Forgiving Again and Again: Christian Universalism in Anne Brontë’s Masterpiece

Anne Brontë, perhaps the least well-known of the three literary Brontë sisters, only published two novels in her short lifetime—she died not long after her 29th birthday—but both of her books were powerful stories of women struggling against difficult circumstances while holding fast to a belief in a benevolent and wise Creator. Anne’s second book, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” is particularly effective in the way it portrays a woman struggling in her marriage with a selfish, fickle, unfaithful, gambling-obsessed, boozehound of a husband. It is also a novel with a strong presentation of Christian universalist principles.

Helen, the principal character of the story—after years of acting graciously and trying to patiently curb the proclivities of her husband, Arthur Huntingdon—finally escapes with their young son. Arthur had been giving the boy alcohol, encouraging him to swear and disregard his mother—among other things that made him a clearly unfit father. The mother and son pair escape to a remote town to live under pseudonyms in Wildfell Hall (hence the book’s title), where Helen meets a man named Gilbert and eventually falls in love. However, since she is still legally married to her playboy husband (who wouldn’t grant her a divorce), she feels she cannot pursue a romantic relationship with Gilbert.

Eventually Arthur becomes deathly ill, effectively drinking himself to the brink of death, and Helen returns to her husband to care for his health. While looking after him, Arthur repeatedly expresses his fear of what awaits him beyond the grave. Helen encourages him to repent but does not base her exhortations on a foundation of everlasting torment as a possibility for sinners. She says to her ailing husband that he should repent not simply out of a fear of personal consequences but out of a conviction that he has gone against the God who made him, loves him, and cares for him. She states, “God is Infinite Wisdom, and Power, and Goodness—and LOVE; but if this idea is too vast for your human faculties—if your mind loses itself in its overwhelming infinitude, fix it on Him who condescended to take our nature upon Him, who was raised to heaven even in His glorified human body, in whom the fulness of the Godhead shines.”

However, despite weeks of effort on Helen’s part, Arthur dies—suffering physical pain and dreadfully fearing what lies ahead. Helen writes in a letter to her brother:

“None can imagine the miseries, bodily and mental, of that death-bed! How could I endure to think that that poor trembling soul was hurried away to everlasting torment? it would drive me mad. But, thank God, I have hope—not only from a vague dependence on the possibility that penitence and pardon might have reached him at the last, but from the blessed confidence that, through whatever purging fires the erring spirit may be doomed to pass—whatever fate awaits it—still it is not lost, and God, who hateth nothing that He hath made, will bless it in the end!”

Helen, the long-suffering wife, had tried to influence her husband for good in so many different ways and at so many different times. Sadly, she did not see consistent positive results following from her efforts before he died—as is often true in the real world and can lead many to doubt the transformative power of grace and love—but she still trusted in the ever-patient God who would not abandon Arthur beyond the grave. She held fast to the God, revealed in Jesus, who would “have all men to be saved.” The character of Helen believed this because Anne Brontë believed this.

Novelist P.D. James said that “all fiction is largely autobiographical” and that is certainly the case in “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Although Anne Brontë was never married, neither happily—as her characters Helen and Gilbert are by the conclusion of the novel—nor tumultuously—as Helen originally was to a debaucherous and self-absorbed gambler—there are some clear similarities between Anne’s life and the fictional story she created. Her brother Branwell displayed a number of characteristics reminiscent of Arthur Huntingdon. Branwell had had a lengthy affair with a married woman, had abused alcohol and opiates, was often in serious debt, and died at the age of 31—just a few months after the publication of his youngest sister’s second novel. While Anne was almost certainly saddened by much in the life of her brother (she did seem to be, after all, the most pious of the Brontë siblings), she undoubtedly had a deep hope that she would see him again in paradise.

As the character of Helen says in reference to her belief in universal salvation: “It is a glorious thought to cherish in one’s own heart, and I would not part with it for all the world can give!”

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