Anne Bronte may be a Bronte but in my opinion, her message is overly preachy in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
‘Marry at haste, repent at leisure’ is hammered home, because the man you marry well may turn out to be an alcoholic, abusive, unfaithful, no-good loser. In the heroine’s case in this novel, her husband was all of the above.
I read Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte last year and enjoyed it enough to add The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to my reading list this year. I’ve been hanging on to ‘The Tenant’ for ages though, opening and closing it, reading and re-reading the first few pages before putting it down in favour of other more interesting books.
Eventually, I tried reading the story aloud and thank goodness, this tactic worked. After a chapter I was able to hear the narrator’s voice in my head and managed to read the remainder of the story silently. My fellow train commuters don’t know what a lucky escape they had…
The story is narrated by Gilbert Markham, an English farmer who tells the story of Mrs Graham, a beautiful woman whom he fell in love with, as a series of letters to an old friend. I struggled to remember the narrator was a man, because to me his voice sounded feminine, although this may in part be because in some of the letters Gilbert used extracts from Mrs Graham’s letters and diaries to tell the story.
Mrs Graham was a widow with a child, who in the beginning of the story had recently come to live in Gilbert’s community. Mrs Graham was reclusive, so of course the neighbours were far more interested in her background than they would have been had she told everybody everything they wanted to know from the start.
Gradually, the reader learns that Mrs Graham was hiding at Wildfell Hall because she had left her husband, changed her name and taken herself and her child away from the harm he was doing them. When this story was written women had no rights, in that they had to live where their husbands told them they must, and they forfeited any money they brought with them to their marriage. Mrs Graham was almost completely powerless to change her situation.
Despite nasty gossip and speculation within the community about Mrs Graham’s circumstances, Gilbert fell in love with Mrs Graham and she with him.
There is a strong religious element to this story. Most of the characters consciously live their best life expecting to be rewarded when they die and go to heaven, while the villains do the opposite; living for the moment and heaven or hell be damned. I expect that when this story was first published, the religious aspect was more shocking to readers than what I could understand.
A hint to other readers, if you read the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, avoid the Explanatory Notes to the text at the end as these contain spoilers. Most are references to where certain phrases came from (and if you guess the Bible for most, you would be correct) but some contain explanations which refer to events earlier or later in the story.
Despite my criticisms of this novel, I am now feeling smug about having read Anne Bronte’s works (let’s ignore her poetry for now), and will move on to Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s books next.