The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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.

15 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

15 responses to “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

  1. I liked “Tenant” but the ending was just too irritating. Having finally gotten rid of Arthur (I was secretly hoping that she’d murder him), why on earth does she want to marry Gilbert? He seems nice but he’s so young and naieve and vain…And then there is that embarassingly trite scene where she accepts his proposal and they fawn over each other for a whole chapter. It made me feel like Anne had some entirely different ending planned, and her editor told her to make it more like “Jane Eyre”.

  2. There’s quite a good television adaptation of this by the BBC (starring Toby Stephens) that I remember as being rather watchable. I read the novel as a teenager and was blown away by it – not surprising after all those years of Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, lol!

  3. adevotedreader

    Oh no, you’ve damned it with faint praise! I hope others will give it a try regardless.

    I’m sorry the ending didn’t work for you, I like Gilbert and was happy to see Anne and him together. I suppose I’m a romantic at heart.

  4. Poor Anne, to write in the shadow of two sisters whose novels were brilliant. I’ve not read her yet, but I will. I have an unstated goal of reading all of the Bronte’s books someday. Even though this books isn’t perfect is still sounds like a good read.

  5. I read it 10+ years ago and have absolutely no memory of it, while the works of her sisters remain vivid in my mind. I think that says it all, poor Anne…

  6. I haven’t read this one, and plan to soon. Since a Watched Plot Never Spoils™, I sailed right past the spoiler alert.

    So anyway, I thought this was the best short description and analysis of the book I’ve ever seen on a blog, and expect it to be quite helpful when I read the book myself.

    I don’t think the praise was that faint. You moved it up my list more than a bit. The very thin Agnes Grey had sowed some doubts about this one.

  7. It sounds like a very difficult yet worthwhile book to read. I agree with your comments on the ending; after surviving such a difficult first marriage, it seems Helen had very weak reasons for accepting the second one.

    I have been looking for a well-written romantic novel with a happy, satisfying ending, and this kind of book seems to be quite rare!

  8. verbivore

    I had a very similar experience with this book – and I loved Ella’s comment about wanting Helen to murder her first husband – I remember being enraged at her nursing him with so much devotion, all just because it was her marital duty. Oh yuck.

    I suspect the book would be great material for a study of religion and feminist theory, Helen really is a unique heroine.

  9. I haven’t read this one, but I usually like books written during this period. Many of them do seem to “take up a cause” so to speak. It seems as if during this time period many auth0rs, especially women, felt it necessary to make literature instructive and to try and solve society’s ills through literature. I don’t mind this at all unless it becomes “preachy.”

  10. Your post and these comments have made me very curious about the book! I have it and plan to read it eventually. I sort of felt the same way about Charlotte’s “Shirley”, which also took a look at the treatment of women at the time. It was a good book, but not quite as good as “Jane Eyre”, however. Still, I think all the Brontes are worth reading.

  11. I haven’t read any Anne, either, but you’ve definitely piqued my interest with this one. I love to read books from different eras that surprise me by addressing the same sorts of issues we still address in fiction today. That’s a bit snobby of me, I know, as if things like abusive husbands and alcoholism weren’t recognized in the “old days” the way we enlightened 21st-century folks recognize them today.

  12. I definitely line up with your assessment of ToWH. I think Anne should have made this a short story as I think, as I’ve said before, that it got repetitive and I lost interest. It is no where near the same caliber as WH and JE.

  13. Boxofbooks — that’s exactly it about Gilbert. He seems kind-hearted, but Helen is so much smarter and more interesting than he is! She deserves better.

    Litlove — a TV adaptation would be a lot of fun, I think. This is a book I wouldn’t mind at all seeing on screen. And I can see why this book would blow a reader away as a teenager. I wonder how I would have responded at that age.

    Adevotedreader — well, it sounds like people are planning to read it anyway, in spite of my faint praise, and I do really think it’s worth reading. I enjoyed it a lot, in spite of my reservations.

    Stefanie — yes, it’s definitely a good read. I like your goal of reading all the Brontes — I’m not there yet, but I really don’t have too many books left to go. I should join you!

    Smithereens — yes, Anne has had a rough time of it, hasn’t she? I think she’s probably better than most people give her credit for, but it’s really hard for her to get much attention.

    Amateur Reader — well, thank you! I’m wondering now about Agnes Grey, though — it is really that thin? I have a copy and want to read it some day, but it may be a disappointment after Tenant.

    Debby — as far as well-written romantic novels with happy endings go, I think you can’t do better than Jane Austen! Yes, it was difficult and worth-while both. It offered a lot of food for thought, which I always appreciate.

    Verbivore — good point about religion and feminism. Your comment makes me think of Richardson’s Clarissa, with her super-pious attitudes that still couldn’t keep her from suffering at the hands of an awful family and an awful lover. I think Helen is definitely a Clarissa descendant.

    Lisa — I didn’t feel this book became preachy, so I think you’ll like it. I like the way this book and others from the time really take up serious social issues and try to say something about them. I like that kind of seriousness.

    Danielle — I’ve been meaning to read Shirley for quite a while! I think at this point nothing will compare to Jane Eyre, but that’s okay — the other Bronte books are still quite good and worth reading.

    Emily — yeah, it’s so easy to think of people in earlier times as foolishly naive. They couldn’t write in quite the same direct way about difficult issues like we can, but they have their own ways of taking up those topics.

    JaneGS — I was thinking about your comment on repetition as I read; for me, the story stayed interesting, but it did hover on the edge of being a little redundant. It certainly walks a fine line.

  14. BA Bonetti

    I’ve never read the book, but am a fan of Victorian romances. BBC has made many of them into mini-series, and I enjoy them very much. I approved of the ending. Gilbert was steadfast and truly loving which was total opposite of Helen’s first husband. Problem back in those times was class determined who one could be matched with rather than character qualities or love. Of course, that’s why I loved Jane Austen’s books the best. Her heroine’s overcame the class boundaries to marry for love. Overall, I liked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne did not do so bad.

  15. Kay

    I totally agree with your assessment and would add this: Doesn’t Gilbert’s attack on Frederick seem totally out of line? Even if he did think that Frederick was Helen’s lover, does the justify him attacking the man and then leaving him lying in the mud? I really thought that episode was going to come back to haunt him, and that it was going to illuminate something about the brutishness of possessiveness. But then… it just didn’t. And they all had a jolly larf about it. I was baffled.

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