Wednesday 20 June 2012

Review (ish): - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

So I wrote a post about how much I loved the first half of this book earlier in the week, and as part of my birthday splurge I went and bought a copy of Agnes Grey, which should give you some kind of hint as to how the rest of the book went.

I won’t say it until I’ve read Agnes Grey, but after finishing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne is definitely in the lead as my favourite Bronte. As I’ve said, there are elements of the Austenian in Tenant, but what I liked most about it was that while the ending was pretty much what I expected it to be, along the way a lot of things which I didn’t expect happened. Also, I’m not sure how she does it, but the main character, Helen Huntingdon, could so easily be a total pain, but somehow she just isn’t. I really liked her; she has a bit of a difficult time because she seems to feel that she constantly has to atone for the mistake she has made in marrying her husband and then running away from him by pretty much continually making herself depressed, but she's got a huge amount of guts.

I can see how The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was more than a bit scandalous when it was published. I don’t want to spoil it for people who have yet to read it (because you should all read it, right now), but basically Helen’s husband is not very nice, quite aggressive and has very questionable morals, and she scandalizes society by leaving him and taking her child with her.  Reading it from the 21st century, my thinking was that if her husband was going to do all the appalling things he does then of course she would leave and take her child, as she was obviously the more competent parents. But then I started thinking from a Victorian point of view, and realised how much of a major event her leaving him actually is.

Jillian wrote a brilliant post about this book this week, a lot of which I totally agree with and I don’t just want to repeat what she’s said in a less effective manner, so you should probably go check out her post. Basically though, life for a Victorian woman married to a less than nice man, could be a bit crap as they didn’t actually have any rights and everything that they had (including their children and themselves) legally belonged to their husbands. So really Helen is being incredibly brave by running away with her child, so that he won’t be influenced by his father’s negative attitudes and learn bad habits.I think it was the Little Women lover in me who really liked this passage from quite early on in the book, where Helen is talking about teaching her son, Arthur to dislike wine:

"I will clear as many stones from his path as I can, and teach him to avoid the rest- or walk firmly over them, as you say- for when I have done my utmost, in the way of clearance, there will still be plenty left to exercise all the agility, steadiness, and circumspection he will ever have."

Immediately before this, she is being ridiculed by the Markhams, as they say that her child will never make a proper man if she doesn't allow him to overcome temptation for himself. I like the recognition of all the trials that life can present, and that she isn't sticking her head in the sand over the possiblities that could be open to her child. Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own actions, but there is no reason not to help each other, as she tries to do with her child, and even with her impossible husband, throughout the book. I really like the idea, present throughout the book, that we can influence our lives through our actions. A lot of people nowadays seem to be content not to take any responsibility for themselves and to blame all their problems on other people, and I think it's partly the attitude of self -improvement and self-sufficiency of attitude which draws me to the Victorians, and especially the Brontes, as writers. 

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Huntingdon is in a terrible situation, and so she removes herself and her son from it, in a time when doing so was actually illegal, and more than that, she actually supports them both as an artist by selling her work. She is kind of awesome.

I feel I've got a bit off-topic, but this is a book that inspires a strong emotional response. While there were things about it which annoyed me - mostly Eliza Markham and a few other characters who just seemed so overly excited by gossiping about other people's misfotune - I really enjoyed the plot, and I loved to hate Arthur Huntingdon the elder. Stylistically, the writing is great. Really fluid and engrossing, and I really never wanted to put the book down. Also, it has a happy ending, and I liked that Anne Bronte allows the reader to see what happens beyond the wedding, at least a little bit. 

I did a course in Women Writers of Victorian Literature at University, but the only books I remember reading for it (and I know for sure there were more than this!) are Wuthering Heights and Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I feel like I've really not read enough of the Victorians, and reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall made me want to read more. I have North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell on my shelf and it's also on a lot of my challenge lists for this year, so maybe I'll read that next. I'd love to get to Dickens, but we have such a difficult relationship that I don't want to kid myself by saying that I will.


  1. I keep meaning to read this. I read Agnes Grey at the beginning of last year (before I started my blog unfortunately!) and I do want to read this one. I have to say I wasn't that impressed with it though. I mean, it's alright and I enjoyed reading it. But it's not something I'm particularly dying to read again, but most reviews say that Tenant is better anyway.

  2. Agnes Grey is very good. It's not as p[olished as Tenant, but the intent -- the honesty and straightforwardness? -- just as good. In Agnes Grey, she gives you a Victorian governess without any romanticism about it. I really really respect Anne. (Thanks for linking my post! I saw the first post on Tenant because I saw Allie's post about youu today. Then scrolling down my Google Reader, I found the second half!) I too want to read Gaskell soon! :)

  3. I loved this one too. Helen is such a great character. A lot of times I wanted to say, "You go girl!" But then there were times I wanted to say, "No! Don't do that. He doesn't deserve it!" But I admired her at the same time for having the strength to do what she believed was right.
    I remember the second half of Agnes Grey being better than the first.

  4. I read this earlier this year and Anne immediately became my favourite Bronte too - and I also bought Agnes Grey but haven't read it yet.
    Anne fans are growing by the day which is great!

  5. You're in for a treat with Agnes Grey, it made Anne my favourite Bronte. Can't wait to read this one too.

  6. You're in for a treat with Agnes Grey, it made Anne my favourite Bronte. Can't wait to read this one too.

  7. Yesterday I finished reading Agnes Grey. I must say that the first part impressed me so much, but the end I did not quite like it. Now I am going to read the other one, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall...