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Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:


Please be aware: this review contains spoilers. Read at your own free will.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was Anne Brontë’s second novel. Considerably more coarse and weightier in subject than Agnes Grey, this is by far Anne’s best novel. Told from the perspective of Gilbert Markham, it tells the tale of the secretive and enticingly beautiful Helen Graham who appears out of nowhere. Gilbert is quick to offer her friendship, yet her reclusive behaviour becomes the sole topic of local gossip. He begins to doubt his trust in their friendship. He questions if it’s worth his time. It’s only when he reads her diary does he discover the truth about her shocking and upsetting past.

The reason I’m writing this review today, considering I first read it in May, is because I’ve just finished re-reading it for dissertation research. Therefore, this time round, I’ve been digging deeper on Anne’s writing, thus leading me to having a whole new appreciation for the novel.

Undoubtedly, my favourite thing about this novel is Helen Graham. Just like Charlotte and Emily, Anne creates such an intriguing and strong female character that completely determines the way I read the novel. Despite the traumatic, violent and controlling behaviour she experienced at the hands of her husband, she comes out on top. She does not allow this to determine her life: she is outspoken about his alcoholic, frivolous and unfaithful behaviour; she challenges Arthur when he oppresses her; and she flees in order to forge a new and safe life for her and her son, also named Arthur. Considering the very nature of this restrictive and controlling patriarch, both Helen and Anne challenge and reject the sexist notions set into place for women.

It is with great remorse that I must inform you, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the family, that Arthur Huntingdon is loosely based on Anne’s brother, Branwell. The violent nature of Arthur and Helen’s relationship mirrored that of Branwell and his family’s. After being rejected from his former lover, Mrs Robinson (an upper-class married woman), Branwell spirals into an addiction of opium and alcohol. He lashes out at his family when high or drunk, especially towards Patrick. This was shown through Arthur, which meant I was kind of  happy when his death finally came. She could be free from him, and free to choose who she spent her life with, which is all you wish for whilst reading this novel. Helen becomes someone who you’re deeply attached to, and you’re constantly wishing for her to have complete and utter happiness.

Unfortunately, this is why I hate the ending of Tenant. If I was to rate it down for any one reason, this would be it. When Arthur dies, she is free to marry whom she pleases. She chooses Gilbert. For obvious reasons, he tried to court her for the majority of the novel. However, what one may fail to recognise is that Gilbert is just as abusive and controlling as Arthur. He literally cracks a whip on Mr Lawrence’s head because he believes him to be secretly courting Helen. Gilbert doesn’t regret this until he discovers Mr Lawrence is actually Helen’s brother. Throughout the narrative, we are aware of Gilbert’s strange behaviour; he truly believes he has ownership over Helen and won’t stop until he can have her. I have no doubt that Helen will realise the error of her mistake and will regret ever marrying him.

But, thankfully, this was the only thing I truly hated about the novel. Everything else was spectacular and demonstrated just how brilliant a writer Anne was. The best thing about this, besides Helen of course, was the mode of writing Anne adopted. This whole novel is an epistolary narrative, transforming into a diary half way through before reverting back to letter form to finish the novel off. Letter writing added a greater realism to the narrative. It was probably the most Realistic novel I’ve read by the Brontës as Emily and Charlotte tend to lean comfortably towards the Romantic genre. Tenant really depicted true life in the most distressing way, and I really don’t think Anne could have constructed this novel in any other way.

Another aspect I thoroughly enjoyed about this novel was the unadulterated Englishness of it. My favourite example being the big, upper-class country houses which we see many times through Wildfell Hall, Grassdale, and the house Helen lived in with her relatives. In particular, I loved the former for its Gothic elements. It was reclusive, boarded off and dark – the only light being from the windows and raging fire. This made my reading experience feel enchanting and bewitching, which is something I appreciate as a reader. I like when Englishness is a running theme throughout a classic; it feels traditional and familiar to me, regardless of if it was written centuries ago.  I thought Anne captured it brilliantly in Tenant.

Other than that, I loved everything. The novel was engaging, interesting, and moving. It challenged everything the Victorian society stood for, meaning Anne actively tried to destroy the patriarchy’s control over women. I’d definitely recommend this. It’s upsetting that Anne is still so overshadowed by her sisters, even though she is equally as talented as them (I’d even go as far to say she’s even more talented in some areas – she does not waver in her feminist ideals and she depicts true Victorian life for a woman). Do not neglect her anymore; she is truly a remarkable writer, especially considering she broke all the rules and decorum of being a 19th century Parish daughter.

5 stars.

Thanks for reading, Lauren Xx


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