When I first dreamed of teaching college English Literature, my heart was set on studying the Brontës—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Without a mentor willing to work with me on them, I had to change direction. It has been some time since I read any of the works by these women, so I am now going to embark on reading them all again. I plan on four or five a year. My first is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne. I only read it twice, and I was not as impressed as I was with the other two authors. I was delighted when a colleague nominated Wildfell for our book club.
Anne Brontë was the youngest of the three, and she wrote only one other novel besides Wildfell, Agnes Gray. She was born in1820, and became close to Emily. Together they created an imaginary world of Gondal. This work was the basis for much of their dramatic poetry. The novel was considered quite scandalous at the time. Anne drew on her experiences as a governess for the novels, and her experiences with her Brother Branwell provided the fodder for Mr. Huntingdon, the husband of Helen. Wildfell represents the first sustained feminist novel. Anne died in 1849.
My attitude toward this novel has turned 180 degrees after this read. While the novel is the weakest of the Brontës, largely because of a somewhat chaotic ending, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. In a preface to the second edition, Anne wrote, “My object in writing […] was not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public. I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.”
The novel opens with a letter from Gilbert Markham to his friend, Halford. Markham has a crush on Helen Huntingdon, and he maneuvers to place himself in her good graces. Lots of obstacles are in his—and Helen’s—way to a peaceful life. Helen is married to Mr. Arthur Huntingdon, and she has a son, Arthur. Arthur senior has gambling and alcohol problems, and Helen flees with Rachel, her lady’s maid, to the sanctuary of Wildfell Hall, to escape her terrible situation. She does not reveal her location to anyone, except her brother. Of course, gossip and the rumor mill are fast at work as soon as news that someone has “taken Wildfell Hall.”
Markham already smitten, questions Helen. Ann wrote, “‘Do you not find it a desolate place to live in’ said, I, after a moment of silent contemplation. // ‘I do, sometimes,’ replied she. ‘On winter evenings, when Arthur is in bed, and I am sitting there alone, hearing the bleak wind moaning round me and howling through the ruinous old chambers, no books or occupations can repress the dismal thoughts and apprehensions that come crowding in—but it is folly to give way to such weakness I know—If Rachel is satisfied with such a life, why should not I?—Indeed I cannot be too thankful for such an asylum, while it is left me.’ // The closing sentence was uttered in an undertone, as if spoken rather to herself than to me. She then bid me good evening and withdrew” (76).
While the antiquated and elevated language may be a barrier to some readers, a persistent bibliophile will quickly become accustomed to the style. These three women have left us a fantastic set of literary marvels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë is an exhilarating ride through one of my favorite literary periods. 5 stars.