The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Anne Brontë’s second novel. She published it in 1848 (a year before her death) under the name of Acton Bell. She is the lesser-known and lesser-read of the three Brontë sisters.
A mysterious young woman arrives at Wildfell Hall with her son and servant. She claims to be a widow, and Gilbert Markham is immediately struck by her beauty and her intelligence. However, things are not all as they appear. After a vicious string of rumors slander the name of Helen Graham, Gilbert discovers the truth behind Helen’s arrival to Wildfell Hall. Documented in a series of letters and diary entries, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a shocking tale of a young wife’s struggles with her husband’s alcoholism, debauchery, and cruelty.
What I Liked:
I thought this book was quite fun to read. My approach to reading Victorian/classic literature is to read it less seriously than I do other books. If I try and read it seriously, then I will not enjoy it as much. Reading it less seriously allows me to enjoy the story and the actions that take place, and if they seem ridiculous it is funny-ridiculous rather than cheesy-ridiculous.
Point in fact: Gilbert Markham. He was funny-ridiculous all the time, from his yelling at Mr. Millward to his throwing himself on the ground in a “paroxysm” of grief and rage (anytime the word “paroxysm” shows up, you know it is going to be funny-ridiculous; also, see the two quotes below for these two scenes) to knocking Mr. Lawrence off his horse in a jealous rage. I thought it was quite amusing to read about, although I can understand if some readers will think it is over-the-top. While reading Victorian/classic literature for fun and enjoyment and expecting it to be fun and enjoyable is not for everyone or every book, I think it is necessary for this one (see next section).
Helen, too, is at times funny-ridiculous, especially in her younger days when she is all over Arthur. The funny-ridiculousness of it wears off quickly, however, and soon becomes simply sad.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, though I did have some problems with it.
What I Didn’t Like:
When I first started reading the book, I got one hundred pages in and thought, “This is so deliciously preachy.” That was my reading-for-fun attitude at work. I normally don’t like too much preachiness in a novel; however, I did expect this book to be preachy because older books usually are, to some extent. When I got to the preachy part, I thought it was amusing. However, over the next two hundred pages, I couldn’t even say it was deliciously preachy anymore. It was just tediously preachy. Essentially, Anne Brontë wrote this book to display the perils of alcoholism as well to express her views of salvation, and she got her point across again and again…and again…and…again. I was almost happy when Helen’s section ended because then the level of preachiness dropped abruptly since Gilbert (Gilbert! How I missed you and your jealous rages and paroxysms of grief!) was narrating again.
Also, this book is long. It could easily have been one hundred pages shorter; a lot could have been cut out and it wouldn’t have changed the book at all. Of course, back then I think writers were paid by the word, so Victorian novels tend to get long and rambling in any case.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Alcoholism, adultery.
And in truth, the vicar was just behind me, plodding homeward from some remote corner of his parish. I immediately released the squire; and he went on his way, saluting Mr. Millward as he passed.
“What, quarrelling, Markham?” cried the latter, addressing himself to me,—“and about that young widow I doubt,” he added, reproachfully shaking his head. “But let me tell you, young man” (here he put his face into mine with an important, confidential air), “she’s not worth it!” and he confirmed the assertion by a solemn nod.
“MR. MILLWARD!” I exclaimed, in a tone of wrathful menace that made the reverend gentleman look round—aghast—astounded at such unwonted insolence, and stare me in the face with a look that plainly said: “What, this to me?”
While thus conversing, they had sauntered slowly past me, down the walk, and I heard no more of their discourse; but I saw him put his arm round her waist, while she lovingly rested her hand on his shoulder;–and then, a tremulous darkness obscured my sight, my heart sickened and my head burned like fire. I half rushed, half staggered from the spot where horror had kept me rooted, and leaped or tumbled over the wall—I hardly know which—but I know that, afterwards, like a passionate child, I dashed myself on the ground and lay there in a paroxysm of anger and despair…
My cup of sweets is not unmingled: it is dashed with a bitterness that I cannot hide from myself, disguise it as I will. I may try to persuade myself that the sweetness overpowers it; I may call it a pleasant aromatic flavor; but say what I will, it is still there, and I cannot but taste it. I cannot shut my eyes to Arthur’s faults; and the more I love him the more they trouble me. His very heart, that I trusted so, is, I fear, less warm and generous than I thought it. At least, he gave me a specimen of his character to-day, that seemed to merit a harder name than thoughtlessness.
“Without another word I left the room and locked myself up in my own chamber. In about half-an-hour he came to the door, and first he tried the handle, then he knocked.
“Won’t you let me in, Helen?” said he.
“No; you have displeased me,” I replied, “and I don’t want to see your face or hear your voice again till the morning.”
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, while being a little long and a little too preachy, is still a fun novel that I enjoyed quite a bit (Gilbert!). Fans of Victorian literature or the other two Brontë sisters should definitely put this on their reading list. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to this type of literature, but as more of a supplement. It will be a great addition to any library.
You can buy this book here: Tenant of Wildfell Hall