Anne Brontė did not write a masterpiece like her two famous
sisters, but she was ahead of them in forward thinking. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is
considered a landmark feminist book today.
Helen Graham, the young mother who moves with her small son into Wildfell Hall, is hiding from an abusive, alcoholic husband. Helen must keep her past concealed not only so that she won’t be found but also because a wife in early 19th-century England did not have the legal right to leave. Scandalous rumors about Helen spread. Her only defender is a local farmer, Gilbert Markham, who is in love with her. Helen eventually shares her diary with Gilbert, who thus finds out about her husband’s dissipation and Helen’s attempting to save her son from his father’s influence.
Although the first publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848 was a success, Charlotte Brontė prevented its republication after Anne’s death, considering the subject “unfortunately chosen.” Charlotte said Anne had been too affected by observing “talents and faculties abused” by alcohol — presumably this reference was to their brother Branwell. The novel sank into obscurity but was rediscovered in modern times and admired for its understanding of the unequal distribution of power between the sexes. Anne Brontė was also ahead of her time in making Helen proudly self-supporting as an artist.
Charlotte more appropriately criticized The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for “faults of execution.” There is an awkward epistolary structure with two first-person narrators. Gilbert tells the story in letters to a friend, but his account is interrupted by the long section of Helen’s diary. Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not a perfectly constructed novel, it is well worth reading for its progressive ideas.
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