Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Anne Bronte’

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte


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.

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte


I read Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte without expecting to like it, because as a teenager, I read and hated Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by Bronte’s sisters Charlotte and Emily. I suspect I was too young for these stories when I read them.

So, why did I read Agnes Grey? Vanity. I thought it was time I improved my mind with a higher class of literature than I usually read, and the Bronte’s usually spring to mind when I think about literature. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the story of Agnes Grey was a romance.

The story is told by Agnes, a young woman who leaves her family to become a governess. She was brought up in a gentle and loving home, but when her father, a clergyman, loses most of his money in a risky financial venture at the beginning of the story, Agnes recognises that the financial pressure on her parents would be eased if she were to earn her own living. Agnes is also keen to be independent and to see a bit of the world, although she doesn’t phrase her plans to her parents in those exact terms when asking their permission to seek work.

Agnes gained her first position as a governess with a horrible family, and had a fairly rude awakening regarding her value in the household. The adults were selfish, nasty bullies, and so were the children, who were spoiled brats, and possibly psychopaths; here I’m thinking of the little boy, who liked to kill baby birds using several cruel methods. Agnes was unable to govern these brats with kindness and love, but luckily, she got the sack before too long and left this unhappy position.

Agnes’ second position as governess to two teenage girls was better paid than her first, and the family slightly kinder to her than the first, although the older girl, Rosalie, is vain and selfish, and a boy-mad flirt, while the other girl, Matilda, is a rude tomboy. Agnes does her best with the two girls, but honestly, I suspect she was wasting her time with them too.

During her free time, Agnes helps the poor and sick people of the neighbourhood. She also meets the parson, Mr Weston, who is also good and kind, and she falls in love with him. Rosalie recognises that her governess has a high regard for Mr Weston and from sheer maliciousness, decides to charm him herself for the fun of it.

You can read Agnes Grey for yourself to find out if Agnes has her happy ending.

The characters of Agnes and Mr Weston are a bit too good to be true, as they are both kind, considerate, clever, they help the poor and the needy, and are generally far more patient and humble than anyone I’ve ever met. Agnes spent most of her time with her first family telling readers how terrible it was to be a governess, especially one in a family who believe that their children are little angels, but once she moved into her second position, her whinging stopped and the story started.

Anne Bronte’s writing is descriptive without being overly ornate, the story is plain and straightforward, and everything in the book belongs in the story. The conversations very quickly give the reader an idea of each character’s values and morals.

I’m going to have a crack at The Tenant of Wildfell Hall next, and who knows, I may even have another go at reading Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s works again sometime….

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