The novel's focus is Helen, a woman who married Arthur Huntingdon, a handsome bad boy who swept her off her feet. Although she sensed his effusive passion for her was all on the surface, she hoped for the best. Arthur's shallow nature, innate cruelty, and self-centeredness creep into the new marriage but really shift into hyperdrive once a season of London debauchery and raging alcoholism kill his infatuation for his wife. The birth of a son only pisses him off more; it takes her attention away from him and besides, he can't possibly love the baby till it's old enough to show some love for him. It gets worse, not in the explosive gory way of a Stephen King novel, but in incremental stages from disappointment to despair and then desperation.
Charlotte Brontë wrote of Wildfell Hall, "it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer." The public was so openly derisive of the novel's plot that for its second printing, Anne wrote a lengthy defense of it as a forward. Yet Wildfell Hall was a runaway bestseller, sold out six weeks after its debut. Hmmm ...why was that?
Could it be that readers secretly felt Anne Brontë had spoken directly to them? Women had no legal rights as individuals. A bad marriage was for most an inescapable trap. Acknowledging this reality not only challenged the assumption that a woman's rightful and most exalted state was that of matrimony, it challenged British law. We have many options today, but once you reach a certain age, you've probably had the chance to feel dismay at realizing a man (or woman) you love is not worthy of it. You may have struggled to eke out some sanity and peace in a chaotic home ruled by your partner's unchecked addiction. You may have thought you could help your loved one become a better person over time. You may have singlehandedly tried to save the relationship by being perfect. You may have secretly started planning an exit strategy for yourself and your children. This was the situation around which Anne Brontë wove her plot. And she sure paid for it. After Anne's death in 1849, Charlotte Brontë refused to allow republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights catapulted Emily and Charlotte to literary immortality. Anne became a footnote.
Consider yourself vindicated, sister.