Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte


When a young, single woman and her child move into one wing of the derelict Wildfell Hall, the local people are bursting with curiosity.  Who is she?  Why is she living on her own?  One farmer, Gilbert Markham, strikes up a friendship with Helen and soon finds himself developing stronger feelings for her.  But Helen's reclusive behaviour makes her the target of suspicion and vindictive gossip, and it's only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that he discovers the reason behind her arrival at Wildfell Hall.

I just love the Brontes.  I've been saving this one for a few years, as I knew it would be one I would love, and my stock of unread Bronte novels is growing perilously low.  I was particularly attracted to this novel as it caused quite a stir, with Charlotte preventing it's publication after Anne's death, as it deals honestly with the topics of alcohol abuse, adultery and abuse in marriage.  But the real controversy came because the main character Helen eventually leaves her abusive husband, defying the social conventions of the time.  And even more shockingly, she is shown to be able to cope on her own and support both herself and her son, going on to handle her own affairs with regard to property and her income.

I was pre-disposed to love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I really did enjoy it.  It's the second novel by Anne Bronte I have read, and I was struck again by how different her writing is to that of Charlotte and Emily's.  In both this and Agnes Grey, Anne writes with realism about life, whether it's  a governess facing difficult children, or a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage.  Emily and Charlotte's books have their share of misery too, but Anne's writing feels more like it deals with the grittier aspects of life, and there's less romance.  At the beginning of her diary, Helen is full of romantic ideas of reforming her husband and living happily ever after, but she eventually has to face reality.

There's so much to love in this novel - the fantastic portrayal of a woman slowly coming to terms with the fact that she can't change someone else, no matter how much she loves him, Helen's independence, the open discussion of adultery and the realistic depiction of how anyone who defies social convention becomes a target for gossip.  The only stumbling block I had was Helen herself - at times she seems too good and too moral, and this puts up an emotional barrier between her and the reader.  I felt like Helen was telling her diary all about her marriage, but I couldn't really feel it.  I recently read Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, which has some similar themes, and I felt the emotion much more in that novel.

Still, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a fantastic novel, and an important one too.  I would most definitely consider it a feminist novel, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in women's rights and gender issues. Charlotte remains my favourite Bronte though.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1848
Edition Read: Penguin, 2010
Score: 4.5 out of 5


The Classics Club: Book 29/72
My list of classics to read can be found here.

25 comments:

  1. Gah! I started this one and need to get back to it.

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  2. Those are some impressive themes for a book from the 1800's -- I am duly intrigued!

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    1. Seems like Anne Bronte was quite the radical!

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  3. I have this one on my shelf and I've never read it. Love your review, you showed me themes that I had no idea were in it. I think I'll be picking it up!

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    1. Glad you're thinking of picking it up now Holly :)

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  4. I know what you mean about saving some of your Bronte reads. What's going to happen when you finish them all. Yikes! You never have the chance to read one for the first time ever again. That's most tragic. I do love Charlotte. I need to read Villette soon.

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    1. I'm not looking forward to the day when I finish my last one - I think I only have Shirley & The Professor left, although I'm due a reread of Jane Eyre. Hope you enjoy Villette :)

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  5. I think this one was more maturely written than Agnes Grey, but something about Agnes Grey really inspires me. I like this one too, but Agnes Grey is so "this is what we live & you need to know it." :)

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    1. I'm a teacher, so I really related to Agnes Grey, some of the things she described haven't changed much at all in the intervening centuries!

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  6. I'm glad I'm not the only one who liked this book! I think Anne Bronte is often the underappreciated sister. Which is sad, because she's a good writer, too.

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    1. I agree that Anne is under-appreciated, which is a shame. I wonder if Branwell could write as well?

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  7. Charlotte B : Villette : brooding and a bit gothic
    Anne B : Tenant Wildfell Hall : realism and gritty
    I still think the Bronte writes better than Austen.

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    1. I prefer the Brontes too, although I'm not averse to Austen.

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  8. Great review, Sam! It mkes me want to pull out my copy for a reread, but Villette will be next on my Bronte journey.

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    1. Ooh, hope you enjoy Villette. It's my favourite :)

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  9. While I did not enjoy this particular book that much, I was glad I read it. I found it remarkable that it was written by a young woman in the 19th century. I would also consider it a feminist novel.

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  10. I haven't read any of Anne Bronte's work but it sounds like I'm seriously missing out! From what you've said, I think I'll enjoy the fact that she deals with the grittier aspects of life. I'll be sure to check out some of her works, thanks for sharing!
    :-)
    Bits & Bobs

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  11. My sister read this for school and reported that Anne Bronte was "a badass feminist," so it's been on my TBR list for a while. I'm a teensy bit intimidated by it, I admit!

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  12. I'll add this to my list. I haven't read Anne Bronte but it looks like I need to start.

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  13. Hi! I really like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. But, just like you, I also found Helen herself to be the weakest aspect of the novel, and ever since I read Agnes Grey I've been inclined to think it's something of a drawback of the writer herself to portray too righteously moral heroines.

    " I would most definitely consider it a feminist novel, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in women's rights and gender issues." <--- I thouroughly subscribe to that. Well said! :-)

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  14. I feel like a Bronte slacker. I think I've only read Jane Eyre...I need to fix that soon!

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  15. LOVE this book! Anne's my favourite Bronte :)

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  16. I wish my CC spin had spun me this one (not that I'm unhappy with The Silent Spring) but I have been wanting to find a good reason to read this one for quite some time.

    Thanks for pushing it up the list :-)

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