Book Review – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall By Anne Bronte

Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: 
Anne Bronte
Format: 
Paperback
First Published: 
1848
Published: 
1994

Anne Bronte’s second and last novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of young Gilbert Markham who falls for the mysterious Mrs. Graham who he believes to be a widow.  After repeatedly rebuffing him and gradually befriending him, she relents and gives Gilbert her journal as both a confession and defense for her behavior.  Most of the novel consists of the journal, which relates the history of her troubled marriage and increasingly abusive and negligent husband.

It’s not a happy story, though it has a few lighter moments.  Gilbert is rather wrapped up in himself and melodramatic in his feelings and declarations and a little violent when disappointed (not to the lady but to a perceived rival).  He looks good mainly by comparison to the other men in her life.

Helen (Mrs. Graham) is a creature of realism as much as Gilbert is a romantic, though she began much the same.  She’s a very religious young woman who is convinced her own good character will correct what she first sees as minor flaws in her husband.

It’s a nice counterpoint to the myth of being able to “fix him”.  For the most part it’s a realistic portrayal of an abusive downward spiral and how society (particularly of the time) can work to trap a woman into an abusive situation and deny her many of the avenues open to men, including opportunities to pursue a profession.  Some of the most biting and still relevant commentary has to do with childrearing and the dangers of a “boys will boys” philosophy.  Not in the sense of skinned knees and a love of sports but in the sense that boys should be more free to indulge vices than girls because somehow drinking and swearing makes them “manly”.

I picked this up expecting a gothic tale and was caught off guard by the realism.  The text is redundant in places but reasonably well written.  At times the cast of characters seems unrealistically minimal.  It’s a strongly feminist work and more than a little preachy.  The story could be better refined, but I think it’s an important cautionary tale if not a fun one.  It leaves no dangling plot points, though the character the story is narrated to is never really introduced and thus feels a little artificial given the personal details shared.

Overall, I give The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 4 out of 5.  It’s better than average, and there are many I’d recommend it to.  But I doubt everyone will enjoy it.

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