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Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Wordsworth Classics) Paperback – December 5, 1999
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About the Author
Anne Bronte was born at Thornton, Yorkshire, on January 17, 1820. She was the sixth and youngest child of Reverend Patrick Bronte, an Irishman by birth, and Maria Branwell Bronte, who was from a prosperous Cornish family. Following her mother's death in 1821, Anne and four sisters and one brother were raised by an aunt, Elizabeth Branwell. The two eldest daughters, Maris and Elizabeth, died in 1825 from tuberculosis contracted at the religious boarding school to which they had been sent.
Anne spent her childhood and formative years in the isolated parsonage at Haworth, Yorkshire, where her father was curate. The Bronte children all thrived in fantasy worlds that drew on their voracious reading of Byron, Scott, and Shakespeare as well as The Arabian Nights and gothic fiction. Anne and Emily worked together on a saga about the fictitious island of Gondal while Charlotte and brother Branwell wrote melodramatic chronicles centered around the imaginary kingdom of Angria.
Financial considerations forced Anne to seek employment as a governess. In 1839 she arrived at Blake Hall in Mirfield to tutor the children of Joshua Ingham, a local squire and magistrate. From 1841 to 1845 she was governess at Thorpe Green, the home of Reverend Edmund Robinson located twelve miles from York. In 1843 Branwell Bronte also found work as a tutor at Thorpe Green until suspicions of an illicit relationship with his employer's wife resulted in dismissal. Branwell's gradual descent into alcoholism, drug addiction, and madness is reflected in the writings of all three sisters, particularly in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
The Brontes launched their literary careers in 1846 with a collection of verse published pseudonymously as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. In 1847 Anne's first novel, Agnes Grey, was published in a volume together with Emily's Wuthering Heights. Based on Anne's experiences as a governess, it exposed the desperate plight of unmarried, educated women driven to take up the only respectable career open to them. Though critic George Moore, perhaps Anne's greatest champion, later deemed it 'the most perfect prose narrative in English literature,' the work was overshadowed by the intense originality of Wuthering Heights, not to mention the enormous success of Charlotte's Jane Eyre, which had appeared a few weeks earlier.
Anne continued writing; her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, came out in 1848. The bold story of a strong-minded woman's struggle for independence, the book unmasked the dark brutality of Victorian chauvinism but was nevertheless attacked by some critics as a celebration of the very excesses it criticized. Charlotte Bronte, as she later revealed in the 'Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell' (1850), was especially disturbed by it: 'The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer's nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid.'
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall reminded other reviewers of Wuthering Heights, and it quickly went to a second printing. 'Every reader who has felt the power of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights comes, sooner or later, to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,' wrote Bronte scholar Margaret Lane. 'Anne Bronte, with all the Bronte taste for violence and drama, and with her experience of the same rude scenes and savage Yorkshire tales that had fed the imaginations of her sisters, did not shrink. She used the material at hand, and shaped it with singular honesty and seriousness. . . . [One] discovers from Wildfell Hall that Anne is a true Bronte.'
The final months of Anne Bronte's life were filled with tragedy. Both Branwell and Emily died of tuberculosis in the autumn of 1848. Anne Bronte succumbed to the same illness at Scarborough on May 28, 1849.
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Charlotte seems to have believed that Anne had no authority to write on the subject matter, which delves into some dark places, including just about every kind of human abuse - spousal, emotional, physical, child, drug, alcohol, financial, and even animal cruelty. Apparently for these reasons, Charlotte blocked further publications of Anne's major novel, posthumously, for some time. Also, once it finally resurfaced, sadly, apparently it was largely rewritten by male writers, unauthorized, and what we have today is probably not exactly as Anne Bronte intended, but we can only hope that enough of her story and her personal touch remains.
A woman leaving an abusive husband is not so shocking or unusual in terms of today's standards, but in Victorian times, it was not just frowned on and shocking, it was illegal for a woman to leave her husband for ANY reason, or to live off her own income or labor. At that time, unfortunately for all women, the law in Britain still followed the Napoleonic Code, which said that women were basically sub-human, in the same category as children, and mental incompetents. Women had no legal rights to speak of, but that soon began to change for the better, as laws reformed. Nevertheless, our heroine reaches her limits, and at last rebels against her cruel, belittling, abusive husband, for the sake of her child, and they flee.
There is a lot of excitement in the story, and twists in the plot. It seems to me, true to life, as far as spousal abuse, and other dysfunctional forms of human relationships. Apparently Anne may have gotten some of her ideas of dysfunctional relationships from observing her brother, who seemed to have substance abuse problems, and her experiences observing the lives of the very wealthy through her time working in aristocratic homes, as a governess. These experiences probably informed her creation of our aristocratic, proud, uncompromising, talented, highly intelligent, but rebellious heroine. However, Anne's personal experiences alone could not have produced this surprising, dark, and unusual story, which in many ways is ahead of its time. Apparently Anne had skill in story telling, and great imagination. This novel has tons of romance and love, darkness and intrigue, and surprising twists and turns.
The story involves a stranger coming to live in Wildfell Hall. The story builds as the community begins to gossip and malign the woman without knowing anything about her, and our narrator defending and befriending her while, of course, falling in love with her. He becomes victim of suspicion as well prompting her to unfold her story. At this point the narration unfolds from Helen's view point as she recounts the her life up to this point and how she came to become the tenant of Wildfell Hall. It's a story of the stupidity of youth (you should always listen to your mama!), abuse (mostly mental and psychological), devotion to duty and to family, and ultimately redemption. Quite a story, and very different from Anne's sisters offerings, and in some ways even more satisfying. You'll be glad you picked it up, and I believe this book deserves a great deal more attention than it has gotten in the shadows of Jane and Emily. It's a shame Anne dies so young and only left us with two novels and a smattering of short stories.
Tenant starts from the first person POV of a man, Gilbert Markham, who spars with but eventually takes a fancy to the mysterious young widow, Helen, who lives in a previously abandoned dilapidated estate. Anne turns the Byronic hero on his head - this time, it is the woman who holds a dark secret and acts by turns flirtatious and obnoxious. Finally beginning to return Gilbert's affections, Helen must tell him the secret she's been keeping - that she's in hiding from her abusive husband. Back when this was written, women had no recourse to leave their husbands, no matter how abusive. They couldn't run to their families, couldn't take their children, and had the law and societal norms completely against them.
All of this is delineated when halfway through the book, the POV turns to first person of Helen, who recounts her tale of falling for the dashing, charming Arthur Huntington. Anne expertly unravels his personality - from someone who turns on the charm and dotes on his wife until he slowly unleashes his cruel, selfish, cheating, alcoholic side. She does this in a way that makes you marvel that a young woman in her 20s, who hadn't seen much of the world, and hadn't come into much contact with men besides her dissolute brother and well-meaning father, could describe all of this with such intensity and realism.
When Helen rebels against her husband and decides to save herself and her child by running away, it was quite a shocking concept for the time, and Charlotte took it upon herself to repress the publication of the book. Boo, Charlotte!
Tenant of Wildfell Hall shows what life was like before feminism and if you're a woman who actually tells yourself you're not a feminist, you might want to read this book and get down on your knees and thank the brave women who came before you and fought for women to be treated like human beings.
Watch for the scene where Helen asks her husband if she can leave him, take their son (whom he has no interest in anyway) and live off her own money, and he says “No.” That’s all it took back then, ladies. He had all the power.
Anne handles the POV of Helen a bit more deftly than of Gilbert in my opinion, but it's still an astonishing accomplishment. I'm glad to hear that Anne is finally taking her place among her two preternaturally talented sisters, and I'm sorry I ignored her for so long, however, perhaps my more romantic-minded youthful reading preferences wouldn't have appreciated this book as much as I do now.