Sunday, February 18, 2007

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Various
# of Pages: 520

Favorite Line: [Helen, on being asked why she thinks she will never marry] "Because I imagine there must be only a very, very few men in the world, that I should like to marry; and of those few, it is ten to one I may never be acquainted with one; or if I should, it is twenty to one he may not happen to be single, or to take a fancy to me."

Rating: 5/10

From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Erica Bauermeister
Of the three Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte are better known, yet it is Anne's work which carries some of the strongest feminist themes. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a devout young woman named Helen falls in love with a man who is handsome, but whose values are questionable; willing to believe she can alter his character, she marries him. Her marriage becomes a misery she has no power to change until she devises a bold plan to take control. Her story comes through two voices - her own and that of Gilbert Markham, a man who falls in love with Helen later in her life - and is told through journals and letters written over a period of time. Because of the privacy and immediacy of these narratives, the reader sees personal changes and attitudes Helen and Gilbert are often unaware of at the time: we witness Helen's first naive protestations of passion for her husband and follow her through her eventual disillusionment; we recognize Gilbert's early, unconscious egotism. While the plot continues and mysteries are unraveled, what Helen and Gilbert say - as well as what they don't say - provides another story to follow, which reinforces Anne Bronte's indictment of the sexual double standards of nineteenth-century Britain.

Yes, I understand that this book is a classic. I also understand that it is a very important book in the history of the novel, and certainly in the feminist movement. It takes a lot of guts for a woman in the years between the Regency and the Victorian era to leave her deadbeat husband and make a new life for herself. I understand all of that.

But really ... Helen Graham is not an easy woman to like. She is highly sanctimonious, lecturing, hypocritical and holier-than-thou. She falls in love with a man who has very few positive traits and marries him in the hopes that she can change him (never a good idea). Then, when she realizes that she can't, she instead sets about keeping their son away from his evil influence and runs away from him. Only to then fall in love with another man, who is apparently far more worthy (though I can't say that I completely agree with that assessment).

It was very difficult for me to find anyone in this novel to like. Which, I suppose, isn't that big of a deal as it appears fairly obvious that Bronte did not write this novel to create a story about interesting characters, but that she wrote it to hone the point (AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN) that alcoholism is bad and the way to happiness lies in finding God. None of the characters evolve during the story; they're the same at the end as they were at the beginning. And they are all so completely black and white that it isn't hard to guess their reactions to anything that happens.

So, admittedly, I didn't particularly like this book. I give it five stars because I think it is a very brave book, and an important book, and one that shook a great many foundations of Victorian England. However ... I wish that the characters were fleshed out a bit more, or at least a little bit more likable. I also wish that Victorians weren't so obsesed with the diary format- I didn't enjoy being in Lydia Gwilt's head in Armadale, and I didn't like the extended stay in Helen Graham's head here in Tenant, either.


  1. I liked your review, Aarti. I can see that I liked this book better than you did too!

  2. Anonymous2/26/2007

    Well now I both want to read it and hesitate to read it. Great review! Alcoholism is bad? Who knew?

    If I didn't have a liking for Jane and Rochester, I would say that the Bronte sisters only wrote hateful characters.

  3. Anonymous2/26/2007

    I read this book years ago for a course I took on the Brontes, but don't really remember too much about it, so I guess my opinion of it couldn't have been that high in the first place.

    Jane Eyre remains the best of the Bronte novels, in my opinion.

  4. No Comments by a Male Yet??????

    Well,i bought and read this book last year....and its really a very good book to read!
    And Besides i m a CRAZY for this book is a part of my very treasured collection!

    I dont know aarti y u didnt like this book..much but i agree with u its a very brave book!

    But thts wht i love abt classics the way Women showcased the goodness of the classical era,i know thts in books,but they would have chnged the world if they would have given a bit of freedom those times!

    But Still....i must say Charlotte Bronte's Is STILL my FAVOURITE Author of the Bronte's sisters....and Jane Eyre is one of the most AWESOME Books i have read in my LIFE!

    Well,if u guessing wht age i m.....then dont ponder much...i m 21,a final year Enginnering Student....and want to tell tht even MEN do read Classics!!!!!

    And ya Your Blog ROCKS and so ur reviews!
    Bye,take Care....

  5. Anonymous3/11/2009

    Dear Arti,

    In your focus on the plot of Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I think you have missed the most important subject that Anne Bronte was commenting upon - that women in 19th century England had an extraordinarily tough time - yes Helen was stupid in marrying Arthur, but she was young (18) and like most 19th century females had no experience of what real life, especially married life, could be like. In fact was Helen so different to 18 year olds today? She couldn't divorce her husband(it was simply not possible legally), or even leave him and expect to be able to live in peace away from him; she could not take her child with her (again legally not possible) without sneaking off in the middle of the night and forever living in fear that he may find her and drag her back and if so there was nothing she could do about it; once she had married him she and everything she owned and ever would own became his legal property. There is so much more to the novel than the details of the plot. I do however agree with you that it is a brave book for a Victorian woman to write - even her sisters didn't approve!


  6. I would respectfully disagree with you, Niknak. Yes, she had no recourse by law against her husband, but I think modern readers give people of previous eras little to no credit about making their own decisions. Helen chose to marry her husband. And her experience to that point, I assume, was much like any other 18-year-old of the time. Just because it wasn't what we NOW experience as "real life," (though I for one have no idea what is meant by that general phrase when people use it) doesn't disqualify it as experience.

    Also, I don't think my review focuses on the plot at all- it focuses on the characters. None of whom I found likable.

  7. Anonymous10/20/2009

    I studied the Tenant of Wildfell Hall earlier this year and I quite enjoyed the book. In my opinion, the long sentences were a flaw, so too was the texts structure (the letter, diary, then letter again) and Helen's character was very unpredictable, which was an annoyance. I too, found the characters hard to like.

    I'm only 17, so my opinion in this area probably doesnt mean much significantly, but stating none of the characters evolve during the story is a fairly broad statement. Helen clearly transforms from the naive young woman she originally was, to the strong woman she becomes (arguably the saviour of text). Gilbert clearly changes too, which is the ultimate reason why Helen gives him her heart. Helen knows Gilbert has changed and they both acknowledge this in different areas of the final volume.
    The role of women in this text (similarly with alcoholism) is a huge notion.

  8. It's now been well over two years since I've read and reviewed this book, so I don't think I can respond to your comments with any sort of evidence. However, I know I felt very strongly about Helen (as I generally do on most women in literature) and thought that she was just as preachy at the end of the book as she was at the start. I don't remember much about Gilbert at all- didn't like him much, though.

    And being 17 doesn't make your opinion any less valid than anyone else's. At least, I don't think so.


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