I haven’t had much success with Anne Brontë in the past – I’ve read Agnes Grey but was too simultaneously bored and grossed out by it to say I enjoyed it. However, I was in a Brontë mood after a recent trip to Haworth and the Parsonage (it’s about 15 minutes away from my house – no excuse) and the pretty Penguin English Library edition was screaming for my attention from the shelf. Please don’t let there be baby-bird-squishing in this one…
Plot summary: Gilbert
Markham is deeply intrigued by Helen Graham, a beautiful and secretive
young widow who has moved into nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son.
He is quick to offer Helen his friendship, but when her reclusive
behavior becomes the subject of local gossip and speculation, Gilbert
begins to wonder whether his trust in her has been misplaced. It is only
when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that the truth is revealed
and the shocking details of her past.
I started loving The Tenant of Wildfell Hall almost immediately. I knew next to nothing about the story – for some reason, I had in my head that it was about a young family that lived next door to Wildfell Hall, which was full of ill repute and shame… but apparently not. It did mean that every turn and new character was an absolute surprise, so I was able to discover new revelations at the same time as Gilbert, the narrator.
That took some getting used to, by the way. I didn’t realise immediately that the main character was male, which led to some slightly confusing moments. It was partly my own fault for just assuming that the narrator would be female (as is the case with most Brontë novels) but I also can’t help but think that the voice just ‘sounds’ female. Ah well, no harm done.
Whilst I wasn’t overfond of Gilbert (the man basically assaults a Pastor and then gets all huffy when said Pastor doesn’t want his help to stand up), I really did like Helen, at least to begin with. I felt super defensive of her when the townsfolk were all snooty and smug, which is always the mark of good writing. She does get very preachy and condescending from the 2/3 point or so – and unnecessarily mean to Walter.
It’s almost like she grows a backbone… but then has it surgically removed just to prove what a moral and grovelling person she is. The book does give a reason for her doing that, so I suppose (grdugingly) that it does make sense but it doesn’t mean I have to like it… *grumbles*
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is massively ahead of its time. It’s no surprise at all that it didn’t get a good reception when it was first released. It seems to poke fun at those who would prefer women to be meek and silent, which is odd because that’s kind of how I think of the Brontës. It also speaks out against domestic violence, which you pretty much weren’t allowed to do in 18-whatever (EDIT: 48!). It’s interesting to see the difference between modern pro-women literature and this book, which has to be oh-so-much more subtle.
It’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you. I’m sure
your poor, dear father was as good a husband as ever lived, and after
the first six months or so were over, I should as soon have expected him
to fly, as to put himself out of his way to pleasure me. He always said
I was a good wife, and did my duty; and he always did his—bless him!—he
was steady and punctual, seldom found fault without a reason, always
did justice to my good dinners, and hardly ever spoiled my cookery by
delay— and that’s as much as any woman can expect of any man.
Awesome. All I ever wanted was a man who shows up on time for me to feed him. Be still my beating heart.
I loathed Arthur, simply because he could be real (and probably is). He never hit, slapped or raped Helen once, but the novel doesn’t shy away from saying that abuse doesn’t have to be physical. Hell, that’s a concept many people struggle with today. I suspect that Anne Brontë drew on her brother’s behaviour as inspiration for this book, and if so, then I pity her posthumously.
Her gradual change of feelings towards him is very well done. It’s subtle and actually almost masterful, instead of having Helen just wake-up one morning and realise that her husband is abusive. She slowly grows stronger as he tests her endurance daily… which is why it’s so infuriating when she regresses a little.
He would not hear of my attending the funeral, or going for a day
or two, to cheer poor Frederick’s solitude. It was quite
unnecessary, he said, and I was unreasonable to wish it. … ‘Besides, dear
Helen,’ said he, embracing me with flattering fondness, ‘I cannot
spare you for a single day.’
‘Then how have you managed without me these many days?’ said I.
‘Ah! then I was knocking about the world, now I am at home, and
home without you, my household deity, would be intolerable.’
‘Yes, as long as I am necessary to your comfort; but you did not
say so before, when you urged me to leave you, in order that you
might get away from your home without me,’ retorted I; but before
the words were well out of my mouth, I regretted having uttered
them. It seemed so heavy a charge: if false, too gross an insult;
if true, too humiliating a fact to be thus openly cast in his
teeth. But I might have spared myself that momentary pang of self-
reproach. The accusation awoke neither shame nor indignation in
him: he attempted neither denial nor excuse, but only answered
with a long, low, chuckling laugh, as if he viewed the whole
transaction as a clever, merry jest from beginning to end. Surely
that man will make me dislike him at last!
I admit that it got a little tedious between the end of Helen’s story and the end of the book, when the narrative switches back to Gilbert. I felt that it slowed down the pace of the book somewhat and the whole thing could have been wrapped up a lot quicker. I understand it was necessary to learn about Gilbert’s reaction but perhaps not in quite so much detail.
To conclude, I ended up enjoying The Tenant of Wildfell Hall way more than I expected to. It’s a very character-driven novel, but the detail with which they’re written is almost unbelievable. I felt desperately sorry for Helen, wanted to do vile things to Arthur and even resisted scowling at Gilbert too much. I’d even go so far as to say that this book is the second best Brontë novel.