Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Brontë
Published: 2015 (originally 1848)
Of all three Brontë sisters, Anne is probably the least known. Her sisters’ best known works, Jane Eyre by Charlotte and Wuthering Heights by Emily, are firmly embedded in our literary heritage and as for being well-known, Anne’s own magnum opus is surpassed by her sisters’ publications. However, both Anne’s first novel Agnes Grey and her second The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are considered excellent works of fiction. It is theorised that Anne’s relative obscurity is partly the consequence of Charlotte’s efforts to prevent a republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death. Whatever the cause, it was high time that I discovered the youngest Brontë sister!
In all fairness, I have to admit that although I have read Jane Eyre, I’ve started, but never finished Wuthering Heights. Charlotte’s masterpiece is still one of my all time favourites, but Emily’s classic and gothic romance was just not for me. Or perhaps just the wrong book at the wrong time. Moreover, even though I loved Jane Eyre and read it multiple times, I haven’t had the urge to pick up Villette, Shirley or The Professor. Maybe it has something to do with the gothic and gloomy atmosphere with which all the Brontë sisters’ books are pervaded, I don’t know, but I wasn’t entirely certain The Tenant of Wildfell Hall would be something for me.
I couldn’t be more mistaken. I almost instantly loved the book. It is in part an epistolary novel and although that initially made me hesitant, it eventually proved to be very refreshing. It makes the story more direct and the main character’s hardships all the more poignant. The gothic atmosphere, so very much felt in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and so excellently mocked in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, is somewhat less present in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The gloomy big house isn’t haunted by ghost stories or a mad first wife and although the reader feels that there is a mystery to be unravelled, the novel is nowhere near as thrilling as the above-mentioned stories.
In short, the novel follows both Gilbert Markham, a young farmer and Helen Graham, a mysterious young widow. In the first part of the novel we follow Gilbert from the day Helen moves to his town. He initially dislikes her for various reasons, but he eventually becomes intrigued by her and tries to unravel her mystery. Gradually, Gilbert falls in love with Helen. As a result of Gilbert’s declaration of his love for her, and Helen’s refusal of his marriage proposal, she gives him her diary. The second part of the novel is this diary and together with Gilbert we finally read of Helen’s horrible past.
… let me entreat you not only to pardon me, but to enable me to make reparation; authorise me to clear your name from every imputation: give me the right to identify your honour with my own, and to defend your reputation as more precious than my life!
I think its greatest merit lies in the fact that the majority of the novel relates the story of a deteriorating marriage and that it does so in a very honest way. That is an art in itself, but considering the fact it was published during a time when divorce wasn’t customary and even publicly denounced, it is more than that. It is a protest against the fact that women had so little or even no right in marriage and I can well imagine the book’s impact upon publication. Anne Brontë did not eschew describing Helen’s hardships and her husband’s cruel character in every little detail and for that I think she deserves to be more widely read than she is now.
In the end I didn’t give the novel five stars because it didn’t stay with me as much as Jane Eyre did. I don’t know why, because I think that the stories are both equally well crafted and a powerful literary charge against the scandalous and inferior position of women in a society ruled by men. Anyway, I would like to read Anne’s other novel, Agnes Grey, very soon and also Charlotte’s Villette because The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has stirred up my love for gloomy classics!