The Tenant of Wildfell Hall #Booktalk #Bookreview

I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because I’d long wanted to explore the works of Anne Bronte — the third Bronte Sister. She wrote just two books and this one was highly acclaimed. The other one is Agnes Grey and I still have to get to it.

Wildfell Hall is a deserted dilapidated establishment of little interest to anyone until a young widow Helen comes in as a tenant along with her son and her maid. She creates quite a flurry in the small local community. Feelings soon turn from curiosity to censure when she is rumoured to be a relationship with her landlord Mr Lawrence.

Gilbert Markham, a young bachelor, nurses a soft spot for her. Even as his feelings begin to deepen she keeps him at a distance refusing to see him as anything other than a friend.

I’m not sure ‘spoilers’ hold any significance when it comes to classics, however if you do want to read this book with a clear head I suggest you read no further. I say this because that’s how I read it and found I enjoyed unravelling the plot as I went along.

——-*Spoiler Alert*——-

As the book progresses we find Helen isn’t a widow. Almost half the narrative is a flashback to Helen’s life before she came to Wildfell Hall. She has run away from her alcoholic husband, Arthur Huntingdon, to protect her son from his evil influence. However, she goes back to nurse him (her husband) when he has a bad fall and stays with him till his death.

An epistolary novel

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins as a letter written by Gilbert Markham to a close friend, recounting his experiences. It then moves on as Gilbert reads portions from Helen’s diary before coming back to the present. This rather complex narrative style reminded me of Wuthering Heights — Nelly telling the story to Lockwood and Lockwood turning narrator in turn. Quaint, isn’t it? I enjoy epistolary novels because they’re so much more intimate and yet can flawlessly preserve a mystery because they’re from one point of view only.

Anne Bronte’s feminist heroine — flawed yet inspiring

What is most striking about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Anne Bronte’s strong feminist stand. Before I read the book, I only knew of impoverished women, of that time, taking up positions as governesses or ladies’ companions or some such ‘womanly’ occupations.

However, here is a woman living on her own, earning a living as a painter and supporting not just herself but also her son and her maid.

Here’s a woman who leaves her home and husband — an act not just of courage but also against the law of that time.

She’s a woman not scared to start life from scratch.

She steadfastly refuses the attentions and support of another perfectly respectable man because she doesn’t love him.

Even in this day and age such a strong independent woman is inspiring. Transport this back a few hundred years and it is well nigh unbelievable.

And yet, Helen has her flaws and that makes her believable. When she thinks herself to be in love with Huntingdon she turns a blind eye to his faults despite the repeated warnings of her aunt.

Over time as his shortcomings become more and more apparent, she blames no one. She takes responsibility for her decisions. Another rare quality.

Morality and religion

Morality and religion figure to a large extent in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Helen is set up as a moral role model. Her faith is what gives her courage to deal with her tribulations, even leaving her husband. That is what holds her back from forging a relationship with Gilbert Markham and also what propels her to go back to Arthur, despite the way he treated her. Personally, that was a bit of a disappointment but then again, I had to remind myself that I was judging her by the standards of this day and age.

The male protagonists

Arthur Huntingdon, Helen’s husband, never really loved her. Or, let me say, he loved her only as long as he remained the centre of all her attentions. He was a thoughtless, selfish and irresponsible man given to all kinds excesses.

One particular conversation between Helen and her aunt stands out:

She says, ‘… his worst and only vice is thoughtlessness’

And her aunt replies, ‘And thoughtlessness may lead to every crime and will but poorly excuse our errors in the sight of God.’

Thoughtlessness, may not seem like a debilitating personality trait but it can make a man inhuman and cruel.

Arthur Huntingdon has often been compared with Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff. I barely found any similarity between them. If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know I’m no fan of Heathcliff, however if he had one redeeming quality (by a stretch), it was his passionate, though blinding, love for Catherine. Huntingdon had no love for anyone.

Then there was Gilbert Markham — a much better man. Though he and Helen clashed in the beginning he grew to love her for what she was, for her thoughts and ideas and for the conversations they had. And that wasn’t like Heathcliff either.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne

The Bronte family intrigues me no end. I often wonder what it would have been like living with sisters who were all writers and yet so different in their rendition. 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was supposedly Anne’s rejoinder to Emily’s Wuthering Heights which she maintained was a fantastical, fictional, rather romanticised version of life. While excesses and addiction like gambling and drinking do show up in Wuthering Heights, it is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that chooses to dwell upon them and all of their terrible consequences including infidelity and domestic violence.

Anne dismisses Wuthering Heights as ‘much soft nonsense’ and goes on to say, ‘If I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense’.

Predictably enough both Emily and Charlotte found Anne’s books crass and crude.

Last thought: If you love classics and have liked the other Bronte books, do make space for this one on your TBR list.

8 Replies to “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall #Booktalk #Bookreview”

  1. I havent explore the bronte sisters much. Except of course for a bit of Emily Bronte and her wuthering heights I read during school.

    Time to explore more now. Wuthering heights indeed had its softness and its interesting to note that the sisters found Anne’s books crude.

    Making space for this book on TBR


    1. I hope you do get to this one and of course you must read Jane Eyre too. I’ve enjoyed the books more after I read up a little bit about the Bronte sisters. It helps to know where they were coming from and how much they picked from their surroundings.


    1. A lot of novels of those times used this format. This one is just one long letter and then Helen’s diary. There isn’t much back and forth correspondence. It’s used more as a trope to tell the story.


  2. Boy the arguments in the Bronte’s household would be fascinating. Imagine all sisters arguing about their ideology and opinions. From the sound of it, Anne is more practical than her sister, given the times they lived in. Yes, going back to the man who doesn’t love you would be totally disappointing, but I guess it wasn’t that uncommon in those times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not only did he not love her, he was violent and cruel. But apparently the Bronte sisters were brought up as women of faith and that made them give their heroines those kind of forgiving natures.


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