The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

I'm not sure why I've never read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall before, as I've read most of the Brontë sisters' other novels and despite being by Anne, the least famous sister, this one must almost certainly have been on my degree syllabus many years ago. Anyway, a recent BBC documentary on the Brontës reminded me that I hadn't, so I picked up a copy. It seems ridiculous to 'review' a classic Victorian novel, but I try to cover all the fiction I read on this blog, so these are my thoughts on it.

First of all, it's surprisingly gripping. Like many 19th century novels, it is more verbose than most contemporary fiction, but I found I 'got into it' after a chapter or two and soon found that I honestly couldn't put it down. It begins with the arrival of a young widow, Helen Graham, at an isolated and only partially habitable mansion, Wildfell Hall, along with her little boy. The tenants of a local gentleman, Mr Lawrence, Helen and her son are soon introduced to the small, somewhat insular local community, where we see them through the eyes of our narrator, middle-class farmer Gilbert Markham. But rumours soon start to spread. Why is Helen so defensive when questioned about her son? Why is she so fond of solitude? Is she really a widow? And could there be anything in the observation that Helen's son bears at least a superficial resemblance to her landlord?

What then unfolds is a remarkably dark tale of alcoholism, infidelity, abuse and a marriage so toxic it still has the power to shock, even 150 years later - perhaps because, despite shifts in values and the rights of women since the book was written, the behaviour of the characters is all so recognisable. The portrait of Helen's marriage is utterly believable and not at all far from the experience of many women today - divorce might be easier for British women in the 21st century, and certainly less of a disgrace, but aside from that, Helen's situation has numerous contemporary parallels.

This is not one of those books when the wronged heroine is a faultless angel; Helen at the start of her story is in fact both naive and stubborn. However, she is pleasingly resilient and self-sufficient, and unwilling to suffer fools gladly. Neither is Gilbert particularly heroic - he begins the book as a somewhat immature, impulsive young man, but develops with considerable decency and resourcefulness as the story progresses. There are strong feminist undertones to the novel, which are, given the subject matter, very pertinent to Helen's situation.

I wasn't immensely keen on the end of the book - the plot, for Helen and Gilbert, is resolved in much the way that I had hoped, but there is one major story element that seems to fizzle out somewhat in a way that's simply too convenient and I might have liked this to be a little more dramatic. But then, I suppose, the book would have become a gothic melodrama, and despite what people might think of the Brontës, that is not what their books are.


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