Book Review – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall By Anne Bronte

Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Anne Bronte
First Published: 

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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