in the person of Rev. Millward) is fascinating. The outside observer might think that the theologian who accepts eternal damnation would be more strict about vice and excess, but quite the opposite is true. Millward expounds extensively on the virtue of moderated vice while partaking equally extensively of Mrs. Markham’s home-brewed ale. Upon some reflection, this makes sense - declaring that your congregants are to be eternally damned for commonplace behavior unless they radically reform would not land well, and would sacrifice the pastor’s other moral authority. But, as Bronte highlights, this has a corrosive effect on the clergy's moral authority, and Markham's own daughter behaves quite shamefully throughout the novel. We even see this theme repeated with Arthur Sr, who refuses to receive a priest or curate even on his death-bed, for fear that the man will be strict and judgmental in vengeance for his past defiance. Meanwhile, the Universalist Helen is able to quite successfully crusade against excess by invoking the practical and personal effects on the libertines and their families.

The morality play aspects of the story, particularly around Arthur Sr’s death, come across to me as ridiculous. The man’s riding injury goes from something he is sure to recover from to something he is sure to die from because he has a temper tantrum and chugs a bottle of wine. It’s rather comedic especially since, from a modern perspective, we know that Helen and his doctor literally murdered him by bleeding him to death while attempting to heal him with bloodletting. While it’s possible Bronte was aware of its harmful nature, as it was proven ineffective in the 1830s per Wikipedia, I think it’s more likely that she was attempting to show Helen as an objectively healing influence, while in fact doing exactly the opposite.

Finally, the footnotes in my version make a claim that I rather emphatically disagree with regarding the hedge sculptures in the initial description of Wildfell Hall itself:

Nature ‘tortured’ to an art which represents nature (the boxwood swan, the lion) is in the process of reverting to nature. However, swan and lion belong with laurel towers and fabricated warrior as armorial tributes to dynasty - a dynasty which has died out, subverted by nature. For Emily Bronte’s mystery, Anne Bronte substitutes grotesquerie, in a chaotic vision in which human aspirations are in the process recrudescence, paralleling the disintegration in the ethical sphere of the novel: but the author fails to develop these implications.​

I think that’s quite mistaken! I would say these play into a core theme of the novel, that of morality and faith coaxing order and beauty out of natural disorder. Gilbert is a farmer, and his work is converting the untamed wilds of the English countryside, which we are shown during the excursion to the bluffs, into ordered, productive farmland. This makes him a match for Helen, who’s calling is similarly coaxing ordered, productive moral behavior out of the untamed wild-ness of Arthur Jr, Hattersley, Lowborough, etc. The struggles of both characters throughout the novel largely amount to coaxing order and productivity out of disorder and wild-ness, be it reputation, temper, or understanding.

Helen’s tenancy at Wildfell Hall corresponds with a period where she struggles at her calling. She’s at a low point, having utterly failed with Arthur Sr and barely recovered Arthur Jr, and her surroundings reflect that. Bronte may not revisit the decayed noble hedge sculptures, but they further the thematic resonance. Even the name, I think, highlights this: Wild-fell; a fell being a stretch of high moor, but also the past tense of fall. So no, Ms. Davies, I think the author develops these implications quite tolerably.
 
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