Tuesday 29 September 2015

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I've been meaning to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall all year, but it kept falling to the bottom of the pile on my bedside chair.

I finally picked it up last week & it has turned out to be a very timely read with regard to Australian politics.

Our new Prime Minister has spent this past week getting tough on domestic violence, stating that it is 'un-Australian' to disrespect women. Words, and their underlying assumptions and prejudices play a major role in why one in six Australian women still experience domestic violence in these 'enlightened' times.

So it was with a growing sense of frustration that I read about the plight of Anne Bronte's, Helen.

My frustration existed on two fronts.

The frustration of watching a young naive woman make a bad choice and then blaming herself for the faults of the man.

And the frustration of realising how very little has changed in three hundred years when it comes to (some) men using their power over women in the domestic sphere.

There was also much to love about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, including my lovely Penguin English Library edition with it's picturesque cover and it's discussion by Winifred Gerin...at the back of the book.

Yes, oh joy, at the back of the book!

Not at the front of the book where the risk is high for spoilers, but at the back where ones love for the book can be continued on by thinking about it more deeply and comparing our thoughts with others.

In this case it was nice to have my views about the diary section of the novel validated by someone else. As Gerin said TTOWH's
"weakness lies in the structure, in the clumsy device of a plot within a plot....By the device of the diary the drama that wrecked Helen's life is seen at one remove, not in the heat of the action."
I really struggled with this section and at one point nearly abandoned the book. It was such a clumsy way to tell us Helen's backstory.

But I'm glad I persisted.

When the story eventually returned to the original timeline, a satisfying romance developed with just the right amount of tension and suspence.

Anne Bronte is a born story-teller with a lot to say about the position of women in society, their education and expectations - from the ingenue to the sophisticated flirt, the pious to the amoral. The secondary characters are interesting and well developed and the Cumbrian landscape not only comes alive with Bronte's many descriptions but also through Helen's paintings.

Bring on Agnes Grey!

Do you have a favourite Bronte?

This review is part of my Reading England challenge and Classics Club list.


  1. I love love love Tenant of Wildfell Hall (yes, despite the clumsy diary thing). It's just such an amazing novel. Go Anne!

  2. I have not read this one but now I know a bit more about it. I'm sure it was quite controversial for its day but was also quite a success, apparently. Go Brontes!

    1. According to my essay at the back, the story is loosely based on a ghastly governess/tutor experience that Anne & Branwell had. Branwell was taken up by the wife of the house - he fell madly in love, but he was just her plaything. When he got thrown over, he was devastated, falling into drinking and drugs.

      This little teaser has certainly piqued my interest in reading a Bronte bio sooner rater than later.

  3. I do love Tenant and I think it's possibly better than Agnes Grey, BUT - pushed into a corner I might pick Agnes Grey as my favourite :) I definitely see why you thought the diary was clumsy, but I thought perhaps it was good because it allowed Helen to tell the story in her own words rather than in someone else's - I thought it gave it a kind of power - her own story in her own words and not in a man's words, keeping in mind male authors did rather dominate the 19th Century literature world. But all that isn't to say I disagree with your analysis - just sharing my interpretation :)

    Love how your edition had the discussion at the back! I rarely read an introduction first (unless I know I'm *really* going to struggle with a book!).

    And yes, a thousand times yes - Anne is a born story teller! She's my favourite Bronte :)

    1. ****SPOILER ALERT*****

      About half way through the diary section I had got over my fit of pique about it's clumsy insertion, & I enjoyed, as you say, hearing Helen's story in her own voice. It also allowed for the gradual reveal/decline of her marriage and Arthur's behaviour - both Arthurs' behaviour's actually, as we now all know it was how it was affecting little Arthur that was the deciding factor in Helen's desire to flee.

      (I hope I got my plural possession apostrophe rule correct in this sentence - yikes!)

  4. This has been on my list for far too long. I think I'll bump it up and try to get to it in the next few months.

  5. Anonymous26/10/15

    This was actually the first 'Bronte' I read at (I think) the age of 17, ignoring Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I remember borrowing it from the school library. I enjoyed it but have never revisited it. The second 'Bronte' I read was Villette (enjoyed that too) so I definitely avoided the popular ones for a few years!

    1. Villette, Shirley, The Professor and AG - I still have a few Bronte's to look forward to :-)

  6. Anne is my favourite Bronte by far, simply because I feel that I understand her personality, as it closely mirrors my own. Charlotte comes off as a bit of a jealous bitch, and Emily too morbid for my liking.
    Agnes Grey surprised me with it's violence... I wasn't expecting it, and it really hit me hard. I was sitting on a stopped train (signal failure... typical Sydney) and was crying like I had my heart broken over once section of the book! I haven't read Tenant yet... I don't want to run out of Bronte novels to read!

    1. Wow! Now you've got me very keen to try Agnes Grey next.
      And don't get me started on Sydney and public transport!!!

  7. I loved Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but I agree that the journal mechanism of telling the story had its faults. I kept thinking, "would she have really beed this descriptive in a mere journal?" I enjoyed Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, but Jane Eyre remains my favorite Bronte novel. I have Shirley and Villette on my Classics Club list, so we'll see if they come close to dethroning my beloved Jane


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