Book Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Who doesn’t enjoy a good book? And if you’ve got some free time on your hands, this might be a new one for you! Our Bristol Girl, Florence Edwards, has written a very insightful review for a book that you might not be able to put down again.
Synopsis: When an unknown lady and her child move into Wildfell Hall, a gloomy old property that has remained unoccupied for years, there is quite a stir in the quiet rural community of Linden-Car. Mrs Graham is reclusive yet, at times, a strangely intense conversationalist.
Despite the malicious rumours beginning to circulate, Gilbert Markham finds himself intrigued by her. As the two grow closer companions, a past is revealed that even the most avaricious gossips of the parish could never conjecture.
I love books set in the Victorian period, so naturally, I was already enthusiastic about reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The era of social calls, courtship and ball-gowns always seems quaint in hindsight. However, Anne Brontë’s novel is unique in that it illuminates the darker elements behind this polite society.
Books that are set over a century and a half ago have the potential to feel cringingly out-dated. However, one of the striking aspects of this novel for me was how far ahead of her time Anne Brontë was in terms of her views on women’s equality.
This is clear through the character of Helen Graham, candid and independent, who does not shy from defying social expectations in favour of doing what she believes to be right.
‘Well, but you affirm that virtue is only elicited by temptation; - and you think that a woman cannot be too little exposed to temptation, or too little acquainted with vice, or anything connected therewith. It must be either that you think she is essentially so vicious, or so feeble-minded, that she cannot withstand temptation…’
Her interruption of a tea party to make this deliciously subversive defence is one of my favourite moments in the book!
Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall deals with sombre subject matter at times, it never feels ‘heavy’ or a chore to read. Whenever I felt as if Brontë was starting to moralise a little too deeply for my liking, I was shortly caught back up in the story - there is an equilibrium struck between lightness and seriousness.
On one side of this scale, we explore, through the characters’ lives, a number of pretty daunting social questions. On the other, their more frivolous triumphs and calamities are always there to keep us entertained.
The characters are themselves intriguing since the perspectives from which we view them are so changeable. I particularly liked the subtle difference in how the characters are actually presented and the professed opinion that others have of them in the story.
As this difference starts to close, we get the wonderful satisfaction when a protagonist we’ve been figuratively shouting at through the pages finally listens to our advice!
In Defence of Anne
I first heard of this novel in a film that I watched called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (highly recommended as a side note!).
In this film, a heartfelt argument is launched against those who critically compare Anne Brontë to her elder sisters. There are those who dismiss The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as neither as impassioned as Wuthering Heights nor so accomplished as Jane Eyre.
Having now read her novel, I would be prepared to defend Anne Brontë with equal vehemence! This a great book in its own right, that manages to be both an expressive social critique and a charming story.
‘There is such a thing as looking through a person’s eyes into the heart, and learning more of the height, and breadth, and depth of another’s soul in one hour than it might take you a lifetime to discover, if he or she were not disposed to reveal it, or if you had not the sense to understand it.’
You are looking for a classic that can provide both discourse and delight.
Made me think:
Although the character of Helen Graham defies restrictive 19th Century expectations of women in many ways, there are still elements of her behaviour that may seem problematic to modern readers. Her self-sacrificial mindset, especially, didn’t sit quite right with me at times.
She seems to find some validation of herself through a noble disregard of her own happiness in the interests of others. This may be a reflection of Victorian views on morality or Anne Brontë’s deeply pious character, but it forms part of a debate that remains unsettling today - how much are we for others and how much for ourselves?
WHAT THE CITY GIRLS THOUGHT!
I asked other City Girls for their thoughts on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:
“This is a book I read years ago so I can’t remember all the ins and outs but I did really enjoy it. I liked considering how scandalous this story was for 1848 and comparing it to today and how things have advanced, or perhaps not, there is still plenty of judgement passed over single mothers!
“I have only read this and Wuthering Heights by the Brontës but I felt The Tenant of Wildfell Hall appeared more modern and more realistic. although I also liked Wuthering Heights - it is much more romantic/idealistic.”
*WARNING - NEXT SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS*
The only part I didn't like was the fact that the 'happy ending' came when she remarried. I feel it stills carries the message that ultimately you need to find a man and would have preferred the novel to finish with her more independent.
~ Julie Orr
Written by Florence Edwards.