When a mysterious new tenant moves into Wildfell Hall all the local residents are curious to discover more about her. Mrs. Graham – potentially a widow – and her young son move in and rarely visit or have anything to do with their neighbours, something which sparks great curiosity in a small community. It is certainly that way for Mr. Markham, who is intrigued by the young woman, how she came to live in such a secluded area and just what is her true relationship with her landlord, Mr Lawrence. Told partly through Mr. Markham’s letters to his friend and partly through the private diary of Mrs. Graham, this is a novel that explores the difficulties facing women who marry ‘cads’: men who willingly spend their time and money on alcohol, gambling and pursuing extra marital affairs. Women who don’t have the option of divorcing a husband who is mistreating them, but instead have to quietly cope, knowing that they have very little rights and would be destitute if they even dared to think about divorce.
I always think I’m not a fan of the Brontes, however when I truly reflect on this I realise that I base this solely on Wuthering Heights, which I find somewhat overrated. I studied Jane Eyre at A Level and it was one of the first books that truly convinced me I wanted to study English Literature at university and I enjoyed Villette when I read it for a Classics Club Spin, so really this is an unfair opinion. Having read books by her two sisters I thought it was time I gave Anne Bronte a chance and as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is on my CC Reading List, I decided Match was the perfect time to pick it up.
I’m not about to start screaming my love of the Bronte sisters from the rooftops but I was pleasantly surprised with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne is arguably the most overlooked of the Bronte sisters and I never remember hearing about her work when I was at school…or university for that matter, so it was interesting to form my opinions and decide whether this reputation as the least memorable sister is justified.
I found Helen’s part of the narrative much more interesting than Mr. Markham’s as it is where the main part of the action seems to take place. Mr Markham’s narrative focuses on how this mysterious new tenant is perceived by her new neighbours and whilst this is quite interesting in terms of background, I found the reasons she ended up at Wildfell Hall much more interesting. The attitudes of the neighbours help to show the prejudice a woman living alone faced in Victorian times, but it is Helen’s relationship with her husband that truly shows the unfair, sexist society of the time. Helen makes the mistake of marrying for ‘love’ and going against her family’s wishes and is duly punished; her husband is a gambler, drinker and serial womaniser who does little to hide this from his wife and shows no remorse when it is discovered. I felt sorry for Helen, who had no rights and if she had divorced her husband – even though he was in the wrong – she would have been left destitute and without her son. For the time, her act of running away and essentially hiding from her husband was a brave, but reckless one for which she would have been severely judged. It just seems so surreal when I think about the life I lead and how restricting it was to be a woman in Victorian times, something which always fascinates me. I love reading about the difficulties female characters face and how they struggle to overcome these.
Of course this is a novel where are heroine overcomes her personal struggles and lives happily ever after, but I was very pleased that Bronte took the time to clear up the loose ends of all the characters. My favourite was the fate of Annabella, a woman who marries a Lord and one of the first woman Helen’s husband has an affair with. Her husband eventually divorces her (because of course men could divorce their cheating spouses even though women had to put up with it) and she dies poor, destitute and alone in a foreign country with no one to care for her. Of course it is the woman who falls from grace and goes against female conventions who ultimately meets a messy end and the woman who is virtuous and stays true to her morals who lives happily ever after. Thank goodness we have a slightly less black and white society as I’m not sure what my fate would be if I lived in a Victorian novel.
On the whole I think it is quite sad that poor Anne Bronte is overlooked in favour of her sisters, I for one found The Tenant of Wildfell Hall more enjoyable than Wuthering Heights and I’m certain I can’t be the only one with this view. I almost feel a need to read a biography of the Brontes, something which sets alarm bells ringing in my head, luckily I am on a complete book buying ban as the fear of moving all those books again is slowly starting to creep up on me.
I have hit a milestone in terms of my Classics Club List as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is book number 20 ticked off the list…a list I have serious doubts over completing by my March 2017 deadline.
This also ticks another county in my Reading England list as according to some other bloggers the majority of the action is set in Cumbria.