Last week we headed out of London and up to Yorkshire for a few days. We didn’t make it to Bronte country this time but I thought it would be nice to read a book set up that way anyway and one with a vivid description of the landscape (on our travels we did visit the incredibly atmospheric Whitby Abbey, one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula – more on that another time).
I don’t know very much about the Bronte’s, only that Anne’s sisters Charlotte and Emily are perhaps better known and more critically acclaimed – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was however an instant success when it was published in 1848 although not without its critics, including Charlotte.
The story is written in the first person by two narrators; Gilbert Markham and Helen Graham – the hero and heroine of the story I guess. Helen is beautiful, talented, forthright and brave and to me a true heroine but I had a few problems with Mr Markham, he seemed a bit bland and considering how crucial the question of character is in the story, there is one incident especially that seemed at odds with the sort of man he was supposed to be. Or perhaps the sort of man that I wanted him to be?
The narratation starts with Gilbert Markham and is in the form of a letter to his friend. He explains the arrival at the nearby run down Wildfell Hall of the widowed Mrs Graham and her young son and the reaction of their community to the arrival. Mrs Graham is secretive and reclusive, declining most offers of hospitality and raising suspicions amongst the host of characters around her social standing and the true identity of her child’s father.
A large portion of the story is narrated by Helen Graham (thankfully, as the first part was quite hard going) and is in the form of her ongoing diary. It is her story of her marriage and recounts the circumstances which preceed her arrival at Wildfell Hall. This is a detailed account and the strongest part of the book with all sorts of insights into the expected behaviour of women and the accepted behaviour of men in 19th century marriage – it is perhaps a little wordy and is definitely intense but it serves the author’s purpose, leaving the reader in no doubt about the state of affairs.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story of love, duty and religious faith with its accompanying sacrifice. Helen Graham is the epitome of Christian goodness in the story but despite her faith, her eventual actions were considered extreme and scandalous when it was first published and there was question at the time as to the suitability of the story for women readers.
It now appears to be considered one of the early examples of feminist writing. Along with the individual and combined stories of the Bronte sisters and their brother Bramwell, I find it all fascinating.
I did feel the ending was quite weak, not the content but the way it was written. The story was dark and intense but the ending seemed almost matter of fact. I was hoping for more of a reward for 576 pages of dedicated reading!
1848, 576 pages