Monday, May 18, 2020

'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' by Anne Bronte

This is the story of a woman's struggle for independence. Helen "Graham" has returned to Wildfell Hall in flight from a disastrous marriage. Exiled to the desolate moorland mansion, she adopts an assumed name and earns her living as a painter.

This is my 19th Century Classic in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. What a powerful read. The moral is, 'Girls, don't romanticise bad boys.' This book puts Anne Bronte into a class of her own, since her two sisters' novels tend to do that very thing. But I think Anne considered it her mission to show that you can't reform them. She has her heroine Helen say of her new fiance, 'I should think my life well spent in the effort to preserve so noble a nature from destruction.' Then she proves by his later behaviour that it's bollocks! 

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Gilbert Markham is the first narrator. He's a young country farmer who's curious about Helen Graham, a beautiful artist who lives with her small son in a wing of the nearby Wildfell Hall. It's a cold, inhospitable place, and she pays their rent by selling paintings. Gilbert finds Helen prickly, opinionated and over-protective of little Arthur. But as her deep and intelligent nature charms him, he gradually falls in love with her, and suspects she's warming to him too. Village gossips hint that Helen isn't the simple widow she seems, but the truth is a bitter blow to Gilbert. Her husband is still alive and she ran away from him, taking their son with her. 

The bulk of the book is Helen's diary; one engrossing flashback. She tells her own tale of how she fell for Arthur Huntingdon, a charming rake who sweeps her off her feet but turns out to be a bad-egg who makes her life a living hell. 

I think Anne's reputation of being the weakest Bronte sister is totally undeserved. It's like trying to argue which is most inferior out of apples, oranges and bananas. Perhaps she doesn't have Charlotte's classical scope of reference or Emily's mystical tone, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This story is refreshingly free of Charlotte's frequent waffle in French, which is a plus in my books. Anne has an earnest, candid style and plenty of graceful 19th century dialogue which I love. And that's as good as anything the other two have. 

Her characterisation is excellent. We can see exactly why Helen falls for Arthur in the first place, then grows to resent him so fiercely later on, while it's clear to us that he's the same douche all through. Anne Bronte has created a classic case of the initial attraction feature eventually becoming the biggest turn-off. At first Helen loves Arthur's 'joyful, playful spirit', but it takes living together to reveal him as a shallow, restless narcissist with no idea how to fill his spare time if he's not drinking or gambling. And since he's a member of the landed gentry, that's every day.

Arthur expects Helen to drop everything to amuse him. He's a cheat, a liar who never intends to keep his word, and eventually winds up as an alcoholic. His emotional abuse is horrendous, and when he starts pulling similar dirty moves on Arthur Junior, Helen knows enough is enough. Her allegiance has rightfully shifted from her husband to her innocent son. She does what few wives of the era would have done, and leaves him. Anne Bronte was surely among the first to suggest through this story that marriage vows should not be binding when enough lines are crossed. 

But then there's the Gilbert factor! My word, far more complex than just the 'better guy', he's super-reactive and life in his head space is just one emotional roller coaster after another. Gilbert is a hot-head and an over-thinker rolled into one, which is not the best combo. But he has empathy for others and a sense of his own shortcomings, which Arthur seemed to have been totally born without. They are Gilbert's saving graces. 

Ultimately it's Helen's story. She draws on her courage and rock solid Christian faith to bolster her conviction that the socially unpopular move is her only recourse. And I love her comments that mark her as a clear introvert centuries before the 21st century introvert liberation I've been enjoying. For a start, she finds social chit-chat draining. 'I'm wearied to death with small talk. I cannot imagine how they go on as they do. I hate talking where there is no exchange of ideas or sentiments, and no good given or received.' And many modern introverts surely echo, 'You preach it, sister!' 

There's so much more I could share about this book, including its secondary characters? The Preface, written by Anne Bronte herself, is well worth a read. It seems rigid nineteenth century PC standards deemed that drunken louts behaving like morons shouldn't appear in the pages of novels. Authors should entirely block them out, as if they don't exist. I loved reading Anne's own polite justification for causing offence. Basically, she says that she won't use her writing skills simply to give escapist readers some feel-good sighs. She felt she had a responsibility to warn idealistic girls like Helen about handsome, walking stumbling blocks with the potential to ruin their lives. Her own words are beautifully formed, so here's a direct quote. 

'Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller or to cover them with branches and flowers?'  

If I'd been around back then, I would have written to Anne, congratulated her for a fantastic job and told her that I think the drunken chapters were the most impacting of the whole book. Unlike her sisters, she calls a jerk a jerk. It's so authentically written, I believe Anne probably drew a lot from real life with her brother Branwell. What we're getting are probably creepy echoes from their Haworth Parsonage home two hundred years after Branwell's carrying-on. And it sticks in my mind long after finishing the book. 

Finally, I love this cartoon from Hark, a Vagrant, which I won't share straight onto the blog and violate copyright laws, but the link is here



  1. Great review. The introduction sounds interesting in and of itself. Like someone telling folks not to do something but doing it themselves. Perhaps it is a bit ironic. I have read both Anne and Charlotte and I really need to get to this one.

    1. Hi Brian, it is a bit like that! And I do recommend it. It's a good feeling to have read all three Brontes, then standing back for an overall comparison. But there's so much in them all, it can go on and on forever.

  2. It's probably twenty years since I read this, but I do remember it's my favourite of the Bronte novels, for all the reasons you cover.

    1. Hi Iola, yes, most reader friendly and most impacting. She deserves a far higher profile than she ended up with.

  3. That was a great review and opinion. As I've stated, I AM going to return to this one, and I suspect I will share some of your opinions, too. I stopped right after I got into Helen's journal.

    The cartoon was good, too. LOL!

    1. Hi Ruth,

      At least you've already got through the set-up section from Gilbert at the start 👍

      Helen's diary is painful at times, but I found it got really interesting the further in I read, and grew intrigued with the situations of her secondary character friends too.

      I'll look forward to seeing what you think at the finish. And yes, the cartoon says it all 😉

  4. Awesome post. I must say I'm utterly charmed by Jane Eyre & Villette, romanticized males not withstanding. But I don't personally care for Wuthering Heights.

    I find Anne incredible. She writes realism that makes me stand up & shake my fist. I ADORE THAT PREFACE. Wish she'd written a book of essays. I especially like Agnes Grey. :)

    Just wanted to comment on this passage within your review:

    * And I love her comments that mark her as a clear introvert centuries before the 21st century introvert liberation I've been enjoying. For a start, she finds social chit-chat draining. 'I'm wearied to death with small talk. I cannot imagine how they go on as they do. I hate talking where there is no exchange of ideas or sentiments, and no good given or received.' And many modern introverts surely echo, 'You preach it, sister!' *

    As an extrovert (ENFP) I feel compelled to say this is not strictly an introvert thing. I'm fairly certain all people of intelligence prefer a constructive conversation. Extroverts included. Let us not assume that because an extrovert feels more alive within the company of lively people, she is willing to settle upon petty conversation. I am quite extroverted (energy goes way up in face to face conversation), but that energy goes down as quickly in enforced small talk, which I find uninspired, draining, and dull. We crave intelligent discussion too -- spontaneous happy banter, certainly, but of substance. As a representative of my fellow happy Es I cannot have it thought otherwise. :)

    (That said, I agree she was likely an introvert, ha ha.)

    1. Hi Jillian,

      An essay book from Anne would have been great. I was told there are 3 hymns of hers in the British Methodist hymn book. I did love the Charlotte Bronte books you mentioned but wasn't mad on Shirley.

      Great point about the other matter too. I certainly wasn't meaning to suggest that extroverts thrive on shallow conversation, or anything like that. That thought never entered my head for a moment 😊 I was simply thinking how small talk fatigue is an introvert hallmark. But you were quite fair for bringing it up.

      Our Myers/Briggs profiles are very similar but for one point, since I am INFP. I'm sure we'd have some interesting conversations 😉

    2. Oh, I love an INFP! You all are as inclined to fly with the dragons as an ENFP, but appear so reserved on the outside. :-) Always gentle and kind. x

      I typed as an INFO forever on those online tests, but I mentioned this to my mother and sister & they fell over laughing & informed me most untidily that I am decidedly not an introvert. The questions on those tests ask things like "would you rather read or party" and naturally I'd prefer to read. In a room. With people I love there. Who don't mind me making lectures and reading aloud. The tests don't ask that. :P

      I have Shirley on my TBR. I wasn't sure I'd like it either as I've heard it's different from Charlotte's other novels, but I'm willing to give it a go.

      Really nice to meet you. Your reviews are wonderful. :-)

    3. Haha, that sounds like a very accurate conclusion 😄

      The tests are a bit skewed in ways you've mentioned, but we know ourselves well enough to know what to take with a grain of salt.

      I'd be interested to see what you think of Shirley down the track. I thought Charlotte's writing was beautiful, as always, but certain characters and their plights pressed my irritation buttons a bit too much. I mentioned why in my review 😉

      Thanks for your kind words 😊 It's a labour of love and we should compare notes more often.

  5. I have scrolled right down to the comments without reading this review, purely to say PAULA! STOP REVIEWING AWESOME BOOKS FROM MY TOWERING TO-BE-READ STACK! Hahahaha. Didn't want you to think I'd abandoned your blog, but equally want to make sure I've read the book before I delve into your delightful commentary on it, and there's been a few in a row now... I'll be saving this, naturally, and get back to you as soon as I'm acquainted with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall! ;)

    1. Hi Sheree,

      Haha, I hope you read this one soon, just because I'd love to read your thoughts on this ripper of a book 😊 And do come back on comment on this post when you do. I'd love to compare notes.