The Classics Club/1001 Books: Book Review – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Synopsis: Over a short period in the 1840s, the three Brontë sisters working in a remote English
parsonage produced some of the best-loved and most-enduring of all novels: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a book that created a scandal when it was published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell.

Compelling in its imaginative power and bold naturalism, the novel opens in the autumn of 1827, when a mysterious woman who calls herself Helen Graham seeks refuge at the desolate moorland mansion of Wildfell Hall. Brontë’s enigmatic heroine becomes the object of gossip and jealousy as neighbors learn she is escaping from an abusive marriage and living under an assumed name. A daring story that exposed the dark brutality of Victorian chauvinism, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was nevertheless attacked by some critics as a celebration of the same excesses it criticized.

“Every reader who has felt the power of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights comes, sooner or later, to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” observed Brontë scholar Margaret Lane. “Anne Brontë, with all the Brontë taste for violence and drama, and with her experience of the same rude scenes and savage Yorkshire tales that had fed the imaginations of her sisters, did not shrink. She used the material at hand, and shaped it with singular honesty and seriousness….Anne is a true Brontë.”

I believe most, if not all, of my friends think I’m a little kooky. (I know my family thinks I’m kooky, but they have no choice but to put up with my singular habits and interests.) It is a running joke on road trips with friends and family that I want to stop at every historical marker. I play it for laughs knowing that there is not a snowball’s chance in hell I will get the caravan to stop at the roadside marker one mile ahead, but there is also a kernel of hope that one day they will.  I know it is my love of history (1) that keeps me reaching for the classics as my reading material of choice. Each one is like peeking into a time capsule and really, what better way is there to learn about an era than to read novels written by people living in the time? What better way to learn, period? The novels I love best, regardless of when they were written, are ones that teach me something as well as entertain me.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does both so splendidly that it is my favorite novel of 2012, so far.

What did I learn? That debauchery was alive and well in 19th century England. Of course, I knew this on a logical level, just as I know that people have been having sex before marriage since Adam and Eve. (2) But, there is still a small, illogical part of me that believes that people who lived in past times were more noble, stronger and less apt to give into baser desires than their modern-day ancestors. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the first book I have read that spells out so unflinchingly behavior that would be considered shocking no matter the time period. There were times while reading of Arthur Huntingdon’s behavior that my embarrassment and mortification for all involved was acute and almost unbearable. (3)

Bronte built to the moment brilliantly, starting in the middle of the story when a widow, Helen Graham, her young son and servant arrive at vacant, rundown, gloomy Wildfell Hall. Mrs. Graham reluctantly engages with the country families around her, preferring to keep herself and son separate. Anyone that has lived in a country/small town setting knows that is a vain wish. Too little of interest happens in small towns when a new element is introduced, it must be investigated immediately and thoroughly. A young landowner, Gilbert Markham, after initially disliking Mrs. Graham because of her standoffishness and attitude about men in general and him in particular, gradually falls in love with Mrs. Graham. This, of course, upsets the young woman Markham had been favoring and, unsurprisingly, rumors start to swirl about Mrs. Graham’s virtue.

We hear the story of Helen’s life and how she arrived at Wildfell Hall in her own words in the form of a journal. From her coming out, rejection of two older, suitable suitors, and acceptance of a younger rake she loves to the slow, inevitable dissolution of her marriage, Helen shows a fortitude, independence and feminist tendencies that is unusual for a novel written during those times. Wives did not shut their husbands out of their bedrooms, nor did they leave their husbands in the middle of the night to find anonymous refuge in a remote area. Women during that age, and honestly up until fairly recent times, were expected to look the other way while their husbands did whatever they wanted. Many consider The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Helen Huntingdon the first feminist novel and heroine, respectively.

Anne Bronte wrote only two novels in her short life, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. That she is less well-known than her sisters Charlotte and Emily can be laid directly at Charlotte Bronte’s feet. Charlotte, the only Bronte sibling to live past 30, refused to allow Tenant to be re-published after Anne’s death, stating “Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. 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.” Reading about Anne’s life on Wikipedia (4) and the impression I get about Charlotte’s relationship and attitude about Anne (5) makes my heart ache for the youngest and possibly strongest of the Bronte sisters and the wrong done by her after her death.

If I have one complaint about Tenant it is the exhausting pious attitude of Helen. Anne was much more religious than her sisters and it shows in her work, especially Tenant. I don’t agree or disagree with Helen’s religious beliefs and I understand why a person in her situation would rely so heavily on faith to get her through her trials, but Helen’s sermonizing does get old.

While I don’t think the Brontes will ever supplant Jane Austen as my favorite 19th century British author, Anne Bronte might have just passed Charlotte as my favorite Bronte. (6) More telling than that is the fact that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (★★★★★) has skyrocketed into my top five classics along with Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, North and South and The House of Mirth. It is a novel that I eagerly look forward to revisiting many times during my life.

Notes:

  1. As well as The Classics Club and my 1001 Books Challenge.
  2. Yes, they were married “in the sight of God” but still, not married in the modern sense of the word.
  3. The “I Love Lucy Syndrome,” where watching and reading acts make you uncomfortable because you can see yourself in those acts. Do not assume I have ever lived a debauched life like Arthur Huntingdon, but I have been drunk and embarrassed myself before.
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Bront%C3%AB
  5. The impression I get is that Charlotte did not like Anne nor respect her work. It makes her refusal to allow Anne’s work published seem petty and makes me like Charlotte less. I must read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte soon and find more information about Anne.
  6. Especially in light of my impressions of Charlotte’s actions after Anne’s death.
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (★★★★★) by Anne Bronte
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1853264881
  • ISBN-13: 978-1853264887