Our book today is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte's taut little 1848 masterpiece, and it completes yet another organic trilogy of a type I've noticed crops up on Stevereads with fair regularity. This one was a Bronte-trilogy, centering on that weird, unprecedentedly brilliant family of siblings living out in the middle of nowhere, competently but rustically educated and yet producing a stunning complement of toweringly great works of English prose.
The Brontes have always held a fascination for me, and not only because their novels are uniformly marked with a moor-and-storm-touched bleakness I very much like in novels (the Brontes, a good Irish family, came by this good Irish trait honestly) - no, they also fascinate because the specter of 'what if' hovers around them more closely than it does almost any other figures in Western literature. And the 'what if' here is wrenchingly simple: what if they'd all lived? What if premature death hadn't killed every single one of them? What works unguessed by all of us might we now have, shattering our comforts far more effectively even than the half-dozen books that are all we'll ever have from this family?
We'll never know the answer to that, but it could be worse: the sisters could have taken to drink and drugs like their brother, in which case fragments are all we'd have. As it is, we have Villette, Wuthering Heights, Shirley, Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, The Professor ... and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
We've already touched on the events that gave rise to this book - the five-year stint Anne did as governess for the Robinson family at Thorp Green, including the much shorter time poor tortured Branwell spent there as tutor to the Robinson boy. Anne's experiences at Thorp Green informed both her novels, although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a more ragged, more artificially staged, and altogether more powerful work than Agnes Grey. Both are titanically scathing of polite society and the various savageries lurking beneath its veneer, but Tenant is by far the more savage work in itself. Here is the story of earnest, moralizing Helen, who is fatally infatuated with the licentious rake Mr. Huntington (and equally infatuated, one sees early on, with the possibility of reforming him), even though all their earliest meetings give the reader a decidedly ominous feeling about him. He's brutal, opportunistic, and psychologically paring even before he's physically so. In one dinner party scene, Helen is showing guests some of her drawings when Mr. Huntington gives her an unpleasant shock:
So far, so good; - but hearing him pronounce sotto voce, but with peculiar emphasis concerning one of the pieces, 'THIS is better than all!' - I looked up, curious to see which it was, and, to my horror, beheld him gazing complacently at the back of the picture - it was his own face that I had sketched there and forgotten to rub out! To make matters worse, in the agony of the moment, I attempted to snatch it from his hand; - but he prevented me, and exclaiming 'No, by George, I'll keep it!' placed it against his waistcoat, and buttoned his coat upon it with a delighted chuckle.
Helen eventually marries Huntington, and they descend by quick passages to all-out domestic warfare ... a cause into which Huntington enlists their child as soon as the boy is old enough to walk and talk on his own. It's a squalid, darkly horrible portrait of a relationship that's in every way poisonous, yet despite how awful it is to read about, the reading itself is so compelling that you can't stop. The most amazing thing about it all is that Anne never flinches, she never tenders things up or draws curtains over anything; "she must be honest," Charlotte once wrote about her, and it's nowhere more true than in this book.
But Anne was also young, and so it's no surprise that a much better love is always waiting in the wings - in the form of doe-eyed young simp Gilbert Markham, who's in love with Helen through everything. At one point late in the novel, they have a dialogue I find more mind-bendingly weird and touching than almost any I know from the literature of the period; it's about the permanence of love in the face of its greatest obstacle - eternal bliss! Here's a representative snippet:
'And must we never meet again?' I murmured in the anguish of my soul.
'We shall meet in Heaven. Let us think of that,' said she in a tone of desperate calmness; but her eyes glittered wildly, and her face was deadly pale.
'But not as we are now,' I could not help replying. 'It gives me little consolation to think I shall next behold you as a disembodied spirit, or an altered being, with a frame perfect and glorious, but not like this! - and a heart, perhaps, entirely estranged from me.'
'No, Gilbert, there is perfect love in Heaven!'
'So perfect, I suppose, that it soars above distinctions, and you will have no closer sympathy with me than with any one of the ten thousand angels and the innumerable multitude of happy spirits round us.'
'Whatever I am, you will be the same, and therefore, cannot possibly regret it; and whatever that change may be, we know it must be for the better.'
'But if I am to be so changed that I shall cease to adore you with my whole heart and soul, and love you beyond every other creature, I shall not be myself; and, though, if ever I win Heaven at all, I must, I know, be infinitely better and happier than I am now, my earthly nature cannot rejoice in the anticipation of such beatitude, from which itself and its chief joy must be excluded.'
'Is your love all earthly then?'
'No, but I am supposing we shall have no more intimate communion with each other, than with the rest.'
'If so, it will be because we love them more and not each other less. Increase of love brings increase of happiness, when it is mutual, and pure as that will be.'
'But can you, Helen, contemplate with delight that prospect of losing me in a sea of glory?'
If Western literature provides a more bitterly accurate picture of the tragic mental and emotional distortions organized religion (to say nothing of fantasies about an eternal afterlife) can produce in the human brain, I can't readily recall it. And all of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is like this: weirdly intelligent, oddly refracted, a rudely staring raw chunk of observational genius, served up by a young woman not yet thirty. What such a young woman might have written at 50, what her brother might have written, what any of them might have written - the literature's loss of that - quiets the imagination for a time.