The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne Bronte. 1848. 496 pages.
You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.
What should YOU know about this one going in? Less than I did, I think. I had the misfortune (yes, I know it's my own fault) of reading the very quick introduction. (For the record, it wasn't the edition that is pictured on the left. Though that edition might have a spoilerish introduction as well. I do wish that introductions could be placed at the end of the book.) So I will do my best to make you curious about this one, but not ruin it for you...
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is told within a framework. We've got two narrators. Gilbert Markham is telling a friend about how he met this mystery woman in his youth. At the time of this telling, many years have passed. (Thus, the "You must go back with me to 1827" beginning.) This meeting, this acquaintance, isn't without mystery (and drama). He falls for a new woman in the community, a young woman with a son. Her name is Mrs. Graham. Her son's name is Arthur. Slowly--very slowly--he is starting to get to know her better. She's allowing him to visit her, walk with her. But as he begins to want to know her more, as he begins to picture his future with her in it...the rumors about her grow out of control. Who is she really? Is she worthy of his love? Is he doing the right thing by guarding her reputation and standing up for her within the community? Or is he being fooled?
The second narrator is the woman. Here readers meet Helen Huntingdon, Mrs Graham's real name. We learn her story through her journal. We learn her story alongside Gilbert--for she indeed gave this journal to him after some drama, tantrums, and tears.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a novel about unhappy marriages. Helen's marriage isn't the only unhappy account. It is just one of many presented in Anne Bronte's dark novel. It highlights the lack of rights for women--for married women especially. It also could serve as a cautionary tale. Of how serious marriage is. Of how women should not rush into it. And how a pretty face, a handsome face, isn't enough to build a marriage on. That character is EVERYTHING. That marriage has to built on more than desire, more than infatuation. How can a young girl know if her suitor is worthy of her love? How can a young girl discern the truth of the matter? What if she's being deceived? What if he's merely a flatterer? Or a womanizer? Or a drunkard? Or a gambler? Or just after her money? How can she know who to trust? And deception doesn't just work one way. How can HE know her true character as well? How does he know that she loves him, that she cares for him, respects him? How does he know she isn't just after his money, his estate, his title?
When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone--there are many, many other things to be considered. Keep both heart and hand in your own possession, till you see good reason to part with them; and if such an occasion should never present itself, comfort your mind with this reflection: that, though in single life your joys may not be many, your sorrows, at least, will not be more than you can bear. Marriage may change your circumstances for the better, but in my private opinion, it is far more likely to produce a contrary result. (293)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a gritty novel in some ways. The portrait of marriage it presents is ugly, harsh, cruel. But I am glad to have read this one. I found it to be a compelling read. I did feel for Helen. I'm not quite sure I have the same amount of respect for Gilbert as I do Helen. But then again Gilbert didn't read the introduction as I did. He wasn't omniscient.
Here is one of my favorite exchanges. It is between Helen and Mr. Hargrave.
Other reviews: The Book Whisperer, The Reading Life, Helen Loves Books, A Striped Armchair, Booklust, The Zen Leaf.
'You have no love left for him, then?'
'Not the least.'
'I knew that--I knew you were too high-minded and pure in your own nature to continue to regard one so utterly false and polluted, with any feelings but those of indignation and scornful abhorrence!'
'Is he not your friend?' said I, turning my eyes from the fire to his face, with perhaps a slight touch of those feelings he assigned to another.
'He was,' replied he, with the same calm gravity as before, 'but do not wrong me by supposing that I could continue my friendship and esteem to a man who could so infamously - so impiously forsake and injure one so transcendently - well, I won't speak of it. But tell me, do you never think of revenge?'
'Revenge! No -- what good would that do? -- It would make him no better, and me no happier.'
'I don't know how to talk to you Mrs. Huntingdon,' said he smiling 'you are only half a woman -- your nature must be half-human, half angelic. Such goodness overawes me; I don't know what to make of it.' (259-260)
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews