The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte (1848)

Anne Bronte (imagine the two little dot things on the last “e”) wrote this under the pseudonym of Acton Bell, and as such, it has been called “the most shocking” of the Brontes’ novels. I am not too sure why it was considered “most shocking” except that perhaps, considering the cultural mores of the day, the (male) society of the day did not approve of the early feminist stance of the protagonist who stands up to her abusing husband and even leaves him. However,
it was considered shocking enough that when Anne died, her sister Charlotte prevented re-publication of it for a number of years.

From some preliminary digging around on the net, I found out that when the protagonist Helen slams the door in the face of her abusive husband, “it reverberated around Victorian England”, as she not only violated English customs but also English law. (It was only in 1870 when England passed the Married Women’s Property Act that a wife could be seen legally as an independent person, could own her own property, enter into legal contracts separate from her husband, sue him for divorce or control custody of her children.) Before this Act was passed, a married woman (and all her wealth) was the property of her husband. (Gaah. I would not have liked this one bit.) So it was interesting to find out that this often-forgotten novel is actually a bastion of feminist action.

Gilbert Markham (who is writing this whole letter that the novel is framed around) is attracted to Helen, and wants to know her true story; however, Helen is very private and unwilling to give any details of her background (which makes perfect sense when you learn, as a reader, that she was in an abusive marriage before).  Another point to ponder is that Gilbert has been steadily wooing Eliza until Helen arrives on the scene, and when Eliza notices that Gilbert’s attentions are fading, she takes revenge on Helen by spreading malicious rumors about her to the villagers.

So – this novel is stuffed with rumor and misinformation, with gossiping villagers and bored rich young men and women vying for each other’s attentions. It can get confusing at times with all the many different characters who are introduced, but if you pay attention, you will be ok.  It’s almost Dickensian in some ways in the purely extravagant numbers of people who are mentioned in the story.

Bronte has Helen marry the horrible Huntingdon with the belief that she can change his drinking habits and make him a responsible husband. Ha. This was not to be (obviously), and some researchers claim that the Huntington character was Anne’s brother Branwell in that both men were good looking, unfaithful, and drank heavily. The author definitely seems very familiar with the ups and downs of living with an alcoholic partner, so perhaps this could be so.

Another thing I noticed was how the male characters were described when they were in love – it was almost obsessive how possessive some of these men were for their partners, and in today’s terms, I would call some of these behaviors really creepy.  Anne was 28 when she wrote this, but was not well experienced in the school of life,
having only left her home for governess positions between 1839 and 1845 and then returning home. I don’t know anything about her love life (or what little there was of it), but I have a feeling that she was not experienced in that either as her descriptions of her male characters being “in love” are very exaggerated and seem to be from rather a naïve point of view. It was quite adolescent how emotional some of them were, really. However, she had had a very quiet life so how was she to know any different from what her siblings told her and what she read herself?

I had a nice surprise when I opened this up and found that it was epistolary – YEAH. I love epistolary novels so this was a very nice bonus. It takes the form of a letter and references another character’s journal (so it’s quite meta in some ways).

I ended up really enjoying this read, sentimental though it was in places. By the end, I felt that I had known the main characters and could understand their motivations and actions, and although I was frustrated (as a modern reader) at some of the constraints and choices of the women, they were common for the time.

Since I have read Wuthering Heights (by sister Emily) and Jane Eyre (by sister Charlotte), it’s clear that Anne was writing in a different less Romantic (with a capital R) style than they were. It’s a shame that she died so young as I think she would have written some interesting work, and now I am tempted to read Agnes Grey (which was published a year later, two years before she died.)

This was an ebook from girlebooks.

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