Saturday, September 4, 2010

Anne Bronte and the scandalous Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Ever wonder what it would be like to be married to Lord Byron? Watch "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall". This fabulous BBC miniseries available on netflix absolutely blew my mind. It is so honest, so open. We always read about the rake who marries the virgin and is transformed. But what if he's not? What if she's partly to blame? What if she still loves him? What if he still loves her?

It's a conundrum.

And Anne Bronte is truly amazing in her ability to weave it all together. Unlike Heathcliff and unlike Rochester, there is no romance attached to the everyday trueness of love, of abandoning our vices, of giving in to them, of hurting, loving and even destroying each other. Throughout this entire story, I wasn't sure if I was rooting for them. I was certain I wanted her to run but I wanted her to lighten up too. I wanted them to be as good to each other as they could have been. I wanted them to divorce. I wanted it to end. I wanted it to have one last fighting chance. I hated him. I loved him. I hated her. I pitied her.

That's a great story.

So why haven't we heard of it?

Charlotte, Emily and Anne all discovered they were writing secretly. As a sisterly unit, they made a pact to get published together. Charlotte was the very last to be published but when she was, it was Jane Eyre. All of the sister's books sold. It is a fallacy to think they were in any way unsuccessful.

Anne in particular began to sell with "Tenant of Wildfell Hall". It was so scandalous and shocking that it sold out in 6 weeks. A second printing was in order but, tragically, Anne was already dead. At 29, she was the last of three Bronte siblings to die in 6 months. First their brother, then Emily and finally Anne. When she died, it was CHARLOTTE who denied the second printing. In her opinion, it wasn't morally worth reprinting and "Agnes Grey" should be the work her sister was remembered for. What a tragedy. What a pious, ridiculous, self-important judgement to make.

Of all the sisters' work, it is "Tenant of Wildfell Hall" that is the most sincere, the most grounded. She doesn't mince the realities of Victorian marriage but she doesn't have the hero digging up their lost love buried deep in the earth, or staggering all over the wilderness starving to death because she won't sleep with him either. Rochester is only a hero in comparison to someone like Heathcliff who is truly evil. But let's face it, he did lock his wife up in an attic and then seduce the 18 year old nanny. I'd set his house on fire too.

Anne's anti hero is the villain. He knows it. He owns it. But he's not supernatural in any way. He's not even unique. He is that breed of selfish young men who were ruined by their own gluttony for excess. Theirs is a marriage that should have worked but didn't.

She told the truth about the dark horse and it wasn't what the world wanted to hear. At least, not what her sister Charlotte wanted to hear.


Thank goodness we have the chance to view and read at leisure today. Anne Bronte -- genius.


  1. I've never heard of it, but you can bet that I'll be heading to the library to pick up a copy. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I am so relieved that nowadays, perceptive people like the author of this article are seeing the depth of Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It always saddened me that Anne was pushed aside (or swept under the rug), for writing a "true storys" instead of a "fairy-tales". The characters are real, for better or worse. To paraphrase a quote Anne Bronte said " I'm not interested in writing soft nonsense...I believe the truth about what is right and wrong will make itself clear to those who are able to receive it". It wasn't a pretty story, but the honest truth about love, addictions, and abuse needed to be told anyway. I respect her for being willing to speak out at a time in history when it was "unseemly" to bring those realities to light. She once wrote that more than anything she just wanted to do some good in this world before she left it. Where ever she is I hope she knows she succeeded. Shes one of my heros.

  3. Tara -- well said! This story is the one that NEVER gets told. What happens if you do marry Rochester or Wickham or Lord Byron or any of those brooding romantic heroes? The honesty of the marriage just took my breath away. I love your insight!