Hey Lovelies, I hope you’re all well!
It’s been a long-ass time since my last book review, to be honest I feel a little bit of a fool ‘reviewing’ such a well-known novel by an iconic author, but if anyone is going to do it, it would have to be a Bronte nut like me!
After settling a little more on my boat (and having some time on holiday) I’ve finally managed to start working through my ‘to-read’ list. In the list I talked about having started reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte, which I finished (and will probably discuss in another post). I was planning on reading another Charlotte related book by Claire Harman, but thought I’d probably be best giving myself a break and started reading another Bronte sister’s work instead.
Anne Bronte is, I would say, the least well known of the whole family. I think even
Branwell has become much more infamous (sadly) than
his little sister. I’m currently reading Anne’s biography and in it the author describes how Anne was seen as the baby of the group, and as a result, was protected a little more from the harshness of the outside world. She was described as the prettiest and therefore became favourite of the servants, generally having a happy upbringing without the same memories of grief and loss as her surviving brother and sisters (Charlotte, Bramwell and Emily).
It’s almost laughable then, that a Yorkshire girl from way up on the moors, described as quiet and pensive should write such a loud, controversial, feminist novel (context considered, of course). Still, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in 1848, following her first novel, Agnes Grey, and as a result of its controversy, it instantly became a success.
The novel is based around a series of letters sent by one of the protagonists, Gilbert Markham, to a friend and his brother-in-law, in the run up to his meeting and marrying his wife.
The novel opens with the Markham family already discussing the arrival of a new tenant at Wildfell Hall. A mysterious young widow with a young son, accompanied by a single servant/housekeeper; little is known about her and as she slowly becomes drawn into the social circles of society, Gilbert becomes more interested in spending time with her.
As he does this, his interest in courting Eliza Millward (the daughter of a family friend) wanes, she grows jealous and begins spreading rumours about Mrs Graham’s background. While Gilbert is keen to defend her innocence, he becomes convinced she is romantically involved with a friend of his, Mr Lawrence, and attacks him when they have a chance meeting on the road to/from Wildfell Hall. Gilbert leaves Mr Lawrence on the road (having fallen from his horse) and goes on to the hall to accuse Mrs Graham of being in love with Lawrence.The narrative then switches from Gilbert’s letters to Mrs Graham’s diary, documenting the years before her arrival at Wildfell Hall.
What I find commendable about this first part of the novel, is the fact that Anne chooses to write from a male perspective (as the sisters’ pseudonyms suggest, they are all brothers). Of course we see Emily open Wuthering Heights with Mr Lockwood as narrator, but that quickly switches from him to the servant, Nelly Dean. Though critics sniffed out the possibility of the Bell ‘brothers’ actually being female quite quickly, the effort on Anne’s part, I find commendable.
From Gilbert we slip into the comfortable, though not-so-familiar territory of Helen Graham’s past.
Born and raised in high society, it’s quite the opposite to the life of her creator’s country-girl upbringing. That said, it is thought that Anne’s time as a governess, witnessing her brother Branwell’s struggle with making a career, finding love and rollercoaster relationship with alcohol, all paved the way for an eyebrow-raising, unapologetically feminist novel.
Without revealing TOO much, I think it’s fair to say that the most controversial themes within the novel can be found in Helen’s diaries. We meet a very young Helen, about to embark upon her first season in London, accompanied by her Aunt and Uncle. Each night she describes how her Aunt continues to push dull, older men in her direction, much to Helen’s disgust. Her attention is quickly turned to the younger Mr Huntingdon whom her Aunt warns her about for being ‘un-virtuous’, however by this point it’s already too late.
Like any teenager falling in love for the first time, Helen is convinced she has found her husband (though he openly flirts with other women to spike her jealousy), and they marry in December of 1821; significant because wives had absolutely no right to own their own property, have money, file for divorce or have custody over their own children. Basically, if things turned sour, it was expected of a woman to simply deal with it, otherwise she would be left with nothing.
Shortly into married life Mr Huntingdon (Arthur) takes a ‘short’ trip to London that lasts from spring through to autumn, in spite of Helen begging him to return home he ignores her requests and continues to drink himself into illness. When he returns home (sick from months of overindulgence) Arthur announces his intention to invite his friends to the estate for a hunting party. When the party arrive, it isn’t long before the cracks in Helen and Arthur’s relationship begin to show.
As I mentioned earlier, it is more than likely Anne had experience living alcoholism because of her brother’s continuous battle with drink. She reflects this experience in Arthur and his friends’ attitude towards alcohol, which can only be described as poisonous. They drink into a stupor and when they wake, they drink to make themselves feel better again; only two of the group resolve to kick their addictions, while Helen works in vein to reform her not-so-beloved husband, who eventually manages to pass on the addiction to their 5 year old son Arthur. (Don’t worry, Helen finds a way to rectify her
Helen’s tireless devotion to her husband is touching at times, however for me it quickly wore thin. It was easy to see her naivety from the very beginning (I mean, why would you MARRY someone who was openly flirting with another woman?!) and the belief that she would be able to ‘reform’ her husband, I think is her biggest downfall.
It seems there’s always something alluring about a bad boy. Women always think they can change them and it rarely works (in literature anyway). I think one of the female characters in the novel actually discusses ‘changing’ their husbands ways; Lady Loughborough (an utter bitch) quietly boasts to Helen (who has clearly lost control of her drunken husband in the drawing room one night) that she never has problems with her husband drinking anymore because she simply tells him it will make her unhappy – spoiler – her marriage breaks down later in the novel; so much for her influence eh!
I find it funny that even 170 years ago women were drawn to ‘bad’ men for the same reasons as today. Charlotte’s account of her sister tells us that Anne strongly believed in redemption and reform; one critic accused the novel of being a work of propaganda against drunkenness which you can hardly blame her for, given she watched the slow decline and death of her brother from alcohol and drug addiction.
While the novel may well be a form of propaganda, Anne doesn’t succumb to the ideal scenario, where Arthur suddenly sees sense, refuses to drink another drop of wine and does everything in his power to make his wife happy again. I think even Anne knew some people aren’t worth salvaging!
Instead Helen is forced to abandon all hope of reforming her husband and concentrate on the wellbeing of her son, at the cost of the law, society and her religious beliefs. It’s also at this point in the novel where interesting things start to happen.
I hate novels that drag, and though this one is remarkably short (for a Bronte novel), it becomes quite stagnant in places. Maybe it’s the continually depressing, suppressive surroundings we’re stuck in, or maybe it’s the meekness of the protagonist (at times), or perhaps the Bronte sisters enjoyed waffling on in conversation. I find things have tended to drag in every Bronte novel I have read thus far, even in my beloved Jane Eyre!
Thankfully, the plot begins to pick up again when Helen makes the decision to escape her husband. It’s at this point that you can imagine the sheer horror of the 19th Century male Critic; a woman, running away, taking ‘her own’ money, making a life for herself and her son through painting?!
It’s hardly surprising the novel caused such a stir in the literary community at the time. Anne was offering up radical feminist ideals of women living independently, as a single parents and talking to men as equals, when change in attitudes towards women were barely starting to take place; women weren’t able to own their own property within a marriage until 1870 – 22 years after the novel’s publication!
Sadly, because the novel caused such controversy, it resulted in a considerable amount of criticism towards Anne as an author. So much so that after Anne’s death, Charlotte prevented the re-publication of the novel, it is thought she prevented it to avoid re-kindling the fire so-to-speak, especially given she was still mourning the loss.
Other’s believe Charlotte prevented the re-issue because she was jealous of Anne’s immediate success. She made no secret of the fact that she believed her sister’s subject choice ‘unfortunately chosen’, though Charlotte also passed comment on Wuthering Heights, and was fairly critical of her own work.. so who knows!
I think this novel highlights the fact that feminism doesn’t mean women burning their bras and castrating men. It’s easy to spot the injustice in Helen’s situation, the fact that she has no legal rights, her opinions are worthless to her male counterparts and she is essentially kept as a prisoner in her own home, while her husband drinks and gambles himself into oblivion. It’s impossible not to empathise with Helen, and feel disappointed that women were held in such little regard at that time.
Context and message aside, I really enjoyed this novel. I think people tend to be really put off at the prospect of reading a Bronte novel because it’s so lengthy and the rhetoric is entirely different, but actually, I think The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a good starting point.
If you’re looking to get into reading the Bronte sisters, or maybe just reading a little more Victorian literature generally, I think this is the perfect novel to start with. It’s easy to understand, easy to relate (and compare) to modern-day life and reasonably quick to read!
Have you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, if so, what did you think of it?
If you’ve got any recommendations for me to read, don’t be shy, comment below and let me know, I’d love to hear from you!
Till next time,
p.s. Yes I ate that chocolate muffin afterwards!