The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Anne Bronte’s novel about the depredations of alcohol. It is essentially a primer for the temperance movement, and yet it’s also wildly feminist for it’s time and rather snarky in some places. I wouldn’t say I loved the novel, but I enjoyed it.
The novel is two stories, one about Gilbert Markham and one (the far more interesting, and lengthy story) about Helen Huntingdon. Gilbert is a young wealthy farmer, going about his wealthy farmer business when a young widow moves into Wildfell Hall. At first he’s quite bothered by her cool demeanor, but as he comes to make her acquaintance he’s drawn in and the two fall in love. However the young widow, Helen, has a terrible secret. She’s on the run from her verbally abusive, alcoholic husband and isn’t really a widow at all. When Gilbert professes his love to Helen, she reveals her secret and tells him her rather tragic tale.
I enjoyed this story quite a bit, even if the moralizing annoyed me in many places. However, in order to write the story she wanted where Helen is a heroine and not some tarted up hussy, Anne needed to make sure that her heroine embraced the most strict morals of the day so there are moments where Helen comes off rather preachy. This Victorian moralizing gives the book a very preachy feel, and dates the book quite a bit. However, when you peel back the surface of what modern readers would find old fashioned and dated, you get a very modern heroine. Helen leaves her husband. She flat out refuses him his bedroom rights, and when she feels she and her son can no longer abide in his presence she runs away in the night. There’s a reason this book hit the world with shockwaves. A wife forbidding her husband her bed (we’re talking sex here) just wasn’t done, and yet Helen is extremely sympathetic (to past readers, modern readers should be sympathetic because she’s awesome and Huntingdon is an ass) because of her strict adherence to Victorian morals. My one complaint is that Helen is the cheese that stands alone, there is at least one other example of a good woman trapped in a marriage with an alcoholic asshole, however he reforms and that marriage becomes a lovely one, for all that it’s rather plain the two are mismatched in the extreme.
The other reason I really enjoyed the book was because I sensed that in some respects Anne was taking swipes at the novels of her sisters. I kept thinking that if the Brontes were alive today Emily and Charlotte would have been die hard Twilight fans and Anne would have written scathing blog posts about how Edward and Jacob are terrible love interests and Twilight promotes all kinds of abuse. Anne’s complete takedown of the Byronic hero in this novel was a delight to watch.
There’s a bit where Helen’s aunt is trying to convince her not to marry Huntingdon and when Anne say’s that she likes him despite his faults and her aunt replies, “To be sure, my dear; and the worse he is, I suppose, the more you long to deliver him from himself.” That moment cemented that the book and I would get along just fine. All during the courtship I kept yelling, ‘RED FLAG. RED FLAG” and I could tell that Anne wanted me to be yelling that (or whatever the Victorian equivalent would be). The book delighted me in how it eviscerated the ‘brooding but sexy man’ trope and pointed out that someone so obsessed with his own troubles isn’t really the best relationship material.
It is not, as I said, a perfect book. The moralizing was annoying and detracted quite a bit from the book. Near the end I started skimming quite a bit as Helen’s willingness to martyr herself in order to be a good Victorian woman made me roll my eyes. As I said, it keeps Helen sympathetic to the Victorian reader, but to the modern reader it makes her a bit bland. I can’t say spineless, because Helen is nothing if not full of steel, but the final act of the book does detract some from that steel to a modern reader.
I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I do recommend it, especially if you’re annoyed with the Byronic heroes as presented in Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s novels. It was an enjoyable read, but I’m afraid the moralizing did detract a bit from the story for me. I liked it, I didn’t love it, and I can’t even say that I really liked it but I think it’s worth reading.