I read this book for a number of very random reasons: a) it was free on my Kindle (sickening, I know). b) I kind of felt a little sorry for poor old Anne being continually overshadowed by her older sisters, and c) I simply felt the urge to read a good old old-fashioned classic. I’ve been reading a little out of my comfort zone for the past couple of months and I needed a good return to form with a book I knew I would love.
Told through the framework of letters by Yorkshire gentleman farmer Gilbert Markham, and then through Helen’s diary entries, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Huntingdon, a devout yet independent woman who, against the advice of her friends and family marries an ill-suited and selfish man. The novel begins with her occupying Wildfell Hall under mysterious circumstances as Gilbert’s intruige and feelings towards her grow, and follows as he discovers the tragic circumstances which led to her running away with her son to start a life somewhere else. But, of course, Helen and Gilbert can never get married, no matter how much they love one another. That is, not until, her horrible old husband pops his clogs *wink wink nudge nudge*.
I mean, I think we could all see where this was going.
Let’s reaffirm the obvious and/or most shocking here: this is a kickass age-defying feminist novel. Helen Huntingdon is a hugely strong protagonist (certainly stronger than the simpering and annoying Gilbert who you somehow found still found yourself rooting for despite his ineptitude). She does the unthinkable, escaping from a toxic marriage by running away, but even after everything finds that she cannot escape her duty as wife, returning in an act of superb selflessness to care for her husband in his sickbed.
Her husband, incidentally, is a complex and multi-layered villain – one you really want to change, for Helen’s sake, but who you find yourself very quickly detesting as he traps her in their home, conducting illicit affairs before her very eyes. You hate him for the way he treats Helen, for the way he taunts and manipulates her, for the way he tries to lead their son anyway. I found myself honestly gasping aloud at his cruelty. But more than anything you hate him simply because you see through her eyes just how much she loves him, and just how low he sinks in her esteem.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was very popular when first published but it also faced criticism, especially from Anne’s sister Charlotte Brontë who prevented its republication. This seems strange to me, especially because I found so many links and comparisons drawn between Helen Huntingdon and Jane Eyre as I read – both highly devout and strong-minded woman, both far ahead of their time, both now revered as early feminist icons. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells an important story. It speaks of love and redemption, of goodness and perseverance and, most importantly, it teaches women of a certain time, of a certain time’s mind set, that after everything they too were deserving of a happy ending.
“You might as well sell yourself to slavery at once, as marry a man you dislike. If your mother and brother are unkind to you, you may leave them, but remember you are bound to your husband for life.”