Recently, I bought the new Brontë Vintage Classics – if you haven’t seen them yet, you need to, because they are absolutely gorgeous! The three they published in these editions are Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë – one by each of the three sisters. I had already Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (as well as Anne’s other novel, Agnes Grey), so I wanted to reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but it was not on my immediate TBR list, just something I planned on reading at some point in time. Then I wrote a post for International Women’s Day, and during my research, I discovered that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is actually one of the very first feminist novels. I spent a few days staring at it on my desk – I do have a lot of other reading I should probably have done first – before finally picking it up.
When Helen Graham and her son Arthur take up residence at Wildfell Hall, rumors circulate in the small town. Despite her best efforts, Helen remains aloof from her neighbors, and refuses to leave her son in the care of anyone else, even for the sake of his schooling. But one man is able to get through to her. Gilbert Markham, the eldest son of one of Wildfell Hall’s most overbearing neighbors. Markham befriends the young Arthur, and finds himself falling in love with the boy’s mother, the mysterious Helen. When it seems possible she may be returning his feelings, instead she draws away. Markham refuses to give up, and after he professes his love to Helen, she gives him a journal containing her darkest secret. And then she tells him she’s leaving, regardless of how he feels after reading it. A mistake Helen made as a young woman could either prevent her from future happiness, or unexpectedly drive her to it.
For me, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall became an instant, and unexpected, favorite. I truly just loved everything about it. The style was reminiscent of some of my favorite classics, like Pride and Prejudice, but still unique (I read Agnes Grey a really long time ago, so I can’t really compare them). I was a little annoyed at first when I got 150 pages in, and discovered that the majority of the book was Helen’s diary, because I was beginning to like Markham’s voice (which is how the book begins and ends), but I ended up really enjoying it. Helen’s diary was done beautifully. It begins when she’s a teenager, and just starting to seriously look for a husband (as one did in the 1820s) and ends with her leaving her abusive husband – who is seriously the biggest literary fuckboy in the history of fuckboys (excuse my language, I just really hate him). I thought the story was just so well done, but what I liked most was that Brontë didn’t ignore the fact that Helen’s writing style would have matured along with her thinking between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. As Helen grew up, so did her writing. Which is just such a brilliant detail! It was so well integrated into the story that I hardly noticed (except, as we all know, I’m kind of an obsessive nerd when it comes to writing).
And can we talk about Mr. Huntingdon (aka the aforementioned fuckboy)? He’s one of those villains who is just so cleverly written that you end up hating him just as much as an actual person. I only know of a few writers skilled enough to do that. I also loved the fact that he didn’t physically abuse Helen, he emotionally tortured her. This book demonstrates that physical violence is not the only kind, and that there are different kinds of abusive relationships, all of which are equally unacceptable. It’s honestly mind-blowing that this was written almost two-hundred years ago. Because it’s completely relevant today.
No surprise here, I gave The Tenant of Wildfell Hall five stars. It’s a seriously amazing novel! I found it extremely interesting, having read both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, to look at Anne’s take on that sort of domineering, dishonest male figure (which – don’t kill me – Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester totally are). There’s a long-standing tradition of male literary characters being somewhat mentally or emotionally abusive and controlling towards female characters, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Anne’s critique of this overly romantic, and, frankly, stupid idea. I loved the idea that, yes, in 1820, a woman might have needed a man for survival (it was very difficult, though not entirely impossible, for a woman to support herself at that time), but that doesn’t mean she has to put up with any sort of abuse.
I highly recommend this book! Especially for readers who have grown out of those books which feature a slightly abusive relationship (often disguised as “love” and justified, or at the very least, forgiven by the wronged party). Actually, if you haven’t grown out of those books, you should definitely read this one. Maybe it will give you some insight. Plus, it’s just a really excellent book.
If you’ve read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I’d love to hear your thoughts! What’s your favorite Brontë novel?