Mini classic review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Gilbert Markham is deeply intrigued by Helen Graham, a beautiful and secretive young woman who has moved into nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son. He is quick to offer Helen his friendship, but when her reclusive behaviour becomes the subject of local gossip and speculation, Gilbert begins to wonder whether his trust in her has been misplaced. It is only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that the truth is revealed and the shocking details of the disastrous marriage she has left behind emerge. Told with great immediacy, combined with wit and irony, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a powerful depiction of a woman’s fight for domestic independence and creative freedom.

“If I tire, it will be of living in this world with you, not of living without your mockery of love. When you tire of your sinful ways and show yourself truly repentant, I will forgive you and perhaps try to love you again, though it will be hard indeed”

While I think many people have read Charlotte or Emily Bronte’s books, very few manage to get around to Anne Bronte’s books and I think that is a massive disservice! I adored The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and it’s made me only more excited to read her other works too.

Critics label this book as one of the first feminist texts and I can certainly see why. The novel focuses on a young married woman who abandons her husband and runs off with their child, as he is incredibly emotionally and verbally abusive. It was almost unheard of for a fictional text to depict a woman leaving her husband in this time period, even in such an empathetic way, and of course the reader is meant to root for Helen.

But what I found even more fascinating was the depiction of domestic abuse. Helen’s husband, Huntingdon, is emotionally abusive and it so interesting that such a silent, and often invisible, form of abuse was primarily depicted in this novel. Unfortunately, not many consider emotional abuse to be just that: abusive. And that’s because it is hard to define, hard to understand, and the abuser often gaslights not only their victim, but their friends and family too.

I also adored the relationship between Helen and Gilbert, a young man Helen meets when she moves to Wildfell Hall. Gilbert is a little pompous and spoilt, but as his relationship develops with Helen, he realises the error of his ways and changes his problematic behaviour. It’s during this time that I really felt for his character and found him quite loveable. I was gripping the book at the very end where Helen is free from her abusive husband but Gilbert had not yet found her. The tension!

Anne Bronte is a very skilled writer, on par with her sisters. Her writing is evocative and haunting and I can’t wait to read Agnes Gray next!

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