I got this book courtesy of my friend The Red Witch – thank you very much once again!
About the author:
Anne Brontë (17 January 1820 – 28 May 1849) was the youngest member of the Brontë literary family. She is somewhat overshadowed now by her more famous sisters – Charlotte, the author of four novels including Jane Eyre; and Emily, the author of Wuthering Heights – but her novels used to be fairly popular as well.
Anne Brontë lived most of her life with her family at the parish of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors (her father was a clergyman). For a couple of years she went to a boarding school. At the age of nineteen, she left Haworth working as a governess between 1839 and 1845. After leaving her teaching position, she fulfilled her literary ambitions. She wrote a volume of poetry with her sisters (Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, 1846) and in short succession she wrote two novels. Agnes Grey, based upon her experiences as a governess, was published in 1847. Her second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall appeared in 1848. It was a huge success with even a whiff of scandal about it. Anne’s life was cut short with her death of pulmonary tuberculosis when she was only 29 years old.
The novel is divided into three volumes. The first part is a narration of a young gentleman-farmer, Gilbert Markham, telling us about a mysterious woman, Mrs Graham, who arrived and settled in a nearby old mansion, Wildfell Hall. She instantly becomes a source of curiosity for the local community, especially as she is accompanied by her young son, Arthur, but not by a husband. Initially, Gilbert Markham casually courts Eliza Millward, despite his mother’s belief that he can do better. His interest in Eliza wanes as he comes to know Mrs. Graham more closely. In retribution, Eliza spreads (and perhaps originates) scandalous rumours about Helen. With gossip flying, Gilbert is led to believe that his friend and the owner of Wildfell Hall, Mr. Lawrence, is courting Mrs. Graham. During a chance meeting in a road jealous Gilbert strikes Mr Lawrence a whip and he, injured, falls from his horse. Unaware of this, Helen refuses to marry Gilbert, but gives him her diaries to read.
Now starts the second volume, which describes Helen’s disastrous marriage to Arthur Huntingdon, a handsome, witty but very selfish man without any principles or backbone. Before the marriage Arthur has led a dissolute life and even while courting Helen he flirted with another girl, called Annabella – he used her to put some pressure on Helen and convince her to marry him. Helen finally becomes his wife but she is not as happy as she would like to be. Although she sees his vices, she is naïve enough to think she can reform Arthur with gentle persuasion and good example. Of course she fails. Her husband is bored of their country life and goes to London frequently to amuse himself. Upon the birth of their child, Huntingdon becomes increasingly jealous of their son (also named Arthur). Huntingdon’s pack of dissolute friends encourage him to behave even worse, as they frequently visit him and engage in drunken revels at his family’s home, Grassdale. Annabella, now married to one of Huntingdon’s friends, lord Lowborough, visits Arthur too and starts to cheat with him on her melancholy but devoted husband. Meanwhile Walter Hargrave, the brother of Helen’s friend, Milicent Hargrave, vies for her affections. Walter tells Helen of Arthur’s affair with Lady Lowborough. When Arthur’s friends depart he pines openly for his paramour and derides his wife. As a retaliation Helen doesn’t let Arthur in her bed.
The last straw for Helen is Arthur’s corruption of their son — he and his friends try to encourage the child to drink alcohol and swear. Artur also employs a governess who is a rather doubtful sort of woman to say the least of it. Desperate Helen plans to flee to save young Arthur but her husband learns of her plans from her journal, and burns her artist’s tools (by which she had hoped to support herself). Eventually, with help from her brother, Mr. Lawrence, Helen finds a secret refuge at Wildfell Hall – she lives there under the maiden name of her mother so her husband can’t find her.
Helen’s diaries are finished by her escape and we return to Gilbert and his present troubles, entering the last part of the novel. Helen bids Gilbert to leave her because, as he knows very well, she is not free to marry. He complies and soon learns that she returned to Grassdale upon learning that Arthur, who had drunk too much, is gravely ill. Helen tries to help him but Huntingdon dies still rejecting any responsibility for his actions. A year passes. Gilbert pursues a rumour of Helen’s impending wedding, only to find that Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s brother, is marrying Esther Hargrave, her young friend. He goes to Grassdale, and discovers that Helen is now a wealthy widow and lives at her estate in Staningley. Gilbert becomes plagued by worries that she is now far above his station. By chance, he encounters Helen, her aunt, and young Arthur by the gates. The two lovers reconcile and marry.
What I liked:
If Jane Austen had allowed Fanny Price to marry Henry Crawford (two characters from her novel Mansfield Park, one of my all-time favourites) I suppose the effect could have been something like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall . Helen made me think of Fanny for more than one reason and her husband reminded me strongly of Henry – he was equally charming, and immoral. Of course there were differences too but somehow I couldn’t help comparing those two books and heroines. I wonder whether Anne read Mansfield Park and enjoyed it. I would say ‘yes’ but it’s nothing more than just guesswork.
I liked the lack of romantic mannerism and a dash of feminism, shown here. It was really refreshing to find that this book dared to challenge the prevailing morals of the Victorian era – I was really pleased when Helen slammed her bedroom door in the face of her impudent husband, overturning the sexual politics of the time.
The plot was interesting enough to keep me returning to this book but not especially fast or surprising. I enjoyed Helen’s diary the most, especially as it featured lady Annabella Lowborough, the main female antagonist. She was an adulteress and the source of devastating sorrow for poor Helen, unrepentant, malicious but as close to a real-life person as you would wish. A nice change from the angelic main character.
What I didn’t like:
The main character, Helen, was definitely too sweet and angelic – I liked her but not entirely so. Perhaps for her contemporaries she seemed a spirited, forthright woman, unafraid to speak up her mind, but I think for a modern reader she still remains too meek and too kind, especially when dealing with such a husband. I also didn’t like the fact that this book was a bit too ‘verbose’ – in other word people’s speeches were too long. Once again, it was perhaps considered a good writing style in the 19th century but now some soliloquies of Helen made me yawn after two sentences – I partially understood why her rakish husband used to run away to London and stay there for several months. His preaching wife could have talked anybody to death.
Despite some weaknesses I did like this one – I think Anne was the most sensible Brontë sister. What a pity she died so early, managing to write only two novels. Now I am looking forward to reading Agnes Grey.