All’s fair in love and war, and in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of the weapons is literature. After Helen Lawrence marries for what she thinks is love, she learns, to her chagrin, that her husband, Arthur Huntingdon, has bad habits—drinking, gambling, and womanizing—and finds life insufferably dull without them. Will he desert her for the big bad city of London, or will he learn to be contented with a quiet life at home? Briefly he tries to amuse himself by telling stories of his old love affairs, but Helen reproves and silences him. Their domesticity would be bliss if only he could content himself with her sort of fun: the reading of nice books.
He’s unable to. “He never reads anything but newspapers and sporting magazines,” Helen reports. “When he sees me occupied with a book, he won’t let me rest till I close it.”
But because this is a Brontë novel, and not a Sunday school treatise, books aren’t entirely benign. During the couple’s first quarrel—in recollecting a married woman who once romanced him, Arthur is insufficiently moralistic, and Helen becomes upset—Helen gives him the silent treatment, and literature becomes a tool that enhances her power not to pay attention to him.
This is a neat reversal of the conventional slur on novels in the period, which was that they vitiated women’s minds by filling them with fantasies and distracting them from duty. Arthur is revealed to be weak precisely because he can’t or won’t read novels. “From dinner till bed time, I read,” Helen reports, of the progress of their combat. “Meanwhile, poor Arthur was sadly at a loss for something to amuse him or to occupy his time.” Because it’s rainy, he can’t take his horse out for a ride, and he is reduced to fidgeting indoors—”watching the clouds, cursing the rain, alternately petting, and teazing, and abusing his dogs, sometimes lounging on the sofa with a book that he could not force himself to read, and very often fixedly gazing at me, when he thought I did not perceive it.” Helen, on the other hand, “managed to preserve an undisturbed, though grave serenity throughout the day.” #Winning.
After dinner, Arthur drinks “an unusual quantity of wine,” and the weaponizing of books becomes explicit:
I returned to my reading; and he endeavoured to occupy himself in the same manner; but, in a little while, after several portentous yawns, he pronounced his book to be “cursed trash,” and threw it on to the table. Then followed eight or ten minutes of silence, during the greater part of which, I believe, he was staring at me. At last his patience was tired out.
“What is that book, Helen?” he exclaimed. I told him.
“Is it interesting?”
At this point Helen discovers that literature offers a further tactical advantage over one’s spouse:
I went on reading—or pretending to read, at least—I cannot say there was much communciation between my eyes and my brain; for, while the former ran over the pages, the latter was earnestly wondering when Arthur would speak next, and what he would say, and what I should answer.
Even when you’re losing, a book can make you look like you still have the upper hand.