As with most avid readers who have a penchant for the classics, I’m very familiar with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Both have been re-read, listened to as audio books and watched in various adaptation. I’ve also listened to Vilette as an audio book- which took its time to grab me I’ll admit. But recently I got the urge to properly catch up on all the Bronte sisters with a first stop a Wildfell Hall.
The set up of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is nothing groundbreaking. A man looking back on and telling his story to a friend, leaving us wondering until the end if a happy conclusion meant he now lives in joy or well concealed disappointment. For me the characters and feminist undertones were what really made this book. And whenever I read authors like the Brontes I always feel the feminist vibes as they were women doing something so out of the social norms of the times.
We know from the blurb that the tenant from the title is a woman estranged from her alcoholic husband. But the re-telling of her tale is heartbreaking even by today’s standards and must have been nothing short of shocking in 1848 when the book was published.
Helen Huntington and George Markham are an unlikely pair or protagonists. Both however go on a personal journey throughout the book which gives them more layers than often found in novels of a similar time. What Helen goes through changes her dramatically, but at her core she remains true to her original ideas of goodness and redemption. George basically manages to actually grow up and ,as you might say, grow a pair.
I found some of Helen’s religious espousing hard to swallow as a modern, nonreligious reader. And I also found that, at points in the book Bronte is much more unsympathetic to the female angle in an other wise very pro-female, pro-emancipation, forward thinking book. It is also a work which does not look at vice lightly, or spare any vitriol in descriptions of men following a depraved way of life. Again for the time the very mention of these acts, never mind the rights of the women who were faced with them with no escape, would have been daring and shocking.
As a novel it is also very gripping with enough twists, turns, heartbreaks and shocks to keep you guessing and wanting to read more. There is also something quite endearing about how Bronte has her narrator tie up the loose ends, letting us know at various points what happened to different characters.
I would certainly recommend this book to any fans of the more well read Bronte sisters, but also to anyone in want of a good read. At times you’ll hate some of these characters, love them, root for them and despair with them. I know I was willing for a happy ending, and never felt sure which way it was going to go until the last chapter…I won’t spoil that bit for you as it will be impossible to feel indifferent to this gem of a classic.