Domestic Relations and Domestic Abuse -- the clear-eyed vision of alcoholic dissipation of Anne Bronte's the Tennant of Wildfell Hall
According to the posthumous introduction to her final novel, The Tennant of Wildfell Hall the Victorian author Anne Bronte was often considered the 'nicest' and most conventionally of all of the three female Bronte sisters who lived on past childhood, to become published authors. However, Anne Bronte's novel The Tennant of Wildfell Hall may perhaps be the most ostentatiously feminist of all of the texts published by the various female Brontes, from Emily's Wuthering Heights, to Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Shirley, and even Villette.
Unlike Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Anne Bronte's final novel does not romanticize or excuse the brutality of her central male protagonist. Rather, Anne validates the central female character Helen Huntington's determination to escape Mr. Huntington's sway. Nor does Anne's novel ideologically excuse even romantic forms cruelty to wives, as does Charlotte Bronte's rather forgiving view of Mr. Rochester's imprisoning of the madwoman Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre.
Unlike her sister's gothic or romantic sensibilities, Anne wrote with a more realistic eye about the effects of domestic abuse and alcoholism. "I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it," writes Bronte in the preface to her novel. When the 'frame' narrator Gilbert Markham writes in Chapter 2 of the titular hall as "Wildfell Hall, a superannuated mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark gray stone, venerable and picturesque to look at, but doubtless, cold and gloomy enough to inhabit," it is not because it is ghost-ridden but, as Helen Huntingdon eventually reveals to over the course of the novel, the hall was gloomy because of her husband's dissipation and ill will towards all around him, even to those who loved him and attempted to make the Hall a home. This view flies in the face of the common notion that a woman's love and redemption was enough to save a man and create a hospitable home -- Anne Bronte insists that the goodness of both partners are necessary to do this, and that domesticity and restraint is not the female's responsibility to labor at alone.
The novel also creates, quite early on, a dichotomy between male and female compassion. "I believe it is natural for our unamiable sex to dislike the creatures,' replied I [Gilbert Markham, on the subject of cats]; 'for you ladies lavish so many caresses upon them.' 'Bless them - little darlings!' cried she [Helen], in a sudden burst of enthusiasm, turning round and overwhelming her sister's pet with a shower of kisses." Even the otherwise tractable male narrator has a dark, jealous side regarding weaker creatures, Anne suggests, that comes out at times and women must keep vigilant against. (Chapter 2) Compassion cannot be solely a female virtue, otherwise weaker creature will be preyed upon, such as her child, Helen's own self, as well as common animals.
Anne Bronte also questions common assumptions about male child rearing. Early on in the novel, Markham's mother tells Helen, called by her alias Mrs. Graham that she is overly cosseting of her young son. Mrs. Markham's comments suggest to Helen that female influence is injurious to male development and masculinity. "You are," she states, "spoiling the child. Even at his age, he ought not to be always tied to his mother's apron-string; he should learn to be ashamed of it."(Chapter 3) But Helen refutes this notion, angrily, noting that her influence has been the only positive parental example in the young boy's life.
The anti-alcoholism message of the novel ties the Helen's Christian belief in godliness and feminine temperance to abstention from socially accepted 'male' forms of release. Again, this goes against common wisdom, espoused, ironically, by the vicar who denies 'that when a child may be naturally prone to intemperance - by the fault of its parents or ancestors, for instance - some precautions are advisable?' (Now it was generally believed that Mr. Lawrence's father had shortened his days by intemperance.)" (Chapter 4) The vicar counsels against excesses in abstention, but Mr. Huntington's example shows the dangers of looking the other way. Even after Mr. Huntington is shown to be an alcoholic, one of her friends tells Helen, "You can't imagine what a jovial good fellow he is when he's not fairly drunk, only just primed…