I have wanted to read something by Anne Bronte since reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I chose this particular Anne Bronte novel after reading that after Anne’s death, Charlotte stopped the continuation of its publication because of the controversial themes it contains. I was fascinated to read what Charlotte Bronte thought was too controversial to be published in her sister’s name. I am going to touch on these themes which will therefore give the plot away for anyone planning to read it without any prior knowledge. If this is the case, do not read past the photograph
I was certainly not disappointed. I really enjoyed this book – in fact more than Wuthering Heights (I know!) – and would say it is one of the best classics I have read this year. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a novel about a mysterious woman who moves to Wildfell Hall alone with her child and no explanation of where she came from or who she was before. The narrator Gilbert Markham tells the story through a series of letters to his friend. Midway through the book the narration flips to the woman in Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham, as Gilbert reads her diaries to discover the truth about her past.
The strong themes in this books are marriage, alcoholism and motherhood. These are not only seen from Helen but also her friends and husband’s friends. Helen marries Arthur Huntingdon through young love despite being warned against it. In those times, it was believed that a woman should marry a wealthy man to have a stable future. Helen goes against this and soon her love for Arthur disappears when she learns of his true character. Helen’s friends marry for money and status as they were taught to but they are unhappy in their marriages. In fact, in this novel there is no mention of a happy marriage until the very end. Arthur and his friends wish to continue their bachelor lives despite being married and expected their wives to agree with them.
The most controversial part of all is that Helen runs away from Arthur due to his alcoholism and affairs, and to provide a better life for her child. As this was written before the Married Woman’s Property Act in 1870, women like Helen could not divorce their husbands or claim custody over their children. This left Helen with the criminal act of running away. Helen is a very religious character which means she has to justify this breaking of marriage vows to herself before conducting her escape. All these themes definitely forced me to think and question all the events morally both from a historical perspective but also as if it were modern-day.