The BBC’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Katie Farr, Lancaster University

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) addresses the issue of women’s freedom more directly than any of her more-famous sisters’ novels, making it worthy of being adapted, studied and remembered. May Sinclair said that “the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England” (Gérin, 7). However, in 1848 the book was criticised for its structure and its subject matter, with its unflinching depiction of alcoholism, and a heroine who criticises the marriage laws of the time. Even Charlotte Brontë said that “the choice of subject was an entire mistake” (Brontë, lxi). This criticism has resulted in a huge gap in popularity between Anne’s major work and those of her sisters. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre enjoyed both critical acclaim and popular success and has remained popular ever since, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights became increasingly admired by critics from the late nineteenth century and experienced a meteoric rise in sales sparked by the 1939 film version. But Anne’s work remains underappreciated despite the appeal of its feminist message to a modern audience.

The difference is clear when comparing how often the sisters’ works have been adapted. The 1996 Mike Barker BBC television adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of very few adaptations made of Anne Brontë’s fiction, compared to the countless adaptations inspired by her sisters’ novels, Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847). The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lists thirteen film and eleven television titles of Wuthering Heights, and twelve film and thirteen television adaptations of Jane Eyre, and many more shorts and works inspired by the texts, including adaptations under different titles. In contrast, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has just two listings, a television series from 1968 being its only other adaptation. 

Barker’s adaptation deals well with the criticism of the structure of Brontë’s novel, which is told through Gilbert’s letters and Helen’s diary. The critic George Moore complains, “the diary broke the story in halves” (Gérin, 14). The adaptation maintains the use of Gilbert’s perspective for the first episode, without resorting to the book’s contrived framing device of Gilbert’s letters to his brother-in-law. The second episode is from Helen’s perspective, with the use of flashbacks in the first episode creating a seamless transition to the extended sequence of Helen’s history, giving the audience previews of Helen’s past before it is fully revealed.

These flashbacks are one of several methods used to represent the psychological realism of the novel. They occur at times of stress for Helen, such as when Gilbert rescues Arthur from a tree, which triggers the flashback of the child Arthur surrounded by drunk, leering faces. The flashbacks are partial and symbolic: a wine glass dropped by an unseen hand, a dead bird held aloft. They are accompanied by music which interrupts the silent background of the surrounding scenes. Richard G. Mitchell’s score conveys character emotion rather than establishing the historical period of the narrative. Haunting women’s voices link Helen’s story to the sadness and struggle of oppressed women, reminding the audience that she represents generations of women subjected to the same laws and social expectations. These audio-visual methods represent Helen’s past trauma and internal emotions, which are directly narrated in the book.

The settings also carry symbolic resonances. Wildfell Hall is old and filled with dust, but as Helen rips a curtain from the window, she laughs, “At least the light is good”. Although it is a decrepit place compared to the grand setting of Grassdale Manor (shown in the second episode), Wildfell Hall is filled with natural light, while Grassdale Manor, from which she fled her abusive marriage, is mostly shown dimly lit with candles. Whilst the light in itself conveys happiness and escape from the darkness of her marriage, it also has a material purpose in giving Helen a space in which she can paint, allowing her financial independence. We see her walking and painting in the moors, which Carmen Pérez Ríu describes as the “characteristically Brontëan space for women’s self-disclosure and freedom” (56).

The adaptation’s use of flashbacks and the perspectives of both Gilbert and Helen creates a compelling drama whilst maintaining Anne’s realist style. Anne shares the use of gothic mansions and the wild moors as settings with her sisters, but there are no ghostly apparitions like in Wuthering Heights or voices calling mystically from afar as in Jane Eyre. Anne says, “the truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it” (29). In this way, the realism of the novel is designed to faithfully show the abuse and hardship faced by Victorian women, and appeal for their freedom.

Questions for Discussion:

In the novel, Helen’s story is related through her diary entries written at the time, whereas in the television adaptation, she is writing from memory years later. How does this change the way her story is presented? Take a look at the scenes where she discovers Arthur’s affair (Episode 2, 00:42:32-00:48:30), and compare them to the same events in Chapter 33 of the novel.

In 1848 writing about sex was strictly taboo, whereas sex scenes were commonplace on TV and in novels by the 1990s. The physical relationship between Arthur and Helen is made explicit in this adaptation, including both romantic scenes such as Arthur kissing Helen’s baby bump, and scenes of attempted rape. Is this imposing a contemporary perspective on a Victorian text, or more accurately portraying what Victorian life was like for women?

Some of the humour from the novel, such as Gilbert’s relationship with his brother Fergus (see Chapter 13), has been left out of the adaptation. What is the effect of the humour in the novel? Why might the writers have decided not to include it in the adaptation?

Helen says it is “better far that he [her son Arthur] should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence with such a father” (357). What do Helen’s disastrous first marriage to a wealthy man with a country seat, and her presumably happy second one to a yeoman farmer, indicate about class status? How might Victorian ideas of class inform contemporary discussions?

Further reading:

Birden, Lorene M. “Frank and Unconscious Humor and Narrative Structure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp.263-286.

Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, edited by G.D Hargreaves, Penguin Classics, 1988.

Brontë, Charlotte. “Biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë, edited by Angeline Goreau, Penguin Classics, 1988, pp.lvii-lxiv.

Gérin, Winifred. “Introduction.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë, edited by G.D Hargreaves, Penguin Classics, 1988, pp.7-18.

Han, Catherine Paula. “The Myth of Anne Brontë.” Brontë Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 2017, pp. 48–59.

Holland, Nick. In Search of Anne Brontë, The History Press, 2016.

James, Caryn. “Critic’s Notebook; As Cameras Whir, The BrontëNovels Come Into Focus.” The New York Times, 24 October 1997.

Pérez Ríu, Carmen. “‘Don’t Forget This Is How I Earn My Living’: Internal Focalization, Subjectivity and the Victorian Woman Artist in the Adaptation of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (BBC Miniseries, 1996).” Brontë Studies, Vol. 40, No.1, 2015, pp. 44-58.

Shaw, Marion. “Anne Brontë: A Quiet Feminist.” Brontë Studies, vol. 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 330–338.

Thormählen, Marianne. “Standing Alone: Anne Brontë out of the Shadow.” Brontë Studies, vol. 39, no. 4, 2014, pp. 330–340.

Title Matching ‘Jane Eyre’, Feature Film/TV Movie/TV Series/TV Special/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, IMDb.com. Accessed 05 August 2019

Title Matching ‘the Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, Feature Film/TV Series/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, IMDb.com. Accessed 05 August 2019.

Title Matching ‘Wuthering Heights’, Feature Film/TV Movie/TV Series/TV Special/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, IMDb.com. Accessed 05 August 2019.

April Lindner’s YA Bronte Novels

by Sara K. Day, Southern Arkansas University

Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontё’s Wuthering Heights, both originally published in 1847, offer readers strong-willed heroines, moody romantic heroes, and memorable settings. They Jane coverhave also become touchstones of the Victorian era for many readers, due at least in part to their frequent appearances on high school and college reading lists. April Lindner’s two recent young adult novels Jane (2010) and Catherine (2013) capitalize on the existing link between the Brontё sisters’ novels and adolescent readers by retelling these works set in modern-day America.

Jane opens on the struggles of college student Jane Moore as she struggles to regain her footing after the sudden death of her financially secure but emotionally bankrupt parents. Already distanced from her two older siblings—who stand in for the cruel cousins of Brontё’s tale—she must leave school and secure employment. She quickly finds herself employed as a governess by Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star. Though Jane considers herself plain and unlovable, Nico engages her in a whirlwind romance that soon culminates in a proposal, a series of tragic revelations, and an eventual happy ending.

Like Jane, Lindner’s Catherine puts a rock and roll spin on its Victorian source material: in this case, the title character grows up not in Wuthering Heights but in an apartment above The Underground, the famous rock club her father owns. Decades later, her teen daughter Chelsea travels to The Underground to search for her long-missing mother and finds Hence, a one-time rock star who had also been Catherine’s first and enduring love. In a narrative that pairs Chelsea’s modern-day story with diary entries from her mother’s adolescence, Lindner slowly unravels the mystery of Catherine’s disappearance.

Because many adolescent readers will encounter the original Brontё novels (either as class assignments or through other cultural references, such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga), Lindner’s works can act as accessible ways to engage with some of the major themes and conflicts of the source material. Notably, though, some of the most important discussions that might emerge from comparisons of these novels to the Brontёs’ texts should involve the portrayal of gender roles and attitudes towards romance, passion, and marriage, since Lindner’s modern adaptations might in many ways be understood as more “conventional” than their Victorian roots. These texts may also be a useful starting point for the differences between adaptation and fanfiction, as some readers have raised questions and debates about how Lindner’s novels might blur those boundaries.

Questions for Discussion:

The English moors in which both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are set have become important elements of the ongoing critical conversations about both novels. How does relocating these tales to modern-day America affect other textual elements such as mood, atmosphere, and characterization? Can New York City, in particular, be understood as an analog to the English moors?

The Brontёs’ novels begin with extended descriptions of their main characters’ early lives, from Jane’s time in the home of her uncaring aunt and as a student at Lowood to Catherine and Heathcliff’s wild childhoods on the moors. In her retellings, Lindner offers only a very brief consideration of her protagonists’ experiences as children; indeed, Catherine and Hence do not even meet until late adolescence. Why would Lindner omit or abridge her protagonists’ childhoods, and what impact does this have on our understanding of Jane, Catherine, and their respective romantic partners?

The Brontё sisters—including Anne, whose Tenant of Wildfell Hall has not (yet) inspired a retelling by Lindner—have all been credited with expressing protofeminist ideas in their personal and fictional writings. How do these YA retellings engage with the potential feminism of the original Jane and Catherine?

Both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights feature famous Byronic heroes in the form of Rochester and Heathcliff. How is the figure of the Byronic hero portrayed in Lindner’s novels, and how does their status as YA literature shape these portrayals?

Further Readings:

Franklin, Caroline. The Female Romantics: Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists and Byronism. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Kapurch, Katie. “‘Unconditionally and Irrevocably’: Theorizing the Melodramatic Impulse in Young Adult Literature through the Twilight Saga and Jane Eyre.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37.2 (2012): 164-87. Print.

Rubik, Margarete, and Elke Mettinger-Schartmann. A Breath of Fresh Eyre: Intertextual and Intermedial Reworkings of Jane Eyre. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Print.

Stein, Atara. The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

Stoneman, Patsy. Brontё Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996. Print.