Posted by: Jeanie F | July 1, 2011

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë was the youngest and least known of the famous Brontë sisters. She completed only two novels in her lifetime, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

When I wrote my review of Agnes Grey, the critical reviews that I read all pointed to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as her better work. Furthermore, many of those reviews indicated that, had she lived longer, Anne would have been the most successful of the three sisters. This piqued my interest. As I had been underwhelmed with Agnes Grey, I decided to give Anne Brontë another opportunity to impress me.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (TWF) is framed as a letter that protagonist Gilbert Markham writes to his brother-in-law. He tells of the arrival of a new resident in their village, Linden-Car, a beautiful widow named Helen Graham. Helen and her young son have moved into Wildfell Hall, an Edwardian mansion that has stood deserted for many years. Over time Gilbert falls in love with her, but Helen becomes the victim of gossip and slander among the other villagers.

Helen leaves Linden-Car to escape the gossip, but not before giving her diary to Gilbert as a means of explaining her mysterious past and her behavior. The diary tells the tale of Helen as a young woman who is swept up in romantic love and marries Arthur Huntingdon, an alcoholic who becomes an abusive husband. In order to save her son from following in his father’s footsteps, Helen takes the desperate step of running away from Huntingdon and living in hiding under a false name in Linden-Car.

Eventually Helen returns to her husband, who is gravely ill, and nurses him until his death. After several missteps, Gilbert locates her, they reunite, and live happily ever after. This is, after all, a Brontë novel.

This novel is long-winded, preachy, and often tedious to read. Having said that, I found that I began to care about these people and wanted to know how it was all resolved, so I read somewhat eagerly to the end. The preachiness comes, in part, from the Brontës’ own experience with their brother, Branwell, who served as the model for Arthur Huntingdon. In her preface to the second edition of TWF, Anne Brontë writes:

I know that such characters do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.

TWF challenged Victorian morals on several levels, and is considered one of the first feminist novels. Helen’s behavior went against the tide of acceptable practice in many ways, but especially in one scene where she slams the bedroom door in her husband’s face following his abusive behavior. One critic at the time pronounced it “utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls.”

I can’t say that I came to agree with the conclusion that Anne had the potential to be the best or most successful of the Brontë sisters, but I would recommend this book for both its (admittedly limited) literary qualities and its historical value.

Grade: B-

 


Responses

  1. my book club read this and for the most part we were bored! the phrase “her duty” comes to mind as being particularly annoying. that being said i really just don’t like the classics…jane eyre, wutheringheights, yuck!!
    we also watched the movie , bbc i think, and didn’t like how things were changed

  2. I have to admit, I skimmed right over some of the long diatribes about duty, vice, etc. She does have a tendancy to go on . . .and on . . .and on. . .

  3. I haven’t read anything by this sister. Thanks for the review; I’ll now search for the book.


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