In Search of the Gothic in Wildfell Hall

©Inia Gwath

I have written this little entry to commemorate Anne Brontë’s death, who passed away on a 28th of May in 1849 but will live forever inside her reader’s hearts. My main focus is to explore how the gothic is present in her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I have written a review without spoilers on GoodReads (there I also give you some reasons why you must read this amazing novel).

A long time ago I read Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) and Wuthering Heights (by Emily Brontë), but honestly just this year I had the pleasure of reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. I think if I had not read it, I would have wasted my whole life. It is really a masterpiece that everyone should read.

𝑨𝒏𝒏𝒆 𝑩𝒓𝒐𝒏𝒕ë

When the Brontë sisters are named, we usually hear the names Charlotte and Emily, but almost nothing about Anne.

Anne was the youngest of the sisters, but no less important. She was the first sister to write about her experiences as a governess (yes, Agnes Grey was written before Jane Eyre). She wrote two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and numerous poems. Some of her poems appeared in Poems by Currer, Elis and Acton Bell. Anne Brontë published her works under her pen name Acton Bell.

Anne Brontë
“Her apparent mildness hid a fury for justice” – Bronte Parsonage Museum.

Like her sisters Charlotte and Emily, Anne believed that if the world knew that their works were written by women they were going to be seen as less serious novels than the one written by men. Unfortunately, it was true that women were not seen as equal creatures as men, they did not have the same rights. Not even when there had already been great women that had written great stories (like Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen, or even the Brontë’s contemporary and latter Charlotte’s friend, Elizabeth Gaskell). There was still the common and accepted belief that women had the duty to serve men, especially when being their wives.

𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑻𝒆𝒏𝒂𝒏𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝑾𝒊𝒍𝒅𝒇𝒆𝒍𝒍 𝑯𝒂𝒍𝒍

Facsimile of the first edition.
Gutmberg proyect.

When The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published, in 1848 some reviews praised it, while some others called it a scandalous novel.

The Spectator said that the novel showed:

“morbid love of the coarse, if not to say of the brutal”.

– The Spectator. 1848

Because Helen, the protagonist, explicitly narrates how badly some women are treated in their domestic life.

Despite some wrong criticisms, Anne insisted that the novel had the purpose of educating, showing the truth, besides entertaining. It had the aim to help readers, men and women alike to avoid living such horrible situations. In the preface of the second edition, Acton Bell wrote:

“I know that such characters do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain”.

-Acton Bell (Anne Brontë), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Preface to the Second Edition.

Anne wanted to warn the reader to question the everyday life situations that were acceptable and seen as ordinarily right in her times. She wanted to prevent women of falling in love with men that treated them horribly, as the same time, she wanted men to understand women’s desire to be understood as rational creatures that need someone to love them as equals. She wanted with her whole heart to end those sufferings and practices in society.

Unfortunately, a year later after Anne Brontë passed away, Charlotte Brontë, her elder sister, decided to prevent further publications of the book to save her sister’s reputation, it was scandalous that a woman had dared to write a novel about the horrors of domestic violence. But then, luckily, before Charlotte passed away, she asked the editor to reprint again The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in just one volume instead of three volumes.

Nevertheless, as the book was already known for being scandalous, some copies were freely edited, even suppressing some relevant passages of the narrative.

In this entry, I want to focus on finding the Gothic in Anne’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Despite her sister’s novel Wuthering Heights, written by Emily Brontë, is widely accepted as a gothic novel, it seems to me that Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall is very revolutionary in terms of how the Gothic setting is presented to develop the actions that take place in the narrative.

𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑮𝒐𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒄

Some ladies of the gothic, we must add Anne’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall there.
©Inia Gwath

I have introduced the Gothic in another entry, which you can read it here. But in this section, let’s specifically review the gothic setting, which in the section below I am going to analyse how it is developed in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Generally speaking, in traditional gothic novels the actions take place in old mysterious settings. Usually, in those places the characters witness supernatural experiences.

Sharon Rose Yang and Kathleen Healey introduce their book Gothic Landscapes by pointing out that:

“Landscapes that dominate Gothic texts may seem to be simply backdrops to the action of the fiction and film or the ruminations of the poetry. Crumbling architecture, dark confusing labyrinths, frighting interiors, and craggy outcroppings are just a few elements of the landscape that make up the Gothic and help set the stage for what unfolds in the Gothic texts “.

– “Introduction: Haunted Landscapes and Fearful Spaces – Expanding Views on the Geography of the Gothic”. Sharon Rose Yang and Kathleen Healey. Gothic Landscapes. 2016

Landscapes in gothic texts matter, for they do not only provide the settings but also are crucial for unfolding actions and even the ideas their authors want to share with the readers.

Additionally, in some classical Gothic novels, it is likely that inside those haunted settings the female protagonist is kept as a prisoner under the dominance of a masculine villain. Therefore, the female heroine needs to leave the place where she is forced to live in by the tyrannical masculine villain. This place is obscure, wild, and sometimes it seems to be haunted. For example, Udolpho in The Mysteries of Udolpho, a novel by Ann Radcliffe.

But how does Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildefell Hall changes the usage of the gothic setting when developing the actions? Continue reading to find out!

*Be aware spoilers ahead!*

Facsimile of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall illustrated edition from 1896.
Archive org.

𝑾𝒊𝒍𝒅𝒇𝒆𝒍𝒍 𝑯𝒂𝒍𝒍 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑮𝒐𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒄

The first part of the novel is narrated by Gilbert Markham who lives in a small agricultural town. He is a farmer who lives with his mother, Mrs Markham, her sister Rose and his brother Fergus.

One day, Rose tells them that a mysterious young woman had arrived to live in Wildfell hall, which had been empty and in ruins for so long. Some of the conversation is the following:

“Good gracious, my dear! The place is in ruins!

“She has two or three rooms made habitable; and there she lives, all alone- except an old woman for a servant!”

“Oh, dear! That spoils it. I’d hoped she was a witch” observed Fergus (….)

“Nonsense, Fergus! But isn’t it strange, mamma?”

“Strange! I can hardly believe it!”

– Anne Brontë. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Chapter I. Emphasis mine

Interestingly, the protagonist, Helen, is introduced by how other characters perceive her. She is seen as a mysterious young woman that might even have been a witch. Anne Brontë here uses some of the gothic element to present her character to the reader, to encourage her reader to desire to know more about Helen’s personality and situation.

Even Gilbert is encouraged to pay a visit to this mysterious young woman and to know if what the neighbours are saying about her is true. His thoughts are the following:

“I confess, I looked with some interest myself towards the old family pew, appertaining to Wildfell Hall, where the faded crimson cushions and linen had been impressed and unrenewed so many years, and the grim escutcheons, with their lugubrious borders of rusty black cloth, frowned so sternly from the wall above”.

– Anne Brontë. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Chapter I

The description of the setting presents gothic elements: it is an old ruined place. Gilbert, and maybe the reader too, might be eager to know the story of that old place and the secrets hidden inside.

As the novel advances, Gilbert goes to the Hall and describes its gardens. This might be just to give more details about the gothic setting, but it seems to me that it is more significant. The garden was:

“stocked with such hardly plants and flowers as could best brook the soil and climate, and such trees and shrubs as could best endure the gardener’s torturing shears… now having been left so many years, untilled and untrimmed, abandoned to weeds and tall grass, to the frost and the wind, the rain and the drought, it presented a very singular appearance indeed”.

– Anne Brontë. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Chapter II

As seen in the selected quotation above, the garden is described as a wild ruined place because of being abandoned for so long. A perfect environment for developing a gothic narrative.

“Wildfell Hall mansion”
by Edmund Morison Wimperis.
1873
Archive Org

Because of the conventional setting, gothic novels readers might think that violent actions might take place in a place like Wildfell Hall. Or even they might believe that the young woman might be a prisoner inside of those walls, think of Isabella in The Castle of Otranto. But surprisingly, that does not happen.

As the plants in Wildfell Hall can grow freely as they like, the inhabitants of that place are free from abusive relationships, as later on Gilbert and the reader will learn. Even more, as the plants in the garden of Wildfell Hall, the gothic novel allowed women to express themselves more freely than in any other genre.

The usage of a gothic setting for opening the novel allowed Anne Brontë to present openly and safely Helen’s diary where the atrocities done to women by men are described. It seems to be a very effective method: a combination of imagination but also the truth. As Sarah Hallenbeck notices: “Helen’s subversive journal ought not to be viewed in isolation” (pp. 2). She insists that Gilbert narration must be also considered when analysing the novel. For this reason, it seems to me that the gothic is a perfect choice for introducing the reader to the diary where horrible behaviours that take place in a real life setting are narrated. But by doing so, Anne changes the conventions of the gothic.

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë provides the reader descriptions of the different gardens where actions take place, which as I said before, are relevant for understanding the plot’s development.

Helen lives a hellish life in Grassdale Manor, which is narrated in her diary, that is given to Gilbert so he can understand her past. The garden of Grassdale Manor is also described, but not as a gothic setting:

I open the window to inhale the balmy, soul-reviving air, and look upon the lovely landscape, laughing in dew and sunshine… I wander in the ancient woods and meet the little wildflowers smiling in my path”.

– Anne Brontë. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Chapter XXV

Here Helen describes the setting very bright and beautiful. But afterwards, she laments her husband is not there sharing that place with her because it seems that he does not like to be with her. Meanwhile, Mr Huntingdon, her husband, is elsewhere enjoying with his friends and even being unloyal to his wife, as Helen and the readers discover lately.

Anne Brontë seems to have switched the meaning of space used in conventional gothic. The domestic space that seem to be perfect and peaceful is a place of nightmares. Whereas, the gothic space becomes a place of salvation, evolution and understanding.

Helen escapes from that almost perfect home (the garden is perfect but the domestic life not) and goes away to live with her little son and her servant to an old ruinous hall.

The gothic setting allows Helen and her son to be free and safe from domestic violence.

Detail of facsimile in the illustrated edition published in 1896.
Archive org.

Even more, when narrating how Gilbert and Helen’s relationship is developed through the novel, the gothic also plays an important role.

Gilbert at first dislikes Mrs Graham (Helen) and she can’t stand him either. But slowly the two come to an understanding and their love blooms in that mysterious place, in Wildfell Hall.

Gilbert evolves from having some conventional ideas regarding women, to become a man that understands them. Note that Gilbert was never a tyrannical or bad character, he treated his mother and Rose respectfully. I am just talking here about love, he initially had those conventional ideas of his time as women being their husband’s servants. Anne Brontë clearly is against the belief that women can change men’s behaviour, no, Gilbert is not like that, he is not changed by Helen, he already had some positive masculine qualities.

Anne Brontë describes that to gain Helen’s friendship and love, Gilbert gives her books he knows she would love to read, he insists Rose to send her some roses to plant in the garden, he gives her son, Arthur, a puppy knowing how happy the child will be with a little friend. But when Gilbert declares his love for Helen, opposite to the brightly and sunshine occasion when Huntingdon proposed to her, in the sense that it was inside her own house, in her library which she considered being the safest place, Gilbert’s proposal takes place in Wildfell Hall, a very gothic setting. After they both realize that they cannot be together and he has to leave her, Anne Brontë went further into describing the Gothic through Gilbert’s eyes:

“…my heart was away up the hills in that dark room where she was weeping desolated and alone – she whom I was not to comfort, not to see again, till years or suffering had overcome us both, and torn our spirits from their perished abodes of clay”.

– Anne Brontë. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Chapter 45

Gilbert is a very romantic character and his observations on landscapes are always very Gothic, he notices the moon, the garden, the moor, among others. But aside from having a gothic mind, he portraits Anne Brontë’s ideal masculine character. The whole correct notion of love that Anne Brontë wanted to show her readers is shaped and seen as a process in a gothic space not in an over -idealized place.

“The view of Wildfell Hall”
engraving by Edmund Morison Wimperis. 1873.
Archive Org

Some readers might argue that is not the case when Gilbert meets Helen again in Staningley, this is a very beautiful house which seems to have no gothic element at all. But, it seems to me that Anne Brontë was very familiar with the elements of the gothic narrative, that did not only filled her novel with well known elements but also took care of details.

When Mr Markharm and Mrs Graham meet again, despite they see each other in the beautiful Staningley, the whole place is covered with snow. The snow has been a fundamental element in gothic. Associated with coldness but also tranquillity. It provides a perfect metaphor for gothic authors, think of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera when Raoul de Chagny goes to the snowy cemetery and what he finds in there.

In Anne Brontë’s narrative, the snow is important too, not only mentioned for an aesthetic purpose but it seems to be a reference to the gothic.

When Gilbert believes it is improper now to ask Helen to marry him, she makes the move, for she:

“pluck[s] that beautiful half-blown Christmas rose that grew upon the little shrub without, just peeping from the snow, that had hitherto, no doubt, defended it from the frost, and was now melting away in the sun”.

– Anne Brontë. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Chapter 53

Helen gives that rose to Gilbert telling him that it has survived no matter the circumstances, and he does not know if he should show her his passions and understanding or he should just behave indifferently as society should expect him to behave.

The rose in the snow is the life upon the cold, a new starting has bloomed. Anne Brontë reused a beautiful metaphor from the gothic turning it in a very important moment, no matter what Helen and Gilbert had to face, their love is still strong and fresh as the rose.

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë does not only show us a narrative where she educates her readers on love and respect in relationships, but she also produced a work that can amuse us, as she wrote on the preface to the second edition.

In this little article, I have reviewed how the gothic is present in the novel, and how Anne Brontë reconstructs the conventions regarding the setting. Here the spaces identified as gothic are a symbol of the development of good things, whereas, perfect spaces are not so fine as they seem to be. She shatters the perfect homely image, calling the readers to be aware of what might be understood as a perfect home.

If as a literary movement the gothic has allowed multiple authors to express their own ideas, it has even let women writers to express their thoughts and feelings, the same works for Anne Brontë. With the gothic, Anne Brontë could show us the real world and violence some women are dealing with in real life.

The gothic setting allows Helen to be free and safe. Her healthy love story grows and develops in a gothic space . In a gothic place, a romantic masculine character also realises what does truly means to love someone.

Have you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? What are your thoughts? You can comment on Instagram or below. I would be happy to know your opinion of this book.

Some Mentioned Works

To read the whole preface written by Acton Bell in the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, you can go here.

To read Sarah Hallenbeck “How to be a Gentleman Without Really Trying: Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” go here.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sam Cardy says:

    This is really interesting! I’m definitely adding Anne Brontë to my list of things to read. Thanks! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Inia Gwath says:

      I really hope you enjoy reading Anne Brontë’s novels when you read them 😃 She is not so poetical as Emily or Charlotte but great too 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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