The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte’s second and final novel, is the more well-known of the two, but still not as popular as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. That shouldn’t surprise you, given what I said in my Agnes Grey review.
Wildfell Hall is told in three parts- the first part is a letter from the hero, Gilbert Markham, to his brother-in-law, many years after the events of the story have taken place. Gilbert is a yeoman farmer in a small village who falls in love with the new, titular tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham. The supposedly widowed Helen lives alone with her small son, Arthur, and only one servant. She works as a painter to support them and is a bit on the reclusive side. Many of the villagers begin to spread gossip about her really being the mistress of her landlord, Mr. Lawrence. Gilbert attacks Mr. Lawrence in a fit of rage and so Helen gives him her diary so he can find out the truth.
The second third of the novel is said diary, beginning six years earlier when Helen was just 18. In it Gilbert learns of her infatuation with a handsome rake, Arthur Huntingdon. Against her aunt’s advice, and ignoring all the warning signs, Helen marries Huntington. He is soon revealed to be cruel and emotionally abusive, quickly going back to his libertine ways. For years the deeply religious Helen struggles to put up with his treatment but once he brings his mistress into the house under the guise of their son’s governess, Helen can take no more and escapes to Wildfell Hall.
The last third continues Gilbert’s letter and tells what happens afterwards. I won’t spoil it but you can probably guess how it will end.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, while it has largely positive reviews from what I’ve read, does have its criticisms as well. I’d like to get into those. Many complain that the characters of Helen and Gilbert are unlikable- Helen is too pious and “sanctimonious” and Gilbert is a spoiled brat who is little better than Arthur Huntingdon. I disagree. Helen, like Anne Bronte, is a devoted Christian but I did not find her sanctimonious. I admired her strength and ability to keep her faith while in such a destructive marriage. I do not feel that she was boring in any way- she had a sense of humor which was clear through her diary, more so in the beginning before she is worn down by Huntingdon. I also feel that while Gilbert is flawed, he does not even come close to approaching the cruelty and debauchery of Arthur Huntingdon! Gilbert is a mama’s boy but he grows through his friendship with Helen, and he did what Huntingdon and the other “bad” man in the story never did- he left Helen alone when she asked him to! If Gilbert had been perfect I feel it would have just cheapened the story and made it too fairy-tale like.
Wildfell Hall is my favorite Bronte book. It’s largely regarded as the first feminist novel and I have to agree. It’s definitely feminist and I’m too ignorant to know if there was anything before it! It received harsh reviews of “coarseness” at the time of its publication due to its realistic portrayals of vice among the upper-class. Charlotte even disparaged her subject choice and suppressed its republication after Anne’s death (the first publication quickly sold out). During the Victorian era, a wife was considered her husband’s property, so Helen’s behavior would have been considered scandalous- locking her door against her husband (!) and running away. Like Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte drew from real life experiences to depict her characters (Arthur Huntingdon is likely based at least in part on her brother Branwell) and she pulls no punches. Both men and women in this book lead sinful lives, in turn both men and women are victims of some sort.
I would recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to anyone- you don’t have to be feminist and you don’t have to like the Brontes. I think it could appeal to fans of both. It’s just a really good, powerful book.
My Rating: 10/10