Readalong: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte (i)
Readalong part one: Chapters 1-25
Although I have read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre at least three times each, I had never read anything by the third Bronte sister, Anne. I’ve had The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on my to-read list for several years but it was only when Whitney suggested a read-along as part of her Bronte Sisters challenge on her blog, She Is Too Fond of Books, that I actually got around to picking it up.
Tenant begins with the arrival of a mysterious young widow at Wildfell Hall, a dilapidated old house in a small village community. Although her neighbours reach out in friendship to Mrs Graham, she is uninviting and aloof, and soon people start to suspect that she has a Past and is Not Quite Respectable. The first part of the novel is narrated by Gilbert Markham, a young farmer , who persists in his friendship with Mrs Graham – Helen – and is soon smitten, despite the malicious rumours.
The opening chapter reminded me very much of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice with its family gossip about the newcomer to the community. Unlike Mr Bingley, however, Helen Graham is almost reclusive, living in just a few rooms of the house with her small son and a single servant. I’ve discovered Jane and Charlotte Bronte’s novels to be rather dark, with a gothic edge, and Anne is no different here, with her gloomy setting of Wildfell Hall and Helen’s mysterious past.
Helen is a remarkable character, very independent and practical. Her skill for painting is more than a “feminine accomplishment,” but a way to earn her living. She seems to have become disillusioned with the world and with people, but is clearly passionate with a fierce temper. A debate about how to raise children, and whether it is right to treat boys and girls differently, reads as startlingly modern for the era.
Gilbert, on the other hand, seems more like a petulant teenage boy than a grown man of twenty four with responsibilities and who is considered the head of his household. His loyalty to Helen when everyone else disparages her is admirable, but his sulky fits and capricious nature are not, and the violence of his temper is quite shocking.
The narrative shifts part-way through, when Helen gives Gilbert the diaries of her first courtship and marriage. Her infatuation for one Mr Huntingdon mirrors Gilbert’s for her; it is rash, ill-advised and frowned upon. Helen’s keenness to overlook Mr Huntingdon’s bad character for his exterior charms are optimistic but naive, and her hopes to reform him look set to lead to misery. They give clues as to the reasons behind the transformation of the bright, romantic and moral girl of the diaries into the reserved and bitter widow that Gilbert and his community have come to know.