The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Gilbert Markham is deeply intrigued by Helen Graham, a beautiful and secretive young widow who has moved into nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son. He is quick to offer Helen his friendship, but when her reclusive behavior becomes the subject of local gossip and speculation, Gilbert begins to wonder whether his trust in her has been misplaced. It is only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that the truth is revealed and the shocking details of her past.
Novels of this era always sate my curiosity around the gender roles and social customs prevalent at the time. We read of ladies marrying lords with stiff upper lips, the most stoic well-mannered elite, and of manners and conduct being mandatory in all things. It does lead one to wonder what goes on behind closed doors; does the lady ever walk to the larder in her pyjamas, do husband and wife ever giggle and have a carry on, does the upstanding gentleman ever abuse his promises?
Brontë shows us all of this in a perceived act of defiance against the male species. She presents us with a man so loathsome, so tempted by vice, and so childish that his wife decides to take matters into her own hands, and flee the marital home, for the sake of her son. This was a big deal in the nineteenth century; where many of us women have had to gather courage in the present day, having the nerve to do this in Brontë's time was absolutely huge.
Many of these types of novels detail the wayward wealthy gent who simmers down immeasurably when married off to a blushing young woman. She tends to balm his spirits with her innocence, and reminds him of purity, religion, and truth. He settles down, and they both live a wonderful life. This is a terrible message, of course, and Anne shows us the problems with it by having Helen's aunt warn her against marrying unless she's sure, and doubtlessly in love.
Helen's plans of a peaceful marriage never come to fruition, and she finds herself abandoned for months at a time, callously attacked by her husband's tongue, and eventually finds herself in the midst of drunken gatherings at home where she is endlessly and wildly subjected to deep abuse from both her husband and his friends. Brontë writes of her oppression mildly to say the least, but the power is still there, the horror portrayed wonderfully, and the message itself profound and impactful.
Our leading lady was one of the strongest female characters I have ever met in Victorian literature. All of the plights she endured were met with nothing but grace, dignity, and complete resilience. She chose her battles carefully, she considered all options alongside their consequences, and she decided her time to strike. Throughout the entire novel she remained a beacon of purity and religion, never erring from her path of the most incredible righteousness. Never a martyr, never a complainer; she turned the other cheek until the fate of her child was in jeopardy. Then she rose.
My only issue with the novel was our narrator, Gilbert Markham. Markham falls in love with Helen when she moves into the looming gothic home in his town, and does not rest at all until she is aware of his undying love. His persistence, blind determination, and complete lack of self-awareness infuriated me. He would refuse to leave Helen alone, employing a frighteningly relatable "let me love you" act which is typical of men even these days who haven't been allowed to have what they want. I'm not sure Brontë meant for the reader to hate him quite as much as I did, but I was pleased to see his pig-headed manner improved by the finale of the story.
This is a wonderful, important novel, which makes me wonder why I have never read Anne before. I loved Emily first, then Charlotte pushed ahead of her in terms of literary prowess. I have found over time that it's futile to compare the Brontë sisters, but Anne, Anne, you have stolen the heart from my rib cage.