Written by Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall goes into uncharted territory for novels of the 19th century, I’ve read. The story follows Helen, a smart, beautiful heroine who sets her cap for Arthur Huntington, a handsome rake. Despite her aunt’s warnings, Helen insists on marrying this manipulative cad.
Most of the book is narrated by Gilbert Markham a prosperous landowner. I thought this was original as most stories of this sort either have an omniscient or female narrator.
When the story opens there’s a great deal of mystery. Mrs. Graham, an aloof woman moves into the countryside with her young son. She keeps a distance from the people in the community, but attracts Gilbert Markham. As he tries to get closer to Helen, she pulls back though it’s clear she’s attracted. To explain herself, she gives Gilbert her diaries so that he can understand why she tries to live so secretively. It also gets her to take the narrative reins.
We learn that Helen’s husband has been abusive and callous from the start of their marriage. Arthur is an alcoholic, gambler and philanderer. Brontë, who’s brother fought several addictions, shows the darker side of 19th century. It was a time when there was a lot of addiction, gambling, and disrespect towards women, who had little freedom or options.
While the heroine was sometimes too Puritanical and rather icy, it’s an understandable response to her husband’s behavior. I appreciated how different the story was from an Austen or Gaskell book. For more commentary on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, you can listen to the Midday Connection Bookclub podcast.