I am now prepared to say The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is my favorite book by any of the Bronte sisters. In high school, my favorite book was Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. The Gothic setting and plot undoubtedly spoke to my dramatic-loving teenage heart. But as I matured, I found the novel too dramatic and Heathcliff absolutely terrifying. Similarly, while Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is a beautifully written classic, when Jane announces, "Reader, I married him," I find myself saying, "Why, Jane, why?" Overall, I was worried about the Bronte sisters' taste in men.
Helen, the heroine of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, doesn't do much better in her selection of a husband in the beginning of her tale. She ignores the advice of her aunt and marries a scoundrel. Helen, however, pays the price for her ill-advised marriage.
One of my favorite things about reading classics is seeing that human nature never changes. Jane Austen, for example, beautifully captures certain character types in the early 1800s that we still see around us today. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte shows us the character of a narcissist and addict was the the same in 1848 as it is today. Most believe Anne Bronte had an excellent example to draw on in her brother, Branwell.
The husband in Tenant is a man named Mr. Huntingdon. After initially wooing his wife, we begin to see his true character towards her as he brags about his unwholesome conquests prior to meeting her in order to make Helen jealous. Once he has been entertained by this at her expense, he becomes affectionate again so that he can be assured of a loving wife. In classic narcissistic behavior, everything is in his interest.
Mr. Huntingdon's group of carousing friends is his focus. He encourages Helen to dress up in a flashy manner, with which she is uncomfortable, in order to show her off to his friends. When he would desert his wife to join his friends for months on end, he would show his friends her letters to amuse himself and ridicule her. When Mr. Huntingdon felt Helen was too naggish, he would inform her of negative things his friends had said about her.
Mr. Huntingdon regularly uses coarse names for his wife. He also notably uses cruel names for his infant son. Mr. Huntingdon has no use for his son while the boy is still too young to show affection for him. Mr. Huntingdon calls the infant "the little senseless, thankless oyster" and "the little devil."
Interestingly, Anne Bronte also provides an amazingly accurate portrait of the impact of a narcissist on those around him. As Helen is abandoned for months at a time by her husband and verbally abused by him, she does appear more cold and naggish--especially in her husband's eyes. There is a brief moment, however, when she believes that her husband does love her and that he is changing for her. During that time, she becomes the life of their house party and even his friends note the difference in her.
Sadly, it turns out that Mr. Huntingdon is even more cruel than we originally observe. Helen must make a decision in the best interest of her son, whom she believes is becoming too much like his father. Her decisions proved to be shocking to the Victorian audience initially reading the book.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is such an amazing character study. This book deserves so much more attention than it has received. I saw several suggestions that Charlotte Bronte suppressed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne's death. Perhaps she was uncomfortable with the social criticism it received in the Victorian era. Perhaps the story hit too uncomfortably close to home in regard to their brother, Branwell. Regardless of the cause, it needs be given its due credit now.