From Goodreads: Gilbert Markham is deeply intrigued by Helen Graham, a beautiful and secretive young widow who has moved into nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son. He is quick to offer Helen his friendship, but when her reclusive behavior becomes the subject of local gossip and speculation, Gilbert begins to wonder whether his trust in her has been misplaced. It is only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that the truth and the shocking details of her past are revealed.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was my pick for The Classics Club Spin. I finished right when the first decent snowstorm hit the Northeast. The timing was perfect because while shoveling the driveway, I had both peace and quiet to think about the novel and decide how I feel about it.
After reading the introductions of several different editions, I decided to purchase the Oxford World’s Classic edition because it included a brief biography of Anne Brontë’s life and how her circumstances—and that of her brother— might have influenced The Tenant. Reading this explanation helped me understand the book. Anne was likely to process her experiences as governess and her brother’s misguided love affair and consequent descent into alcoholism and drug abuse, eventually resulting in his death, while writing this book.
With this in mind, it becomes clear quickly that The Tenant is not a happy book. (It also explains at least partly why her sisters didn’t particularly like it.) I have seldom read a book with so many unlikeable characters. It is not surprising that contemporary readers reacted with “shock and indignation” to the very realistic portrait of a wife suffering because of her abusive husband’s alcoholism and that they would be upset by the fact that the wife ultimately leaves him. Today, that is no big deal, but back then, it was almost unheard of.
Further, in writing this book, Anne “with courage and tenacity set out to explode the romantic myths of the glamorous sinner reformed or transformed by love.” I did not think about The Tenant in this light at first, but after pondering it for a while, I have to say Anne succeeds—hands down. I actually like the book more because of this. The “reformed rake” is such a prevailing thread in books, and it is often glorified. While it may make for an entertaining subject, it has little root in reality. I find it remarkable that a young woman in the nineteenth century was able to write such a realistic novel about this subject.
Helen was a bit too saintly for my taste (though she had to be for this book to work when it was written), and while reading the part that represents her diary, I almost completely forgot about Gilbert. He could have been a bit stronger character. But I was glad that, in the end, Helen found a deserving husband and Arthur a kind father.
I won’t drop everything to read the other Brontë novels right away, but I am glad to have read this one.