Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Bronte
# 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."
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.