In preparation for moving house some time this year, (the autumn looks hopeful), I have begun sorting through my books, making 3 separate piles: books to keep, books to give away and books I’m undecided about. I intend to re-read the books in the third category so that I can decide whether they are keepers or not.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a book I was undecided about.
The blurb says the novel is “bold” in its treatment of “the issue of women’s equality” and it was this description that prompted me to buy it.
Indeed, Anne Brontë vividly depicts how grossly unfair it was for one sex to have rights, choices and privileges – particularly in marriage – and for the other to have none.
Brontë’s protagonist – the novel’s principal recipient of the gross unfairness – is Helen. Although I felt incensed on Helen’s behalf – incensed at her enslavement to a “brutish, drunkard husband”, for example – she is not a character I can warm to. Helen is too virtuous and too upright for my tastes: but perhaps she had to be, in order to make mid-nineteenth century readers more sympathetic to her plight and to fully justify her “radical” behaviour. And what is this “radical” behaviour? Helen stands up to her husband and, when all else fails, takes matters into her own hands, for the purposes of protecting her child.
The husband in question is truly reprehensible – vicious, abusive and destructive. His debauched and profligate living is described in unflinching detail, and for this, the novel was criticised in its day. It was all too extreme, critics felt.
Brontë defends herself in the preface to the second edition, stating that her objective in writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was to tell the truth, however unpalatable it might be, and not to engage in a “delicate concealment of facts”. The fact that Brontë gave offence, suggests that she succeeded in her aim.
The novel succeeds on other levels, too. Anne Brontë, the youngest of the literary sisters, has a masterful command of language. One can see the advantages of having access to a well-stocked library and of becoming a story-teller from an early age – as was the case for the Brontë children.
I particularly like some elements of the construction of the story. The first section creates a wonderful sense of suspense: who is the mysterious tenant and what is she hiding? And Brontë almost never lets her characters succeed at anything on a first attempt; they are almost always thwarted in one way or another. This gives the reader cause to read on, in the hope that the characters will eventually achieve their various goals.
But perhaps the section on the selfish husband is overlong. The reader gets the point early on: the husband is bad, the wife is good. And the ending is a bit of a let-down: Helen is united with her supposed true-love in mushy, predictable scenes and there are serious questions as to the worthiness of her lover – no less so because he commits a disturbing act of violence halfway through the novel. The switch from realism to romanticism is clumsy and unsatisfying and I had to force myself to finish the book.
But few novels are perfect, and perfection is not a criterion for keeping a book, as far as I’m concerned. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a keeper because the author has something to say, and mostly, she says it very well. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to anyone, or declare it a must-read, but I like it and will be hanging on to it.