on 28 May 2001
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of a young woman named Helen who comes to live on the Yorkshire Moors in a semi-derilect house with her young son Arthur and her loyal servant. Once the mistress of a luxurious house, this drastic step is necessitated by a need to rid her son from the corrupting influence of his reckless and almost always intoxicated father, and to escape herself from the humiliation of living with a husband who no longer loves her, and who takes pleasure from flauting his mistresses openly to her.
Assuming a new name and establishing herself as an artist to support herself and her son, Helen finds herself the subject of gossip and mistrust amongst almost all of the local population. Although living in constant fear of discovery by her husband, Helen attempts to make a success of her new life, a life made more bearable by the friendship of local yeoman farmer Gilbert.
But will Helens secret identity be able to remain a secret forever or will her past eventually catch up with her and threaten to destroy her budding romance with Gilbert?
This is an extremely well written book and is rather neglected alongside the successful novels written by her sisters Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
The book contains the passion and drama set around the Moors which you would expect from a Bronte, but it also presents an interesting critique about the place and role of women in 19th century England.
This classic novel is well worth reading.
on 27 June 2000
Helen is an excellent character, she's beautiful and mysterious, she's fearless and good. She is SO SO SO moral though, but that was the point Anne was labouring to get across I suppose. Those who drink either die or reform in this book. We can conjecture she copied these descriptions from her brother's excesses, but either way they are almost symbolic in their ludicrousness. The book gets going with Helen's diary, Markham's whingings and whinings are really quite dull in the first part of the book. And why is he writing huge long letters anyway? This aside, quiet Anne gets her claws and descriptive powers out in a way which must have made Charlotte do a double take and Emily the equivalent of a thumbs up. We have next to nothing from Anne's own mouth, apart from her books and I think she shines through in both of them. One thing: I think Helen would have found Markham deadly dull and found a man of mystery instead. She deserved a Heathcliff or a Rochester of her very own. Not as good or pleasing as Agnes Grey
Although Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre have always been two of my favourite Victorian classics, this is the first time I've read anything by the youngest Bronte sister, Anne - and I enjoyed it almost as much as the other two books I've just mentioned.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the story of Helen Huntingdon, a young woman who leaves her alcoholic husband and goes into hiding with her five year-old son, Arthur. Not long after arriving at Wildfell Hall she meets local farmer, Gilbert Markham, who falls in love with her. When Gilbert questions her about the rumours circulating about her in the village, she allows him to read her diary in which she had recorded the details of her unhappy marriage.
The book has an interesting structure - it's told partly in the form of letters from Gilbert to his brother-in-law Jack Halford, and partly as extracts from Helen's diary. I didn't particularly like Helen as I thought she was just a little bit too saintly and perfect, but she was a very strong person who defied convention to do what she thought was best for herself and her child. Her diary entries are filled with descriptions of some really despicable characters and describe scenes of drunkenness, violence, verbal and physical abuse, and adultery, which I can imagine readers in the 19th century would have been shocked by.
Anne's writing style is not the same as her sisters' - there's less dramatic romanticism and poetic imagery, although she still writes with a lot of passion. However, I would have no hesitation recommending this book to anyone who has enjoyed Emily and Charlotte's work, as well as those of you who have never read any other Bronte books - it gets 5 stars from me.
on 10 June 2012
As a devout Jane Eyre fan and having read Wuthering Heights I thought that I should give Anne's work a chance and by golly I was pleasantly surprised. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has championed all the other Bronte novels I have read (Villette, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey) purely because it seems to me to be a lot more realistic yet still highly emotive. Basically it tells the story of a young woman who has run away from her abusive and alcoholic husband, which is an issue still prevalent for women and men of today. I loved the framing narrative, it gave Helen much more of a mysterious air and as a women not much younger than her I could really feel for her. Furthermore after having read it I felt embittered by the unjust to women in the 18th century and felt proud of Anne for writing this story. Being a bit soppy now, but hey ho, it was a moving read! I'd definitely recommend this to anyone, Bronte fans will adore it and even readers new to the classics will find it page turning and compelling.
I was minded to write a review of this after reading Wuthering Heights and being unimpressed. All I found myself doing when reading that was comparing it unfavourably to this, the only other Bronte I've read. This novel is much more mature, fully developed, with a much more tempered narrative.
It was a while ago I read this, but it a fantastic read. The mysteries of Helen Graham are engrossingly parsed out to the reader. the plot is exciting, with themes ahead of their time in the same way George Eliot always was. This is gripping, thrilling, deeply romantic, and much, much more satisfying than Wuthering Heights. I can't recommend this highly enough - Wilkie Collins aside, this is the best English "classic" novel I've yet read.
on 22 June 2015
Anne is the “other Brontë sister” in that she was the one who did not write either “Jane Eyre” or “Wuthering Heights”; neither of her own two novels has achieved quite the same classic status. They were, however, very popular when first published, although “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” was regarded as particularly controversial, even shocking, because of its treatment of the theme of marital infidelity and its advocacy of women’s rights. After Anne’s death her sister Charlotte prevented it from being republished, although her motives for doing so remain obscure.
In the twentieth century it was often said that the archetypal English novel was a study of adultery in Hampstead, but during the first half of the nineteenth this was not the case. In the works of Jane Austen, for example, marriage is generally seen as the goal towards which the principal characters are striving; we are not told what happens to them after their wedding day but are led to assume it is along the lines of “they lived happily ever after”. Austen did, of course, acknowledge that not all marriages are happy, but the unhappy ones do not form the main focus of her work; in “Mansfield Park” the emphasis is on the progress of the love of Fanny and Edmund, not the failing marriage of Maria and Mr Rushworth. Similarly, Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” concentrates far more on the title character than it does on analysing the doomed relationship between Rochester and his first wife Bertha.
“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” is different in that the unhappy marriage of Helen and Arthur Huntingdon is at the centre of the action. The action is set in the 1820s, some twenty years before the novel was written. Helen first meets Arthur when she is a teenager of eighteen and he a country gentleman some ten years older. Besotted with his good looks and charm she falls in love and resolves to marry him. She is aware that he has a reputation of being something of a rake and a heavy drinker, and that he lacks any firm moral principles, but is naïve enough to imagine that she can reform him. Of course, she fails miserably in this task and Arthur proves to a cold, unloving husband, neglecting Helen in favour of drunken debauches with a small group of like-minded cronies. He also proves unfaithful, conducting affairs with at least two other women, one of them married. Eventually Helen realises that Arthur is an incorrigible rogue and that all her efforts to persuade him to reform have been, and will continue to be, in vain. She therefore considers taking what in the early 19th century would have been a virtually unthinkable step, that of leaving him. Her main motive is to protect her young son, fearing that if she remains he will grow up to be as bad a man as his father.
Arthur has been seen as a disguised portrait of Anne's brother Branwell, also an alcoholic, but as the Brontёs’ biographer Winifred Gérin points out this is perhaps unfair to Branwell who had his faults but also had his good points in which Arthur seems lacking. Branwell, a painter and a poet, was deeply artistic; Arthur is equally deeply Philistine. Branwell’s downfall was in part due to an unhappy love affair, but Arthur is incapable of loving anyone other than himself; he does not seem to have any more genuine affection for his mistresses than for his wife. He can be seen as Anne Brontё’s critique of the cult of the mean, moody and magnificent Byronic hero which had gripped so many British and European writers during this period. This includes Anne’s sisters Charlotte and Emily; their creations Rochester and Heathcliffe are classically Byronic figures. Arthur superficially seems like another such, but is soon revealed as a worthless fellow, mean and moody but far from magnificent. Childe Harold and Don Juan have been reduced to the level of a drunken, lecherous country squire. (I wonder if Charlotte’s dislike of the novel arose from resentment of what she perceived as an implied critique of her own work; Arthur can be seen as Edward Rochester gone to the bad, without his redeeming qualities).
Another important theme is what today would be called feminism. The story of Helen’s disastrous marriage emphasised how at this period married women were almost completely dependent upon their husbands and denied equal rights; they were not, for example, permitted to own property. Anything the wife brought to the marriage became the property of her husband. By leaving her husband, Helen was not only guilty of the matrimonial offence of desertion, but was also breaching social convention which insisted that a wife’s place should be by her husband’s side, no matter how badly he might have treated her. The writer May Sinclair was later to say that the slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. Helen is not always the most satisfactory heroine- she can sometimes come across as humourless and excessively pious- but in her determination and independent spirit she can seem a very modern figure. A third major theme is that of religion. Helen reflects her creator’s devout Christian views, especially her belief in “universalism”, the view that God’s mercy is infinite and therefore available even to unbelievers and unrepentant sinners.
The novel has its faults, notably its over-elaborate structure, something it shares with “Wuthering Heights”. (The structure of “Jane Eyre” is much simpler). It is framed as a series of letters from one Gilbert Markham to a friend, and the first section deals with how Markham, a young Yorkshire farmer, meets, and falls in love with, Helen, wrongly believing her to be a widow. (The title refers to the old house where Helen is living at this period). The second, and longest, section of the novel is told in the form of Helen’s journal, which she has shown to Markham and which details her life with Arthur. The third, also narrated by Markham, continues the story and tells what eventually becomes of Helen, Arthur and himself. This structure struck me as excessively complex, and I felt that the story would have benefitted from being told in a more straightforward way.
The dialogue is occasionally unrealistic; Helen, in particular, is given to making long, formal speeches that make her sound like a “Church Times” editorial than a young woman in her teens or twenties. The characterisation, however, is generally good. Arthur is a memorable figure and one whom we might find it easier to pity today than would have been the case for readers in 1848, now that widely alcoholism is recognised as an illness rather than a mere character defect. Arthur’s companions- the depressive, introspective Lowborough, the blunt man-of-the-world Hattersley, the depraved Grimsby and the hypocritical Hargrave who professes friendship for Arthur while attempting to cuckold him by making unwanted attempts to seduce Helen- are neatly differentiated. (It should be noted that Arthur is equally hypocritical- one of his lovers is the wife of his supposed friend Lowborough). Gilbert is a complex figure; he can be impulsive and unreasonably jealous, but also capable of sincere love.
For all its flaws, the novel is a masterpiece. Anne Brontë took what in her day was a neglected theme- marital betrayal- and sets it within a complex moral framework informed by her own religious beliefs. “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” does not have quite the same imaginative power as “Jane Eyre” but it certainly shows that is author was something more than the “other Brontë”.