Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an excellent read, and I’m glad I’ve finally read the third Brontë sister, but I also found a few things dissatisfying and puzzling. First the good: I loved that this book deals with some topics I don’t often see treated with such openness in Victorian novels. Certainly there are other novels of the time that are suspicious of marriage and sympathetic toward mistreated wives, but the amount of detail this book devotes to such problems as alcoholism and physical and emotional abuse I found surprising. There is a whole series of harrowing scenes in the middle of the novel that describe the heroine Helen’s sufferings at the hands of her awful husband, who spends his time carousing with friends and openly having affairs. There are other women who suffer because of their husbands’ gambling problems and abuse of alcohol. It’s not that the women are all martyrs, though; they are also capable of their own vice and casual cruelty.
The novel doesn’t entirely despair of marriage, but it does show just how hard it is to find the right kind of partner, and how easily even smart and good-hearted people can make very foolish decisions. There are men who suffer because they are trapped in bad marriages, but the brunt of the suffering falls on the women, who have very little ability to change their lives when they decide they are unhappy with them.
I liked the ideas the book takes up, and I also thought it was a well-constructed story, one that grabbed my attention immediately and kept me avidly reading all the way through. It has a fairly complicated structure involving stories within stories, in a manner similar to Wuthering Heights, although perhaps it’s not as well-done as Emily’s novel. It starts with Gilbert Markham’s letters to a friend, telling the story of the mysteriously attractive new tenant, Helen, with whom he soon develops an infatuation. Helen treats him kindly but remains aloof until Gilbert catches her in a compromising conversation with his neighbor Mr. Lawrence, at which point he completely freaks out, attacks Mr. Lawrence, and confronts Helen. In order to defend herself, she hands him a large packet of papers, which contains her diary. Much of the rest of the novel is made up of this diary, which tells the story of Helen’s earlier life.
All this is satisfying and fun (as much fun as a harrowing novel about domestic abuse can be), but I found Gilbert to be a troubling character. After reading his letters for a while I began to think that while he could sometimes be a sympathetic character, he was also conceited, self-satisfied, and comically pompous. It seemed clear to me that Brontë was presenting him as an unreliable narrator, and we were meant to see him as a good-intentioned but bumbling and foolish man. But as I read on, I began to sense that Brontë wasn’t taking this characterization anywhere, and I began to wonder if I weren’t wrong about reading him as unreliable, at least intentionally so on Brontë’s part. This led to some disappointment when the novel’s characters took him more seriously than I thought he deserved.
Spoiler alert! You may want to stop here if you plan to read the book — I was disappointed that Helen ended up marrying Gilbert. She’s not a perfect person and has made her share of mistakes (the main one being to marry Arthur Huntingdon), but she struck me as a lot smarter and savvier than Gilbert, and I couldn’t see why she fell in love with him. I can see that Gilbert’s kindness and loyalty would look attractive after how awful her first husband was, but that doesn’t seem like a good basis for a marriage.
It’s nearly impossible not to make comparisons among the Brontë sisters, since I’ve now read them all, and I don’t think Tenant is as good as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. It doesn’t feel as powerful as the other two novels and its structure and characterization aren’t as complex. But there still are plenty of reasons to read the book, particularly for its detailed look at just how much women could suffer from poor marriages and how ill-equiped they are — more because of social conventions than through their own personal failings — to make a wise choice of whom to marry.