Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Brontë
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1848)
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble
After reading Jane Eyre as a teenager, I quickly moved on to Wuthering Heights and Villette. But I felt forewarned, by the introduction writers of her sisters’ books, against Anne. She was the less talented little sister. There seemed to be a cacophony of voices telling me not to waste my time reading Anne. Charlotte and Emily were assigned reading at school. Anne was simply Anne, the other Brontë sister. And so, with that reasoning, I avoided The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for many years, until I found a book called The Madwoman Upstairs, which I read and reviewed in October. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was such an important part of The Madwoman Upstairs that I stopped, held my place with a bookmark, and instead picked up the book by Anne Brontë from the library.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall felt like a mixture between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, with all of the passion and violence of the former and the feminist slant and intelligent heroine of the latter. It has a complex structure–a diary inside a letter inside a novel–beginning with our first narrator, Gilbert Markham, writing a letter to his brother-in-law to tell a story about his past. He recalls his younger days, flirting with the vicar’s daughter whom he knows wants to marry him, though he only thinks about it half-seriously. When a young widow named Helen Graham moves into the nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son, the town speculates about her past. Despite her chilly initial reception of him, Gilbert gradually wins Helen over, taking long walks with her and her son and asking about her painting. They fall in love, even though Helen remains distant and evasive about her past.
But gossip begins to circulate about Helen and Gilbert’s friend and Helen’s landlord, Mr. Lawrence. Angry and jealous, Gilbert confronts Lawrence and seriously injures him. When Gilbert accuses Helen of being in love with Lawrence, she gives Gilbert her diary to explain the truth about her past. Anne was criticized for her stark depiction of Helen’s alcoholic first husband, his extramarital affairs, his emotional abuse of Helen, and her eventual escape. In a preface to the second edition, Anne explained:
I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.
She had a right to be proud of her final novel. Helen is as independent and strong as Charlotte’s heroine Jane Eyre. The novel is as passionate as Wuthering Heights (and with more likable characters). I adored this book and wish that Anne Brontë had lived long enough to write more novels.