Friday, 8 March 2013

'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' by Anne Bronte (1848)

Synopsis: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a novel that's told in three parts. The first part is a letter by Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law Mr Halford, in which he recounts events which happened many years before when he was still a young man.

Gilbert Markham is a gentleman-farmer from Yorkshire who becomes deeply fascinated by a beautiful young widow called Helen Graham, who has moved into the nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son Arthur and only one servant. Helen is working as a painter to support herself and is quite mysterious. Gilbert offers Helen his friendship and he falls in love with her. However Helen's aloof behaviour makes her the victim of rumours and gossip, with the local villagers accusing her of being the mistress of her landlord Mr Lawrence. Gilbert refuses to doubt Helen's moral character at first until he flies into a rage and beats up Mr Lawrence one night after seeing him alone with Helen. It's only then that Helen allows Gilbert to read her diary - which makes up the second part of the book. Gilbert finally learns Helen's secret, she isn't a widow at all.

The diary begins six years earlier when Helen is just 18. Helen becomes infatuated with a handsome, charming rake called Arthur Huntingdon and - going against her aunt's advice and ignoring all of the warning signs - she marries him. The marriage is a disaster and Huntingdon's true colours are revealed. He's a cruel, selfish, manipulative, emotionally abusive drunk and an adulterer. Helen is a devout Christian and tries to make the best of her situation for many years; hoping that Huntingdon will eventually see the error of his ways and will become a better man and husband. However, Helen can finally take no more when she begins to realise that Huntingdon is beginning to corrupt their young son Arthur. She runs away and takes Arthur with her so Huntingdon can't taint and ruin him. The final part of the book is the remainder of Gilbert's letter to his brother-in-law and we finally learn whether Gilbert and Helen ended up together.

Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is more famous than her other novel Agnes Grey but it's still been long overshadowed by two of her sister's novels - Wuthering Heights by Emily and Jane Eyre by Charlotte. I'd already read both of those books by the time I came to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I'd been very curious to read something by Anne after loving her sisters' novels very much but I still didn't have very high expectations for this book the first time I read it. I assumed that because The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is less famous than Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre that it couldn't be as good. But I was completely surprised because I ended up loving it! The book - and Anne Bronte herself - are both massively, criminally underrated! The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a brilliantly-written book, I really liked the fact that it was split into three sections, and its subject matter is so modern and is years ahead of its time. Back in Victorian times, married women were essentially viewed as being their husband's property and were supposed to stay with them no matter what. It didn't matter if a woman's husband was abusive. She would simply be expected to make the best of it. Anne Bronte pulled no punches with this book. It's very likely that Arthur Huntingdon is partly based on her own brother Branwell and Helen's behaviour towards Huntingdon - i.e. locking him out of her bedroom and running away from him - would have been considered scandalous at the time. The book was a financial success but it got some harsh reviews from the Victorian critics and even Charlotte Bronte disapproved of the subject matter. I think Anne was incredibly brave for writing this book then. It's interesting to compare it to her sister's works as well. As you'd expect from a Bronte novel it's atmospheric and is full of passion, romance and drama. However, readers who love Jane Austen but aren't fond of Charlotte and Emily's works are likely to find Anne's novel much more favourable. Anne's writing style is actually quite similar to Jane Austen's.

Most of the modern reviews I've read for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have been positive but it has come in for its share of criticism. I've read some reviews which have argued that Helen and Gilbert are unlikeable. Some readers dislike Helen for being pious and "sanctimonious" and think that Gilbert is a spoilt brat who isn't all that much better than Huntingdon. I completely disagree! Helen's diary is my favourite part of the book and I really love her character. Yes, Helen has some flaws and she makes mistakes. Her naivety in marrying Huntingdon cost her dearly and she openly admitted to Lord Lowborough that she should have honest with him about his wife's infidelity. Nevertheless Helen is still an extremely likeable character and her flaws only make her human. Helen is a strong, brave, moral and intelligent woman - and she's just as passionate as Jane Eyre. She also stands up for herself and refuses to let Huntingdon walk all over her. Helen is a genuine Christian and she isn't at all sanctimonious. I really admired her strength, her devotion to her son, that she didn't back down in her convictions and that she was able to hold onto her faith - and keep it strong! - in such an awful marriage. She isn't at all boring either and she clearly has a sense of humour; more so at the beginning of her diary before life with Huntingdon wears her down. I was really pleased that everything worked out happily for her. As for Gilbert, yes, I do get the criticisms of his character to a certain extent. He's clearly flawed and I didn't like him much at first. Having said that he's by no means cruel and emotionally abusive! He improves under Helen's influence and he grows through his relationship with her. Although he's certainly no Rochester I did warm to him more as the book went on. Also, he actually left Helen alone when she asked him to unlike Huntingdon and Mr Hargrave!

I really love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It's a powerful read and my second favourite Bronte novel (after Jane Eyre). I really love it and I really hope it gets the recognition and fame it deserves someday. Again, Anne Bronte is severely underrated! Her book Agnes Grey is worth a read too but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the much better book of the two even though it only came out a year later. It really makes you wonder what a third novel would have been like if she hadn't died so young.

Rating: 5/5

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