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. I feel a bit guilty that it has taken me so long to get round to reading one of Anne’s books, especially as I enjoyed it almost as much as the other two books I’ve just mentioned.
Anne’s writing style is not the same as Charlotte’s or Emily’s – there’s less dramatic romanticism and poetic imagery, although she still writes with a lot of passion. She has quite a sharp style that is probably more similar to Jane Austen than to either of her sisters.
I won’t go into the plot in too much detail but 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 Markham to his brother-in-law Jack Halford, and partly as extracts from Helen Huntingdon’s diary. I loved the first section from Gilbert’s point of view, describing the arrival of the mysterious woman at Wildfell Hall with everyone wondering who she was and where she came from. The story probably wouldn’t have worked had it not been set in the 19th century. Today there’s nothing unusual in a single mother living alone with her little boy, but in 1828 when The Tenant of Wildfell Hall takes place, it makes her the target of gossip and scandal.
When Helen’s diary began it took me a while to get used to the change of voice and the change of pace but it soon developed into the most powerful section of the book. 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. Apparently after Anne’s death, re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was prevented by Charlotte, who considered the choice of subject to be a big mistake. 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.
Note: This book counts towards the Women Unbound Reading Challenge because it portrays a woman who has the strength to leave her abusive husband and build a new life, working as an artist to support herself and her son – almost unheard of in the 19th century.
Genre: Classics/Page: 401/Publisher: Wordsworth Classics/Year: 1996 – first published 1848/Source: My own copy bought new