Back in March, I took part in The Classics Club’s 17th Spin event, which chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë for me. I was thrilled with my result as I love Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and I enjoyed Jane Eyre and Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, so I was looking forward to finally reading something by the third Brontë sister.
Through the eyes of local farmer, Gilbert Markham we see the excitement, gossip and rumour that is generated in his small, rural community when a mysterious tenant unexpectantly moves into the dilapidated Elizabethan mansion, Wildfell Hall. The tenant is revealed to be the young widow ‘Mrs Graham’, with her small son, Arthur and faithful servant, Rachel. However their secluded life soon sees them the victims of slander, but refusing to believe anything scandalous about the lovely widow, Gilbert befriends her and finally she reveals the painful past that forced her to seek refuge in this isolated place.
Most of the novel is framed as a series of letters written by Gilbert to his friend and brother-in-law about the arrival of ‘Mrs Graham’; their growing friendship and the subsequent scandal. While in the middle, we switch to Helen’s (Mrs Graham) diary, which she entrusts to Gilbert to reveal the heart-breaking marital strife she suffered and her desperate attempts to save her son – topics that must have reverberated through Victorian society when this was published. I thought this style was really effective, because it meant I was able to intimately get to know the main protagonists, Gilbert and Helen.
And as I came to slowly know Gilbert and Helen better, I became very fond of them both. Gilbert is a practical, hardworking and honest young man – who, at first, is prone to idle flirtation and terrible tantrums, however as the story progresses he does grow and mature. While Helen, at first, comes across as aloof and cold, but it is revealed later that she is a good-hearted, pious and sophisticated woman – whose bad treatment has taught her to hide her true feelings and to hold herself back from people. I was rooting for both of them!
Now you may be wondering – considering I started this back in March – why it took me so long to read?! Well it certainly wasn’t down to the quality of the writing or story. In fact, I found Anne’s writing talent to be equal to her extremely talented sisters. Instead it took me so long because I simply found this was a story that I wanted to take my time with – Savouring the beautiful descriptions, each subtle new nuance; and each new character and plot revelation; especially in the first half of the novel, where we are as in-the-dark as poor Gilbert. Once the major revelations have been revealed, I found myself ripping through the last half to discover how it would end!
Overall, I thought The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë was a beautifully written classic, with engaging characters, which cleverly explores the societal troubles, strifes and wrongs of the time. Sadly this is one of only two novels Anne wrote, so only Agnes Grey left to look forward to. Great read.
Have you read this? Or Anne’s other novel Agnes Grey?
This is book 2/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.