Reviewed by Ambrea
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall recounts the story of Helem Graham, a widowed young artist who has arrived at Wildfell Hall with her young son in tow. Unknown to the nearby village, she’s reclusive and mysterious and scandalously aloof and, soon, everyone—including Gilbert Markham, a local farmer who finds himself entranced by the lovely newcomer—clamors to know who she is, where she comes from, and why she ever decided to choose Wildfell Hall. Narrated by both Gilbert and Helen, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall uncovers the extent to which violence, abuse, excess, and tyranny were tolerated within marriage and polite society—and the extreme measures which one woman will take in protecting her child and declaring her own independence.
Anne Brontë created a true classic in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Besides investigating a topic rarely discussed in polite Victorian society—and causing quite a stir in the process—Brontë crafts an amazing and compelling narrative that captured my attention immediately. Between the intimate glimpses into Helen’s diary, as she recounts her most shocking and tragic experiences, and Gilbert’s candid confessions, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall presents a brutally honest picture of life within a loveless marriage and one woman’s shocking bid for independence.
Originally published under the pseudonym of Acton Bell, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a sensational success for Anne Brontë and, unsurprisingly, it also became a literary scandal. Even Charlotte, who penned Jane Eyre, believed it was too shocking for publication and, after Anne’s death in 1849, prevented its republication. As Charlotte wrote in the preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, she believed Anne made a poor decision in choosing the subject of her novels, having a “naturally sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind: it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail…as a warning to others.”
Although Anne was greatly criticized for her novel, I believe The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of my favorite Brontë novels (with Jane Eyre being the other). I absolutely love the characters: their emotions are raw, their thoughts are intimately depicted to their reader, their actions are occasionally impulsive (they’re human, they make mistakes), and their reasoning is sometimes flawed, but I think I enjoyed their stories for much that reason. Both Gilbert and Helen exist as imperfect individuals, which makes them human and all the more precious for it.
But, if I’m being honest, I loved Helen best. Gilbert plays a crucial role in the novel and he has merits of his own as a kind, honorable gentleman, especially when compared to some of the other, less savory individuals depicted; however, he generally pales in comparison to the honesty and emotional fortitude of Helen. Although he claims full and unfaltering loyalty to Helen, Gilbert frequently succumbs to the pressures of society. He’s very much shaped by gossip and social expectations—and, yes, his mother—and, as such, he often seems to fall into the disappointing habit of embracing gender stereotypes and double standards.
Helen, on the other hand, recognizes her faults and she’s honest about them. Moreover, she doesn’t shy away from even the most disturbing and unsavory events within her life. Emotional abuse, alcoholism, illicit sexual affairs, cruelty and violence, and much more appear within the pages of Helen’s diary, as she reveals her history to Gilbert, but she tells him every last secret, every last heart-wrenching detail—and I find that makes her one of the most appealing and, perhaps, the bravest character I’ve ever encountered.
For more information about the criticism and critics of Wildfell Hall, check out: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/abronte/downey2.html#radical