Book review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (Wordsworth Classics, 2008 )
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a powerful and sometimes violent novel of expectation, love, oppression, sin, religion and betrayal. It portrays the disintegration of the marriage of Helen Huntingdon, the mysterious ‘tenant’ of the title, and her dissolute, alcoholic husband. Defying convention, Helen leaves her husband to protect their young son from his father’s influence, and earns her own living as an artist. Whilst in hiding at Wildfell Hall, she encounters Gilbert Markham, who falls in love with her.
On its first publication in 1848, Anne Brontë’s second novel was criticised for being ‘coarse’ and ‘brutal’. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall challenges the social conventions of the early nineteenth century in a strong defence of women’s rights in the face of psychological abuse from their husbands. Anne Brontë’s style is bold, naturalistic and passionate, and this novel, which her sister Charlotte considered ‘an entire mistake’, has earned Anne a position in English literature in her own right, not just as the youngest member of the Brontë family.
Wow, the above text (from the back of the book) is so exhaustive I feel like there is very little to add. It’s been a good long while since I finished this book now, so what I write here will be from memory. On the other hand, perhaps what I can remember has made such a strong impression that it actually shows what a terrific writer Anne Brontë really was?
As mentioned above the novel is about Helen Huntingdon, who runs away with her young child to get him away from the bad influence of her husband. While she is hiding out at Wildfell Hall, her mother’s old home (?), she meets the kind neighbour Gilbert Markham, and they take a liking to one another. Of course, nothing can come of it – her husband is still very much alive.
Most of the back story is told through diary entries. This is something that I didn’t know from seeing the 1996 adaptation, which was the only version of the story I had ever encountered, prior to actually reading the novel. Markham wants to get to know Helen, and she gives him plenty of things to read so that he will know just what has been going on with her, and why she can’t commit to him even though she cares for him and can see that he is a wonderful man.
The story she tells begins with a naive teenager who falls head over heels in love with a society rake in London and marries him thinking they’ll live happily ever after. It doesn’t take her too long to realise that’s not the life she’s going to get. There is no grand romance going on at all, but Helen tries to keep to herself.
When she gets pregnant, and finally gives her husband an heir, Lord Huntingdon doesn’t waste time trying to get the child to learn how to be cruel to animals and even gives him alcohol. Frightened her darling boy would grow up to be the image of his father, she eventually escapes to the Yorkshire moors, and tries to support herself as a painter. And then meets Mr Markham, and so on.
For just being a parson’s daughter in a small town in the mid-1800s, you wonder how on earth Anne Brontë could come up with a story like this. It’s so realistic you’d think she had a bitter marriage to some drunkard herself, but that’s not the case. She never married. Perhaps she knew enough from looking after the women of the parish to learn what their lives were like, and perhaps she even drew from own experiences with her addict of a brother.
If there is something I thoroughly enjoy about Anne’s novels (sadly, there’s only two of them) is her characterisation. We learn so much about all the major characters that you can’t help but be drawn in. While I generally shy away from novels full of misery and gloom and end up seriously disliking them, this was perhaps the exception to confirm the rule.
The biggest problem I have with misery novels is that often, people tend to wallow in their own self pity and complain, but not do anything at all to at least try to improve their situations. Helen actually decides enough is enough and leaves. It’s a brave thing to do. And perhaps it’s because she decides to leave her abusive arsehole of a man behind that I didn’t grow bored or frustrated reading this. Sure, she could’ve left sooner, but at least she left, and that’s the main thing.
A stark reminder that love stories where you fall in love with handsome rakes don’t always have a happy ending.
4 out of 5 paintings.