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.