Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

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.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Classics/Page: 401/Publisher: Wordsworth Classics/Year: 1996 – first published 1848/Source: My own copy bought new

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11 thoughts on “Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

  1. Ann Elle Altman says:

    I recently read this book and found it in some places a bit preachy but I think it should be on everyone’s must read list.

    ann

  2. Ash says:

    I have read Agnes Grey by Anne but not this book. I plan to read it this year and your review has me looking forward to it- I was completely in the dark about the structure of the book.

  3. Aarti says:

    I read this some years ago and remember the main character also being too saintly for my tastes. I agree it is preachy. I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it.

  4. mel u says:

    Thanks for your review-I also did not know of the very interesting structure of the book-I just read Agnes Grey and enjoyed and admired it a lot-Anne Bronte only wrote two books in her short life and I see no reason not to read both of them.-very well done post

  5. Helen says:

    Ann and Aarti – I agree about the preachiness, though it didn’t spoil the book for me.

    Ash and Mel – I hope you both enjoy the book. I haven’t read Agnes Grey yet but it’s on my list for later in the year.

  6. Zorro says:

    My reaction to Helen’s diary is the same as yours. I found the first section so much easier to read. I have to stay with it though I sometimes want to stop reading.

  7. Helen says:

    Zorro – The diary was quite slow at first, where she’s describing her first meetings with Arthur, but I thought it really picked up after that. It was worth sticking with. 🙂

  8. Book Chick City says:

    I have read nearly all the Bronte sisters books and this is still one of my favourites among them. I’ve read it many times and I still love it. Thanks for your review 🙂

  9. mel u says:

    I just read and posted on Wildfell Hall-(I linked to your review)-I liked the novel a lot and see it as big artistic jump up from Agnes Grey

  10. Anonymous says:

    i did like the book; the story was interesting, especially for the time which it was written. For me it was not an easy read. The use of so many words, not commonly used, in long sentences…..you had to really concentrate. I did not like the footnotes being in the back of the book instead of at the bottom of the page(and so many!!!) I finally quit using them. I would refer to them occasionally when I felt it would be helpful to the story. Personally, JANE EYRE is still my favorite

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