On reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I am absolutely sure that Anne Bronte is my favourite of the Bronte sisters. I read Agnes Grey a few years back, and loved the conversational and experiential tone of the novel. As I mentioned back then, it was like sitting down to tea and walking down memory lane with a dear friend one is catching up with after a long time. However, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall probably ranks on par with the effect Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights has on the classical canon.
When I began listening to the librivox recording of the novel during my walks, I got the impression that this was going to be a gothic novel. The idea surprised me since Agnes Grey was far from gothic, and Anne Bronte did not quite strike me as having a love for the dramatic (which is probably why I enjoyed her first novel so much). However, as the story began to unfold, the gothic-ness of its setting and tone ebbed away to reveal, bit by painful bit, the sordidness of English society, especially in concern with its women, during the era it is set. I listened, in dismay, as Helen digs a pit for herself, so wise and yet so blind when confronted by twinkling eyes and charming manners. She is an upright young woman, and deep in her walk with God. A couple of my favourite passages from the novel are concerned with Bronte’s theology that come alive in dialogues between Helen and Gilbert Markham. She starts out, absolutely certain that she will not be lured into matrimony with just anybody. But she soon falls prey to just the sort of person she is wary of and marries Huntingdon, a man who sounds much like Jane Austen’s Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility — utterly selfish and craven.
The rest is about her struggle as her husband’s true nature and orgiastic lifestyle unfold in front of her eyes, and she can do nothing but give her best in a marriage she had made vows for. However, the final straw is when she realises that her little son is being drawn into a knowledge of the ugly world Huntingdon lives, and she decides to run away.
This novel was supposed to be one well ahead of its time. It was a success, but drew equal criticism for its portrayal of an independent woman. It was shocking to hear of such individualism in a woman during the Victorian period, and apparently, until 1870 there was a law that stated a woman’s existence was of no worth or value apart from that of her husband. She could own no property, initiate no divorce, and could not take her child away from her husband for the law would label it ‘kidnapping’. In that sense, this heroine broke all the laws concerning a married woman, and Anne Bronte, as Acton Bell, wrote a preface to the second edition of her novel explaining:
When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts–this whispering’Peace, peace’, when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.
Personally, I believe of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the latter most novel is the most ground-breaking one. It caused quite a stir; it even stirred up a disapproving Charlotte Bronte who repressed any further re-publications of the novel after Anne Bronte’s death. With these repressions, Anne faded into the background while her older sisters took prominence in the literary canon, and only in recent decades has she been re-discovered as a writer worth her salt (and a place in the canon, I hope).
In terms of its literary style, the story is presented as a series of letters written by Gilbert Markham to a ‘friend’ we never see or hear from of of called simple ‘Halford’. Bang in the middle of the ‘letters’, spanning about twenty-odd chapters, is Helen’s diary of five years. I cannot say that the in-depth letters written to Halford are convincing, or that a journal would be so intricately filled. But I was willing to ignore these little discrepancies, understanding that they were merely a medium through which Anne chose to tell her tale.
The dramatic reading I listened to from the free domain, is quite good. I must admit, though, that once we had reached the portion of the diary, I whipped out my copy of the novel and read the entire ‘journal’ portion through, so I don’t really know how good the voices for that portion of the reading is. However, while the voice doing Gilbert Markham took a little getting used-to because of his tendency to pause in unexpected places, the other voices were very clear and lively.
 Read for Classic Spin #19.
 In my review of Agnes Grey I mention how I will not be reading it again. I have changed my mind.