Rating: 4 stars
Synopsis: An unknown lady and her child moving into Wildfell Hall, a gloomy old property that has remained unoccupied for years, causes quite a stir in the quiet rural community of Linden-Car. Mrs Graham is reclusive and unforthcoming, yet, at times, a strangely intense conversationalist. Despite the malicious rumours that begin to circulate, Gilbert Markham becomes intrigued by this singular lady. As the two grow closer companions through Mrs Graham’s son Arthur, a past is revealed that even the most avaricious gossips of the parish could never conjecture…
I always enjoy books set in the Victorian period, so naturally, I was already enthusiastic about reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The era of social calls, courtship and ball-gowns always seems quaint in hindsight. However, this book is unique in that Anne Brontë illuminates the darker elements behind this polite society.
One of the most striking aspects of this novel for me was that Anne Brontë seems greatly ahead of her time in terms of her views on women’s equality. This is particularly clear through the character of Helen Graham, candid and independent, who does not shy from defying social expectations in favour of doing what she believes to be right.
Well, but you affirm that virtue is only elicited by temptation; – and you think that a woman cannot be too little exposed to temptation, or too little acquainted with vice, or anything connected therewith. It must be either that you think she is essentially so vicious, or so feeble-minded, that she cannot withstand temptation, – and though she may be pure and innocent as long as she is kept in ignorance and restraint, yet, being destitute of real virtue, to teach her how to sin is at once to make her a sinner, and the greater her knowledge, the wider her liberty, the deeper will be her depravity, – whereas, in the nobler sex, there is a natural tendency to goodness, guarded by a superior fortitude, which, the more it is exercised by trials and dangers, is only the further developed –
It was only after reading, while researching this review, that I discovered The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is widely considered one of the first feminist novels.
‘Balance’ is one of the first words that come to mind when I think of this book. Anne Brontë strikes a subtle equilibrium between lightness and seriousness. At times the author becomes deeply moralising, while the subject matter she deals with is often sombre. Nevertheless, to me, it did not feel like ‘heavy’ reading, as the story never falters for too long. The daunting social questions considered are perhaps balanced by the individual triumphs and calamities of Brontë’s characters, as well as the amusing social trivialities of the time.
In fact, I found the characters an engaging source of suspense and intrigue, since the perspectives from which we view them are so changeable. As characters develop in the eyes of our two narrators, Gilbert Markham and Helen Graham, our opinion of them also alters, creating an undercurrent of uncertainty throughout.
I first heard of this novel in a film that I watched called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. In this film, a heartfelt argument is launched against those who critically compare Anne Brontë to her elder sisters. There are those who dismiss The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as neither as impassioned as Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë) nor so accomplished as Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë).
Having now read the book, I would be prepared to defend Anne Brontë’s work with equal vehemence! It is a great book in its own right, that manages to be both an expressive social critique and a charming story.
There is such a thing as looking through a person’s eyes into the heart, and learning more of the height, and breadth, and depth of another’s soul in one hour than it might take you a lifetime to discover, if he or she were not disposed to reveal it, or if you had not the sense to understand it.
Read if: you are looking for a classic that combines morality and charm.
Cover image courtesy of Goodreads.
Have you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or any other books by the Brontë sisters? What did you think? Please do let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!