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.