There is something about the Brontë sisters and their writing that I simply cannot get enough of, so when the Wall Street Journal Book Club chose “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë several months ago, I jumped at the chance to read it. It’s a longer book, but highly enjoyable with two main characters – Helen, the tenant, and Gilbert, one of the people that lives in the village near Wildfell Hall.
In a town where everyone knows everyone, a new arrival at Wildfell Hall cannot pass unnoticed. When Helen comes to this quiet place, she initially pushes everyone away. In general, she ignores all typical manners and expectations and is generally thought to be rude. Gilbert meets her and finds himself fascinated. Not just by the woman, but the story he knows she is hiding, and so he pursues her relentlessly until she makes him promise that he is after no more than her friendship, only adding to her mystery. The interactions between these two characters are quite entertaining. He of course knows nothing of who she really is and that makes him all the more determined to befriend her and gain her trust. This interaction happens in the first part of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. In the second half, we learn a great deal more about Helen and how and why she came to Wildfell hall. It is a very intriguing story and it only adds to the strength of Helen as a character.
Part of what makes this a good read is the depth of Helen as a character. On the surface, she seems to be a very rude woman that wants simply to keep to herself, and indeed that is how she comes off to many of the villagers. But as the story unfolds and we learn more about why Helen is the way she is, it becomes clear that she is not only a fascinating character, but also a strong one. The general attitude towards women in this novel is from a time when women were expected to serve their husbands and that was that. This was reflected well when Gilbert’s mother was talking to him: “Then, you must fall each into your proper place. You’ll do your business, and she, if she’s worthy of you, will do hers; but it’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you. I’m sure your poor, dear father was as good a husband as ever lived, and after the first six months or so were over, I should as soon have expected him to fly, as to put himself out of his way to pleasure me. He always said I was a good wife, and did my duty; and he always did his – bless him! – he was steady and punctual, seldom found fault without a reason, always did justice to my good dinners, and hardly ever spoiled my cookery by delay – and that’s as much as any woman can expect of any man.” (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, pg 54). Having that attitude so prominently displayed also allows for the strength of Helen to shine through so much more. A strong female protagonist is what you will often find in the novels of the Brontë sisters.
Would I recommend this book? Not to everyone. There are some readers that do not have the patience for Anne Brontë’s prose. There are times when her writing goes on about a subject and could be difficult to digest. That being said, I think she writes beautifully. Her characters are intriguing and well developed. I would certainly read this again. But her writing is not for everyone. Still, if you’re looking for a book to push yourself I highly recommend “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë.