Anne Brontë’s second novel was a both a sensation and a scandal when published (under the pseudonym Acton Bell) in 1848.
Not for its unflinching portrayal of a woman trapped in an abusive marriage to alcoholic, mind you, but for her character’s decision to leave her husband and forge an independent life – a choice that defied convention and English Law at that time.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall proved no less problematic in the Brontë family itself. Anne’s elder sister Charlotte sought to kill off the book in the wake of Anne’s death. Wildfell Hall “hardly appears to me desirable to preserve,” she wrote in 1850. “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.”
Today, the novel is regarded as the most piercing depiction of a woman’s life to emerge from mid-19th century England. Writing in 1913, author and Suffragette May Sinclair said that “the slamming of [Helen’s] bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.”
Brontë’s Helen Graham is England’s Nora Helmer.
Distilled for the stage by Emme Hoy (no easy feat given the book’s complicated narrative architecture), Wildfell Hall begins with Helen (an exceptionally good Tuuli Narkle) taking over the lease of a long-empty house. With her son Arthur, she lives a reclusive life, but tongues will wag in a small town and Helen quickly excites the curiosity and gossip of her new neighbours.
Gentleman farmer Gilbert Markham (Remy Hii) is excited too, but Helen rebuffs his advances in what at first seems like an excess of propriety. For the first half of the play, we are immersed in a bucolic, warmly satirical world reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel.
It’s after interval that we come to understand Helen’s reticence and grasp the realities of life for women who were regarded under law as the property of their husbands. In a series of abruptly dark and chilling scenes, we observe Helen’s marriage to Arthur Huntingdon (Ben O’Toole), a hard-drinking adulterer whose controlling behaviours create a dangerous vortex likely to consume both wife and child.
Directed by Jessica Arthur, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’s early charms are quite quickly exhausted, despite some choice comic turns, deft characterisations and episodes of direct address to the audience. The dramatic shift from exterior to interior (with Elizabeth Gadsby’s skeletal set dominated by a looming chimney breast) and a sharp ramping up of the stakes in Act II proves gripping, however.
Narkle impresses mightily from here on, battling against O’Toole’s convincing portrayal of a man in a spiral of self-destruction. The timelessness of the story becomes unsettlingly evident as we observe Helen struggle for the right to mother her child, to access her finances, to devise an exit strategy.
Hii is an entirely charming Markham. Anthony Taufa makes a strong contribution in the dual roles of Helen’s incognito brother and as the cuckolded Lord Lowborough. Tara Morice is imperious as Markham’s mother, watchful as Helen’s servant-companion Rachel. Steve Rodgers bumbles expertly as the Reverend and creates a tense little scene with Narkle when playing Walter Hargrave, whose caring overtures dissolve into clumsy romantic ones.
Nikita Waldron brings some mischievous sparkle to the stage as the flighty Eliza Millward and Annabella Willmont, lover of Helen’s husband. As well as playing the good-hearted Mary Millward, Eliza Scott supplies evocative music in the form of live-looped vocals. Danielle Catanzariti flits about the stage as Helen’s son – a portrayal that feels tonally out of place here and better suited to an adaptation of a Dickens novel.
The play’s first half will ripen, no doubt. I’m less convinced that the show’s rom-com-toned ending will ever feel quite right, written as it is with an anachronistic joke about Markham’s inability to grasp a metaphor. Had Helen whipped out a mobile phone, it would be no less jarring.