When Helen Huntingdon and Walter Hargrave sit down to play their infamous chess game in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Walter's sister Milicent expresses her desire to see which of the two players will "conquer." This choice of terms reminds the reader of the extent to which conversations between men and women in the novel are frequently couched in the language of military engagement. Earlier in the novel, Helen is forced to deal with the annoying attentions of Mr. Boarham, whose efforts to romance the heroine are characterized in terms of a siege:

Sullen silence was taken for rapt attention, and gave him greater room to talk; sharp answers were received as smart sallies of girlish vivacity, that only required an indulgent rebuke; and flat contradictions were but as oil to the flames, calling forth new strains of argument to support his dogmas, and bringing down upon me endless floods of reasoning to overwhelm me with conviction [152].

Mr. Boarham is not the only unwanted suitor from whom Helen seeks respite, for during a visit to Mr. Wilmot's, she finds herself the unfortunate object of her host's annoying affections:

so great was his confidence, either in his wealth or his remaining powers of attraction, and so firm his conviction of feminine weakness, that he thought himself warranted to return to the siege, which he did with renovated ardour, enkindled by the quantity of wine he had drunk. [162]

These episodes encourage us to consider how the rule systems under which Helen must negotiate her actions make it difficult for her to deal with the aggressive intentions of her suitors, including Huntingdon. It is not simply men like Boarham, Wilmot, and Hargrave who force Helen into "enemy territory," but the rules which govern how she must play with them. Helen is not only subject to social laws that privilege males--the one, for instance, which makes her flight from Huntingdon with little Arthur illegal — but to patriarchal notions that designate a woman's responsibility to be submissive and accommodating.


Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 1848. London: Penguin, 1985.

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last modified 17 March 2008