Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: April 16, 1996 (First published in 1848)
Phenomenally successful at the time of publication, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) was considered quite controversial at the time due to its focus on issues of feminism and marital abuse. When thereclusive widow Helen Graham and her son take up residence in an old mansion, she becomes the unwilling subject of her neighbours’ scrutiny. As Helen tries to escape her difficult past, complicationsarise when young farmer Gilbert Markham falls in love with her. The novel has been adapted extensively across film, television, radio and theatre.
This is the story of a woman’s struggle for independence. Helen “Graham” has returned to Wildfell Hall in flight from a disastrous marriage. Exiled to the desolate moorland mansion, she adopts an assumed name and earns her living as a painter.
When I first picked up the book, I did not know of the literary genius that Anne Bronte was. I had only heard of Charlotte Bronte and intensely admired Jane Eyre. I’ll put down my thoughts as they appeared while I was reading the classic, but now my opinion will be tempered by the fact that Bronte’s work has been hailed as a literary gem.
During my research, I learned that this book is considered as the first sustained feminist novel. But, without the context of the social situation in the 1800s, a woman leaving her alcoholic husband did not seem quite path-breaking to me. It was much later, towards the end of the book, when I came across a passage that described the vicar’s reaction after he found out the truth about Mrs. Graham, that I realized what people thought about a married woman and her duty towards her husband.
The strength of Mrs. Graham’s character in repelling the affectionate advances of the most dogged suitors when she could have easily taken their support and protection to pull her out of her miserable life is, too my mind, commendable. The way in which she sends Mr. Markham away, despite feeling no little tenderness for him, is poignant enough to break the reader’s heart and hope, along with Gilbert, that the future may be different. Such unimpeachable characters are rare now-a-days.
I can easily identify with young Helen’s infatuation with Mr. Huntingdon, with his charm and merriment. Even today, so many young women fall for the wrong man because they are swept away by smooth talk and smoother looks. To choose the right life partner is no mean task, as Mrs. Maxwell unsuccessfully tries to impress upon Helen.
In a world where plain talking is the last resort and etiquette is everything, the reader is taken upon an exciting ride that traces the deteriorating relationship of Helen and Arthur and the hesitant blooming of Helen’s love for Gilbert. Till the end, there are several twists that leave you wondering whether Helen and Gilbert do ever unite.
Anne speaks so many piercing truths of life in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that it is difficult to believe that she was in her early twenties when she wrote the book. It is said that she probably wrote the book while she was employed as a governess; my conclusion is that the real world was exposed to Anne very early in life and it left a bitter impression on her.
The flowery language, the unusual (in today’s context) use of certain words like “insupportable,” “folly,” “intercourse (to mean conversation),” and the rich descriptions of people and places alike made every page of this book a delight to read.
Such a shame that Charlotte Bronte thought that the subject of the book was “a mistake” and prevented its re-publication! Otherwise, people like me, who love Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Louisa May Alcott, would have heard of Anne Bronte’s works as well.
To be sure, I’m off to read Agnes Grey next!
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