The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

I’m not coping with October’s mild weather. I need an autumnal breeze, bare branches, shades of orange under my feet. If I wanted warmth October, I would have asked for it.

I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall hoping I could channel the wintry Brontë atmosphere I have come to know and love, and relied on Anne to take me from this endless summer.

‘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.’ GoodReads.

It took me a chapter or two to adjust to a male protagonist. I was pushed off balance by Gilbert, I expected another Cathrine, another Jane. We read Helen’s narrative through diary entries and letters, void of the feeling that she is speaking to the reader. Gilbert controls the narrative, and what the reader knows. It was different, it was unexpected.

Both Emily and Charlotte’s novels envelope the supernatural, when reading both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre I focused on the characters over anything outside of their isolated existence. Anne puts the reader within a community, she addresses social issues and highlights the plight of married women and the dangers of drink.

Helen is adamant she will not marry for love alone, but overlooks Arthur’s faults regardless. Arthur has affairs, abandons her for seasons and flaunts a wicked existence in her presence. At her lowest she is removed from her son, whom Arthur is set to corrupt. Her flight to Wildfell Hall is scandalous, though her motives pure.

“You need not fear me, for I not only should think it wrong to marry a man that was deficient in sense or in principle, but I should never be tempted to do it; for I could not like him, if he were ever so handsome, and ever so charming, in other respects; I should hate him—despise him—pity him—anything but love him. My affections not only ought to be founded on approbation, but they will and must be so: for, without approving, I cannot love. It is needless to say, I ought to be able to respect and honour the man I marry, as well as love him, for I cannot love him without.” – Helen.

Anne nursed her alcoholic brother Branwell, as well as being witness to his affair with a married woman. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne tells a very personal story about the dangers of alcoholism and presents her plight of a woman in marriage in the guise of Mrs Graham. Where Charlotte and Emily write about love, Anne writes about cultural issues.

Reading Wildfell Hall was not the illuminating experience Wuthering Heights was, nor did it equal the struggle of the latter half of Jane Eyre. I found it difficult to sympathise with the forceful and emotive Gilbert or the pious Helen, but I appreciated the cultural criticism Anne gave me.

Of all the Brontë novels I have read, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been the most important.

20 thoughts on “Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

  1. I’ve always thought of Anne as the practical Brontë, the one who saw that things got done around the house and was much more aware of what it meant to be part of a community.

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  2. I read this a few years ago, and I remember that it didn’t have as strong an effect on me emotionally as the work of the other Bronte sisters. Still, I read it in such a rush that I’d like to return to it and take a look at some of the social/cultural issues you mentioned. 🙂

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  3. I love this book. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I love Euthering Heights but Tenant’s the more superior book, I think. Very astute and brave for its time. Samantha Ellis (who wrote How to Be a Heroine) is currently working on a book about it which I’m very much looking forward to, it really is time this was given the recognition it deserves.

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    1. I definitely agree that Wildfell Hall is the superior book, well ahead of it’s time. You’ve hit the nail on the head there. I think I found Wuthering Heights more emotive and easier to read, but Anne really tackles issues women of her time faced. I look forward to Samantha Ellis’ book, I’ve not read How to be a Heroine, but I’m thinking I should.

      Slightly on a tangent, I am currently reading Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates, it’s not an easy book to read (somewhat laborious with difficult to like characters) but one of the protagonists just had a rant about how easy it is for men of her time to exist and it made me think of Wildfell Hall.

      I love the sound of your dissertation, I would have probably done far better at University if I had written about books.

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  4. I read this as part of my A-levels and remember being surprised by how different Anne’s writ ing was from her sisters’. Great to see it getting so much attention as I think she’s often overlooked!

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  5. I don’t know why Anne and her books are so overlooked. She’s usually portrayed as being a soft little mouse of a creature and totally inferior in talent compared with her sisters. What!? Only someone who was very brave and had a strong sense of social justice could have published what she did in her day. I wish Charlotte hadn’t burnt all of Anne and Emily’s papers. They deserved to have their voices heard, too.

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    1. I know, I wish I knew Charlotte’s motivation, because it seems silly. I read somewhere it was Charlotte that stopped more publication of Anne’s books after she died. You’re right, it’s frustrating how she is seen as the weaker sister, she was far more grounded in reality.

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