Friday, 13 October 2017

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a powerful and sometimes violent novel of expectation, love, oppression, sin, religion and betrayal. It portrays the disintegration of the marriage of Helen Huntingdon, the mysterious ‘tenant’ of the title, and her dissolute, alcoholic husband. Defying convention, Helen leaves her husband to protect their young son from his father’s influence, and earns her own living as an artist. Whilst in hiding at Wildfell Hall, she encounters Gilbert Markham, who falls in love with her.

On its first publication in 1848, Anne Brontë’s second novel was criticised for being ‘coarse’ and ‘brutal’. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall challenges the social conventions of the early nineteenth century in a strong defence of women’s rights in the face of psychological abuse from their husbands.

Anne Brontë’s style is bold, naturalistic and passionate, and this novel, which her sister Charlotte considered ‘an entire mistake’, has earned Anne a position in English literature in her own right, not just as the youngest member of the Brontë family.

What did I think?

I wouldn't normally have picked up this book as it's a long time since I've voluntarily read any of the classics, but it was the first book chosen for book club so I thought I would show willing.  It was a lot easier to read than I thought, and about a third of the way through I found I was really enjoying it.

I can see why it caused such a stir in its day; Helen is such a strong character and how dare she be so bold as to leave her philandering husband, taking his son and heir with her.  In a day and age where marriages were frequently arranged, Helen married Arthur for love, despite her Aunt's misgivings about him.  Like many women who have fallen in love with a cad, Helen thought she could change Arthur but she was wrong and she ended up in a loveless, abusive marriage.

Arthur is a despicable fellow and openly flaunted his affairs in front of his wife, so I'm surprised that Helen managed to stay with him for so long.  Helen escapes to Wildfell Hall and reinvents herself as Helen Graham, artist and widow, but as much as she wants a quiet life her beauty catches the eye of Gilbert Markham.  Gilbert thinks Helen is a widow so doesn't see why he can't pursue her but obviously Helen knows that she is still very much married, despite her husband living his all singing, dancing and drinking bachelor life.  Although Helen keeps their friendship very platonic, Gilbert soon gets jealous of anyone who has any contact with Helen especially the owner of Wildfell Hall and the green-eyed monster is sometimes very dangerous.

I'm so pleased that I have read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; it's really quite amazing for its time period.  It's daring and courageous in its feminism and clearly was a book created ahead of its time.  If it had been written in the latter half of the 20th Century it would have been applauded, instead of criticised, for its boldness.

My rating:

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