The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte

cwilko2011 By cwilko2011, 7th Jul 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Essays

An analysis of the treatment of marriage and family within Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, first published in 1848, is a clear documentation of the struggle women had during the late Georgian era and Victorian era concerning matrimony. Anne Bronte’s novel shows differing representations of marriage throughout. Using different vantage points, Bronte ably accentuates the degradation women faced within marriage and gives numerous accounts of debauchery concerning their husbands.

At the beginning of the novel there is an overbearing notion that a woman is incomplete without marriage and has little choice over who she must marry. Love, for the most part, plays an inconsequential part within the novel with most of the main characters marrying for money, status or family pride. Throughout the novel the reader observes many changes within the marriages and also the breakdowns that occur. At the close of the novel there has been a definite shift in the relationships and only one of the original marriages remains. Bronte’s treatment of marriage throughout the novel is without a doubt an attack on the patriarchal figure, proven by the distance of Helen’s father, Arthur’s absence from his son and the lack of father figures on the whole.


The most predominant and tempestuous marriage within the novel is that of the protagonists, Helen and Arthur. Early within Helen’s narrative it is easy to ascertain that she is a strong minded and free thinking woman, a trait that would not have been favourable during the time in which The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written. During an early conversation between Helen and her Aunt, marriage becomes predominant when her Aunt questions “Do you ever think about marriage” to which Helen replies “Sometimes” consequently distinguishing her unconventional nature. Once Helen marries Arthur, against her Aunt’s better judgement, there is a definite change within Arthur. Whilst married, Helen’s view on Arthur is unfurled and his true character is discovered. Helen soon learns that he is a narcissistic, alcoholic womaniser. Bronte uses the marriage, it would seem, to punish Helen for rushing into marriage and not heeding her Aunt’s prior warnings. Arthur battles with his addictions and throughout the marriage reprimands Helen for not concerning herself wholly with the domestic sphere and indulging his very need. Helen realises that she will be unable to live her life and protect her son if she remains with Arthur and thus leaves him and begins working as an artist to earn money in her own right. In essence, Helen becomes a widower, removing all ties with her husband and disappears into hiding. Bronte dexterously removes Arthur from the narrative when he dies in chapter forty nine, a twist that could be construed as retribution for Arthur’s promiscuous and unwholesome life.

In complete contrast, Bronte uses another marriage within Helen’s narrative to illustrate the seemingly true representation of the Georgian/Victorian marriage. This unity is between Millicent Hargrave and Ralph Hattersley. Millicent, from a very early stage, is perceived as a weak woman, who attempts the please everyone. Mrs Hargrave, Millicent’s mother, is a very strong widower who urges her daughters to marry prosperously in order to eradicate the need to support them and consequently does not care for love when concerning marriage, only that the groom be affluent. Hattersley has a somewhat violent aspect and uses this both with his wife and with his peers. Hattersley, like Huntingdon, is usually violent after drinking and on one specific occasion not only embarrasses Millicent but also abuses her. In chapter thirty one, Hattersley is riled and “attempted to extort the confession by shaking her and remorselessly crushing her slight arms in the gripe of his powerful fingers” (The Tenant, 218) thus highlighting Hattersley’s indignation towards his wife and peers. During this episode of violence, Millicent remains reluctant to reveal the source of her distress, an ostensibly admirable trait in a Victorian wife. Whilst the earlier parts of the marriage are turbulent, Helen intervenes due to her friendship to Millicent and takes it upon herself to talk to Hattersley. During chapter forty two, Helen is able to make Hattersley realise that a major part of the problem between Millicent and himself is Huntingdon. The result of this conversation is that Hattersley cuts all ties with Huntingdon and realises that he loves Millicent, whereby making this marriage the only original surviving marriage within the novel.


On the other hand, Bronte uses a third marriage to accentuate the converse side of marriage. This is the marriage of Lord and Mrs Lowborough, an unconventional marriage that illustrates infidelity, untruthfulness and a different representation of marriage completely. During chapter twenty seven, Huntingdon and Annabella Lowborough share an intimate moment and kiss, a precursor to the affair that increases throughout Helen’s narrative. Lord Lowborough himself is not aware that his wife is destroying their matrimonial vows and looks upon her disdain as her wanting him to become more like Huntingdon and Hattersley. Unbeknown to the naïve Lord Lowborough, both Huntingdon and Hattersley’s behaviour is altered around Annabella Lowborough. Helen observes in chapter twenty six that Annabella is seen to be “openly but not too glaringly coquetting with Mr Huntingdon” (The Tenant, 179) whereby illustrating her brazen behaviour when both Helen and Lord Lowborough are present. The relationship between Lord Lowborough and his wife is one, seemingly, of necessity of appearance rather than love. It is Rachel, Helen’s maid that warns her of Annabella and Arthur’s blossoming relationship and consequently Helen who tells Lord Lowborough of his wife’s infidelity. In chapter thirty eight Lord Lowborough discovers his wife’s affair and attempts suicide but cannot go through with it. Lowborough leaves Annabella and she is left with nothing, as soon after Huntingdon grows tiresome of her. Bronte uses this relationship to demonstrate the woes of infidelity.

Throughout the novel, Bronte uses different representations of marriage in order to illustrate the differences between marriages at the time. Due to the time in which The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written, Bronte uses the aspects of the Georgian era and the former part of the Victorian era in which she lived. During the tumultuous time in which the novel was written, Bronte was witness to major changes in Britain. Firstly, there was the uncertainty of religion, the rising of scientific knowledge and the beginnings of the industrial revolution. All three major changes transformed the United Kingdom into an international powerhouse. Not only did the country change throughout this time, but marriages were changing. Bronte acknowledges changes within marriage and illustrates the darker aspects of marriage. A contributing factor that must be considered is that Bronte’s own mother died when she was young, so she was unable to witness the happiness matrimony could have brought her own parents. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a clear documentation of the pitfalls of men; consequently the novel was written and published under the pseudonym of Acton Bell. This was a common trait within female written Victorian Literature, Mary Shelley also published under a different name in order for her work to be accepted. Bronte highlights the change between male attitudes between the two eras; King George IV was renowned for his ill treatment towards women and also his wives, which could be seen as a reflection on the male characters in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

To Conclude

Throughout The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, there are many differing representations of marriage. As a reader, we are able to see transformations throughout the novel. Only one of the marriages that we are introduced to in Helen’s narrative survives due to the will to change. The novel itself was controversial due to Helen Huntingdon working to earn her own money, something that was unacceptable during the time, this is also a reflection on Anne Bronte who was increasingly self sufficient before her death. Certainly Bronte’s treatment of marriage is quite vulgar and shows a large degree of disdain for marriage itself. Due to Bronte’s young age whilst writing the novel, her view on life and marriage itself was quite naïve something which the novel was criticised for. Finally, due to the way in which Bronte treats marriage we, as a reader, are able to ascertain that Bronte herself was not concerned with marriage owing to her almost absolute abhorrence of the joining of two people in matrimony.


Anne Brone, Family, Marriage, Relationships, Victorian

Meet the author

author avatar cwilko2011
English Post-grad guy who loves to read.

Share this page

moderator johnnydod moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar Denise O
9th Jul 2011 (#)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, sounds like a very interesting read. This is a very informative piece of Anne Bronto's novel. Thank you for sharing.:)

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?