Book Review//The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


If a reader must choose between Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters then I firmly come down on the side of Austen. Austen's writing style suits me; her wit, her humor, her ability to use the trivialities of life to tell a dramatic story, all are exactly what I look for in a book. The Bronte sisters with their wuthering moors, their insane wives locked in attics, and their tragic lives are interesting but not quite my cup of tea. I read Jane Eyre a few times over the years and enjoyed it but never liked Mr. Rochester. The passion for Wuthering Heights passed me by when I was a teenager. It irritated instead of enthralled me. I read the Bronte sisters because I read everything I came across when I was younger but they are not books I return to again and again.

Recently I read a review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the storyline didn't sound familiar. Maybe I never read it? Anne Bronte seems to be viewed as the less-appreciated of the sisters and I decided I should give her a chance. I still am not sure if I read this years and years ago but I do know that I enjoyed it now.

The book opens with a letter from Gilbert Markham promising to tell the story of some major events in his life. He tells of the arrival of Helen Graham and her son to live in the uninhabited Wildfell Hall. She is a private woman who doesn't talk much of her past and the neighbors spend a lot of time trying to pry out her secrets. Inevitably, Markham falls in love with her; she refuses him and then gives him her diaries to read to explain the reason for her refusal. 

Helen married young and her marriage was not happy. We read of the slow deterioration of her marriage and of the strength with which Helen faced it. Her husband is an alcoholic, unfaithful, and a bad influence on their son. All of this is described with unflinching realism including the scene where Helen locks him out of their bedroom. This must have been a shocking scene for the time in which it was written. Helen finally flees from her husband--also a shocking decision for the time. 

I admired Helen. She was strong and determined to stick to her moral code no matter what those around her might be doing. She did seem to dissolve into tears at the drop of a hat but I can't deny she had reasons for those tears. This was a strong book that packs an emotional punch. 

I did find that the diary and letter format left me wishing for more about some characters and scenes. We only saw things from one viewpoint and sometimes minor characters were introduced that could have been fleshed out a bit more fully. Several of them could have had novels of their own. On the other hand, the diary format gave an immediacy to the events that was compelling. 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was severely criticized when it was published. Sharpe's London Magazine warned women against reading the novel saying that there was a " perverted taste and absence of mental refinement in the writer, together with a total ignorance of the usages of good society." Charlotte Bronte herself suppressed the novel when it became due for a reprint a year after Anne Bronte's death. It is unclear whether that was from jealousy or because of concern for her sister's reputation. Either way, it is only in recent decades that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has become appreciated fully as the excellent book that it is. 


12 comments

  1. I have to admit, I've always preferred the Bronte sisters to Jane Austen (although I do love Austen too). The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a great book - it's sad that Anne is so often ignored as I think her writing is excellent and really deserves more attention.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I want to find out a bit more about Anne now. I have a biography of Charlotte on my shelves somewhere and I should read that too.

      Delete
  2. Dear Jennifer,
    I only discovered the world of bookstagrammers this week and I'm in love!. You see, this comment is completely unrelated to your current post but I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am for having discovered your blog through your Instagram feed. So many of your beautiful photographs and texts deeply resonate with me and I love ALL of your posts - also (and at times even especially) the non-bookrelated ones.
    I grew up reading and loving Eight Cousins, Little House in the Woods, The Secret Garden and , of course, all the Enid Blyton books. (I couldn't help smiling when you wrote about all the food mentioned in the Famous Five. I do remember that and also that I found all the references to sandwiches, jam and tea strangely fascinating but also comforting).
    I was fascinated by Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road when I first came across it in my early twenties, way back, on Austrian TV. It really does combine two of my favourite things, too: books/reading and Great Britain. So I made it my mission to hunt down the book as well as the video tape :-)), which proved to be a bit of a challenge at that time. .
    Currently I'm reading Henrietta's War and I've ordered a copy of Our Hearts Were Yound And Gay because you described it as a very fun and entertaining read. I just hope that all the lovely books I'm learning about won't be my financial nemesis because having them sent all the way to Austria could turn out to be a little bit expensive in the long run.
    Much love from across the Atlantic,
    Elisabeth

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Elisabeth,
      Thank you very much for your kind comment. It was a highlight of my day. I appreciated it so much that I insisted my husband read it as well! You say two of your favorite things are books/reading and Great Britain. Well, after reading my blog you must know that I agree with you. It sounds like we have quite a bit in common. I hope you enjoy Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. It is a book I always go back to because it always makes me laugh. Part of me feels bad about being a book-purchasing enabler and part of me is thrilled!

      Thank you so much for reading and for leaving such a lovely comment.

      Delete
    2. I’m very glad you liked my comment. I really wanted to express my appreciation for what you do on your blog and Instagram, which I’ve been bingeing on over the last couple of days. I rarely leave comments, but I also thought that there are quite a few parallels in our likes and dislikes, maybe even in our personalities. Did I even mention that I also love Lord Peter (esp. Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors), Pride and Prejudice, and that The Enchanted April is one of my comfort reads?
      Recently I’ve surprised myself by thinking how grateful I am for the existence of computers and the Internet. Without them I’d never have had the chance to “meet” so many interesting booklovers and books. Please, do NOT worry about being a “book-purchasing enabler”! I need(ed) very little encouragement in that department. ;-) What you ARE doing is expanding my horizon. Through you I’m able to discover and embrace a whole lot of new (to me) writers and stories …. and I can’t wait to get to them. So … thank you again!

      Delete
    3. It does sound like we have very similar reading interests, doesn't it? I hope you enjoy the new-to-you books. I would be interested in hearing what you think of them. Do you have a blog of your own?

      The internet certainly expands reading horizons. I know I have discovered so many authors because a blogger has written about them. Plus, there are not a ton of readers in my circle of friends so it is always nice to know that there are other book obsessed people out there.

      Delete
  3. I prefer Austen too but did really enjoy Jane Eyre when I first read it as a 12 year old. I was never so enamoured of Wuthering Heights.
    I suspect that the men who ran Sharpe's London Magazine just didn't want women readers to read about other women locking their husbands out of the bedroom. It might give them ideas!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your comment made me laugh. I am sure you are right.

      Delete
  4. I'm firmly on the Austen side of this equation, but I do love Anne. I enjoyed this one, but Agnes Grey is the pinnacle for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am always on the Austen side but I did enjoy The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I read Agnes Grey some years ago but it might be time for a reread.

      Delete
  5. I'm with you on Austen vs the Brontes. As difficult as the Brontes' lives were, I do envy their shared fantasy world of Angria though.

    ReplyDelete