Well, here goes, I’m going to say it…I may have just read my favourite book of this year so far. It would have to take something rather special to change my mind about this. The Bronte sisters – what a talented trio they were. Of the three, Anne is by far the least known and is held in less regard. Unfortunately for us she was only able to write two books, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because, as was so common in those days, she died early, aged only 29. Thank goodness she gave us this book and I can only begin to imagine what she may have been capable of.
I like Jane Eyre, I love Wuthering Heights but in my opinion The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a perfect blend of the best features of both the other books. I only completed Jane Eyre on my second attempt. It seems so slow in the first portion of the book, I realise the adult Jane needs to be explained through her experiences as a child, but I found myself often having to re-read whole sections, because I realised I wasn’t paying attention, or rather the story wasn’t holding my attention. On my second attempt I forced myself through the early chapters and learned to like the book this way. Wuthering Heights I found dark, brooding, defiant and provocative, as if you are constantly being poked by a stick. You don’t come away from Wuthering Heights feeling warm and cosy, and that is fine, reading shouldn’t always be about having that comfortable, happy feeling where everything ends up alright in the end. The second time I read Wuthering Heights, having first read it in my teens, upon my younger sister’s recommendation (which is something of an oddity in itself as it was me that read books, not her), I felt it was just a bit too melodramatic at times. I still love it though, perhaps because of the drama.
Before I go on about why I enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall so much, here is a very brief summary of the plot. (Warning: Spoilers, skip forward if you don’t want to know the plot). Helen Huntingdon has left her wealthy, alcoholic, violent husband, and taken their son to live in a wing of the long uninhabited Wildfell Hall situated on hilltop in the moors. She lives there under an assumed name and attempts to make a living as a painter. While in hiding at Wildfell she becomes acquainted with various locals, all are fascinated by her background and what she is doing there, much false gossip ensues. One of her neighbours is Gilbert Markham, a gentleman farmer. During her time at Wildfell they become friends and grow to love each other, eventually she is forced to reveal her history to Gilbert. As she is still married their relationship can never come to anything. Gilbert is beside himself when he learns Helen has returned to her tyrant husband to nurse him through illness. My spoilers stop here as there is little sense in me telling you more. I would love you to read it yourself!
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does it for me in so many ways. Firstly, there is very little scene-setting at the beginning, the action gets going very quickly and like the inhabitants of the small moorland village, you begin to wonder who this stranger is, where she has come from, what her story is and why she behaves in such a closeted manner. The tale ambles when required and is dramatic and tense at times, without being melodramatic or over the top.
Secondly, two narrators reveal the plot, so the book has two voices telling different parts of the story. The book opens and continues with a letter from Gilbert to his friend outlining some of his life before they met. He starts with the arrival of Mrs Graham, the new tenant of Wildfell Hall and chronicles her reception by the other villagers. Her wish to keep herself and her son isolated from life in the village and his slow realisation that he feels deep emotion for her. The other narrator is Helen herself. It comes in the form of her diaries which set out her story before her arrival at Wildfell and serve to slowly reveal the cruelty she was subjected to at the hands of her husband and therefore explain her behaviour already described by Gilbert in his letter. Both the letter and the diary are perfect devices for unfolding the story and allows the reader to build up the picture in degrees. As the reader you have a great sense that what you are hearing is the truth, as the story is being told by the two main players and not by minor characters and witnesses.
Thirdly, the book is so rich in language, plot and character that you cannot help but be sucked into the beautiful descriptions. I sometimes feel that the art of writing in this style of long sweeping sentences full of stanzas and sub-clauses has been largely forgotten or lost. I started reading a brand new book straight after Wildfell and was immediately struck by the simplicity of the sentences and language compared to the book I’d just completed. There are stunning passages describing the desolate, rude landscape that typifies Bronte country, bringing it alive in your imagination. The descriptions of the characters are almost Dickensian in their detail such that you have an image of them in your mind’s eye and feel sympathy with their motivations. Themes are neatly woven throughout the book to bind minor characters to the overall story – the main one being the varying expectations of marriage by husbands and wives, but also the role of women and how their behaviour affects how members of their family, the clergy and society in general views them.
Finally, the themes tackled by Anne Bronte in Wildfell and how the book was received upon publication is almost as interesting as the story itself, and is almost more important for women’s writing. Anne Bronte must have had some courage to write and publish this work, for she discusses issues that were distasteful to acknowledge during her era as well as describing behaviour against society’s norms; alcoholism, domestic violence, a wife leaving her husband taking their child with her, a woman going into hiding, finding new love when still married. All of these themes were incredibly disagreeable to the early Victorians and went wholly against ideas of duty.
The most commonly reprinted edition of this book is the 2nd, which is prefaced with a commentary from Anne Bronte. In it she describes how she hadn’t anticipated the reception her book got on its original publication, she felt a need to make some observations about why she wrote what she did. She is defiant, and you have to love her for it. I’ve re-printed a couple of lines below, but in the meantime please, please seek out this book – I know you won’t be disappointed.
My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it….and when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I WILL speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own. Author’s Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.