Having recently rediscovered my love for Victorian classics (courtesy Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South), I turned to one I hadn’t yet read – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. She is, I think, the least known of the Bronte sisters – Charlotte Brontë has become immortalized in our literary canon with Jane Eyre and so has Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. After finishing the book, I can see why. While the writing is as good – all the Brontë sisters were undeniably talented writers – I did not find the The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the kind of book I would necessarily want to again read, unlike Jane Eyre, for example, which I have re-read multiple times and find it as enthralling each time as the first time I read it.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is primarily the story of a young woman, Helen Huntington, and her journey – from being wooed as a young girl by a dashing, charming man whom she falls madly in love with and marries, to the gradual descent of the marriage into a loveless nightmare because of her husband’s predilection for alcohol and dissoluteness. Her only consolation is her son, born shortly after her marriage, but whom she eventually becomes desperate to remove from the corrupting influence of his father. So she does what was almost unimaginable in those days – she runs away. With the help of her brother, she becomes a tenant in a house he owns in a distant location, Wildfell Hall, and assumes a false name and the guise of being a widow. Being young and beautiful, she naturally arouses the interest and gossip of the families in the neighborhood, as well as the ardent love of a local landowner, Gilbert Markham. While the story does come to a happy conclusion at the end of the book, most of it describes the trials and tribulations faced by Helen and the degenerate behavior of her husband — to the point at which you just wanted to say, “Enough, already! Just leave him!”
Even though I did not find The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the kind of book I would love to read multiple times, it is definitely a good book and I am glad to have read it. For those who enjoy Victorian classics, it is one more on the rather limited list we have of these books. In addition to their literary merits, they allow us to know what it was like to live in those times, and therefore also serve as important historical records. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is especially a important reminder that while many of us have very romantic notions of what it was like to live in Victorian times, it was far from being hunky-dory, especially for women, the vast majority of whom were not so lucky to have devoted husbands with whom they could “live happily ever after.” Apparently, Charlotte Brontë tried to block the publication of this book because it was so scandalous at that time, with its account of a marriage gone sour, the dissipation of a man to alcohol, and a woman escaping from an untenable situation. We are fortunate to live in an age when it’s even hard to comprehend how a woman could be forced to stay in a marriage that was as abusive as Helen Huntington’s in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Not only this, the book was initially published under a male pseudonym, Acton Bell. It is bound to make any feminist’s hackles rise!
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Brontë
Original Publisher and Date: Thomas Cautley Newby (June 1848)
Reprint Publisher and Date: Oxford University Press (May 2008)
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.