Quick Thoughts on Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Much of the action of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall plays out through a dynamic of distance and intimacy enacted in the relations and tensions between virtually all the characters in the novel and encapsulated within the epistolary gesture of one man (Gilbert) towards intimacy with another (Halford), despite the distance (both geographic and metaphoric) which has come between them. This gesture toward reconciliation, though, would be impossible without the story of Helen Huntingdon, the mysterious tenant of Wildfell Hall, who, cutting off intimate connections with anyone beyond her son and faithful servant (and a budding intimate relation with her brother), seeks safety in distance and isolation. Yet her self-exile to Yorkshire is merely the geographic concretization of a process which she begins far earlier in the novel—a process of self-isolation whose primary mode is not geographic, but linguistic: silence. Helen’s preference for silence is hinted at in comments she makes against “small-talk” (66), in her aversion to social gatherings, and her request that Gilbert remain quiet as he watches her paint, however it is through her relationship with Milicent Hargrave that Helen’s problematic relation to silence is most thoroughly explored and its shortcomings exposed—and it is her failings with Milicent that sow the seeds of her renewed faith in speech, intimacy, and confidence. ¹
Helen’s self-isolation begins with the realization that her marriage will not be what she had imagined. Rather than admitting her error to her aunt or to Milicent (both of whom had warned against Huntingdon), for the sake of her own pride, Helen opts to maintain a sham of happiness, keeping her thoughts silent and confiding them only to her diary. Were this the extent of the implications of her silence, it might be viewable as a sort of silent martyrdom; however her silence and severance of intimate personal connections proves to be a selfish indulgence, harming those around her. In not confiding the misery of her marriage to Milicent, Helen allows (and encourages) Milicent to believe that her marriage is a happy one, providing her friend with the idea that marriages to seemingly unsavory characters can turn out happily and leading her to give up any resistance to her mother’s wish for her to marry Hattersley.
Indeed, when Milicent’s mother picks Mr Hattersley for her as a suitable mate, Milicent takes comfort in the image of domestic bliss Helen has carefully crafted: “I think [Hattersley] is quite as good as Mr Huntingdon, if not better; and yet, you love him, and seem to be quite happy and contented; and perhaps I may manage as well” (174). Here, Milicent even gives Helen an opportunity to correct her interpretation in her use of the word “seem,” but Helen chooses to remain silent to her friend. In her diary, Helen laments both her own position and Milicent’s asking “poor Milicent, what encouragement can I give you?—or what advice?” before immediately answering her own question, saying “except that it is better to make a bold stand now, though at the expense if disappointing and angering both mother and brother, and lover,than to devote your whole life, thereafter, to misery and vain regret?” (175). It is not ignorance or a false belief in Milicent’s power to stand against her mother that is Helen’s fault, but simply the decision to remain silent when she knows exactly what to say, selfishly indulging her own pride and fears to the detriment of her friend, whom she leaves to her vain hopes for fear of admitting her own misery and regret.
This decision in favor of silence sends Helen further and further into the isolation of her diary as she retreats more and more from the human intimacy of speech and confidence. Even when Helen eventually attempts to help her friend and repair the damage which she herself had a hand in creating, she does not do so by a renewal of her connection with Milicent, nor by an attempt to correct her error, but by trying to correct Milicent herself. When one night Hattersley is in a particularly violent mood, demanding that is wife tell him the reason for her tears, Helen steps in and exclaims “I’ll tell you, Mr Hattersley” (219), correcting her friend’s silence by inhabiting her voice and speaking not simply what she believes Hattersley should hear, but what she believes Milicent should say. This speech act, though, is not the solution to her silence for it is not in her own voice that she speaks (nor is to Milicent), but rather as Milicent. Though she is simply trying to help her friend, the manner in which she goes about it betrays that Helen finds fault with Milicent’s silence. Helen is frustrated to see Milicent suffer in silence—a far more altruistic silence than Helen’s own—and rather than trying to aid her friend by offering her intimacy, she seeks to correct her behavior in speaking to her husband as she believes Milicent ought. When, a year later, the situation has not improved, Helen steps in again, now not simply providing the words she thinks Milicent should say, but violating her privacy in revealing to her husband private letters—usurping Milicent’s actual voice for a purpose Milicent never intended and would not want. In both these moments, it is striking that though the end-goal of Helen’s intervention is the reformation of Hattersley’s character and the amelioration of her friend’s marriage, her mode of achieving it takes the immediate form of correcting Milicent’s behavior, not her husband’s. When finally the Hattersleys have achieved something approaching domestic bliss and Milicent thanks Helen for the hand she had in helping them, Helen chastises Milicent, saying that she “had only done what [Milicent] might—and ought to—have done herself” (297).
And yet, though her intimacy with Milicent is never—as far as the novel tells us—fully repaired, through Helen’s relation with Milicent’s younger sister Esther, we see her burgeoning awareness of her earlier fault as she offers Esther the advice she had, so many years earlier, denied Milicent and left to gather dust in her diary. Thus, within the relation between Helen and Milicent, Brontë provides a microcosmic version of the larger movement in the novel from speech to silence and back into speech, from intimacy to isolation to the budding renewal of human bonds—most obviously represented in Helen’s geographical displacement(s).²
The discussion of silence could also be connected to the larger issue of the role of gossip in the novel. Brontë’s handling of Helen’s trajectory from silence back to intimacy and connection, exposing the flaws in Helen’s dedication to silence, throws into question her condemnation of gossip. There are places in the novel where, had Helen been open to gossip, her lot might have been improved—the talk flying about regarding her husband’s behavior, for one. And we must remember that it is gossip which brings Helen and Gilbert—for good or ill—together in the end. Does Brontë see some sort of redemptive function for gossip, despite Lawrence’s condemnation of Gilbert’s malicious indulgence in it and Helen’s frequent dismissals of “small talk”? Is gossip perhaps preferable, at least, to the isolation of silence Helen engages in—particularly with regard to situations like those of Lord Lowborough and Milicent, where Helen’s silence is a selfish indulgence?
Helen’s realization of her mistake with Milicent is not the only catalyst of her movement away from silence; her encounter with Lord Lowborough, the influence of her brother, and even Gilbert’s clumsy attempts at connection also coax her back into the world, demonstrating to her the error and hypocrisy of her retreat into silence.