Originally published in 1848 by Thomas Cautley Newby
My edition: The Penguin Clothbound Classics hardcover.
WHEN I Discovered This Classic
Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey was my first classic of 2016 and I thoroughly enjoyed it. For such a short, simple novel, Anne’s writing really made an impact on me and I knew I had to read Tenant, and the more I learned about her and her novels, the more I became convinced that she’s my favourite Bronte.
WHY I Chose to Read It
I appear to have become a little obsessed with the Bronte’s since reading Agnes Grey and I've set myself a bit of challenge to try and read all of the Brontes’ novels by the end of the year. When I set this challenge I had The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Professor, Shirley and Villette to read. One down, three to go!
WHAT Makes It a Classic
Anne is a Bronte. I don’t really need to say any more than that, even though Anne is the forgotten Bronte! Did you know that after Anne’s death (and huge success of the novel), Charlotte prevented the re-publication of Tenant until after she was dead herself? Explains a lot about why she's not as known as her sisters, doesn’t it?
WHAT I Thought of This Classic
I completely loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It's my favourite Bronte novel by far and I was so sad to finish it!
Even though I had very much expected to love Tenant, I was still really surprised by it. It has a very different feel to Agnes Grey that it's almost as if it were written by someone else. It’s complex in story, structure and character; the themes are hard-hitting and uncomfortable; the characters are bolshy and flawed; and it's over twice as long as Agnes Grey. I feel like Agnes Grey was Anne’s test novel and then Tenant was truly hers. She put everything into it.
When Mrs Graham and her young son move to the looming, unloved Wildfell Hall, the whole village is fascinated by the new arrival, her dead husband and her lack of willing to socialise. And of course, Gilbert Markham is enraptured, and tells his story via letters to a friend. But what's really interesting about the structure of Tenant is that most of the novel is actually from the perspective of Mrs Graham (Helen) through the diary entries she gives to Gilbert to read in place of her explaining her situation.
It was fascinating to watch Helen grow through those diary entries into the Mrs Markham we knew from Gilbert’s initial introduction and meetings with her. We saw her fall in love, get her heart broken, put her little boy at the centre of her world and suffer at the hands of her alcoholic, debt-riddled husband. The change was subtle and steady but seeing her harden her heart and build her walls around her completely changed how I saw Mrs Graham and my approach to whether I wanted Gilbert to convince her to marry him. I’m still undecided, actually!
Anne Bronte famously drew a lot of Mr Huntingdon from her brother, Branwell, who died at 31 from a combination of addiction and tuberculosis. All of the Brontes suffered because of Branwell’s inability to work because of his addiction and an affair with the mistress of the house where he was a tutor. It’s clear how angry Anne was about it. Mr Huntingdon is a vile character and he is repeatedly condemned by both Helen and Anne. It's been a long time since I so thoroughly wanted to punch a character in the face. Repeatedly. Awful. So, so awful.
Helen’s relationship with Mr Huntingdon gave a startling portrait of marriage and the position of women and wives in the mid-1800s. And it's a scary one. Lots of classic novels set during that period focus on the falling in love and diving into marriage in a romantic haze, but Anne Bronte shows what was possibly the harsh truth for a lot of young women at the time: marrying a man they actually knew very little about and becoming trapped in that marriage by law and society. Their inheritances went to their husbands, their property went to their husbands, their money was controlled by their husbands – they had no freedom or control over their own lives once they were married, and if they ended up in an unhappy, or even abusive, marriage they were expected to just get on with it. Tenant was the first time I'd seen that angle in a classic novel before and it was refreshing and fiercely feminist. Is it any wonder Anne’s my favourite Bronte?
I completely and utterly loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s my favourite Bronte novel so far and one of my very favourite books of the year. I’m so sad Anne didn’t get the chance to write any more books and I just wish she was as widely loved as her sisters.
WILL It Stay a Classic
100%. It's an impressive novel while still being brilliantly compelling and enjoyable. Plus, she's a Bronte.
WHO I’d Recommend it To
- People who’ve struggled with Emily or Charlotte – join me in the Anne fan club!
- Those curious about the fallout of those quick Victorian marriages…