I was in the mood for a classic, but rather than pick one of the many on my shelves I haven’t read, I reached for one of my all time favourites – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne is by far my favourite Brontë because of this book. And I honestly urge anyone to pick this up.
While this story opens with a letter written by Gilbert Markham, and is bookended with one at the end too, this is ultimately Helen’s story. It’s told through letters and diaries, which is something I find hard to get through when not in the right hands. Epistolary writing is incredible for just really getting in to a characters head, understanding their thoughts and feelings, and when done well it can be absolutely amazing.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a rare gem in classic fiction in that it deals with very complex issues and has very few tropes of 19th century literature with a female protagonist. Helen Graham is one of the strongest women I’ve ever come across in fiction, and Anne Brontë is an incredible author who was ahead of her time for writing her. What we experience through Helen’s diaries in this book is a story I’ve still to this day never seen handled as well as this, especially for the time period in which this was written (and set). The most incredible thing about Helen is that while she’s been through hell and back, and has experienced abuse that no woman should ever experience, she keeps her head high and is so poised throughout; she retains her dignity which is something I never thought I would say about a 19th century female protagonist!
What makes this novel so incredible is how real the depiction of alcoholism is, and how it impacts a family. This is, I know, the most autobiographical of any Brontë novel as I believe that Helen’s husband is based on the only Brontë brother, Branwell. It also depicts a rarity of a woman living independently, causing scandal, living under a pseudonym and not doing her husbands bidding. The different take on women in Anne’s world to Charlotte and Emily’s is, frankly, astounding. This book caused a rift between the women, and after Anne’s death, Charlotte took the executive decision to suppress this book and disallow a reprint to “protect” the family name as Anne didn’t hold the same, more pious, opinions as her sisters.
I originally read this book in 2014 – and it holds a very special place in my heart because it was the book I read on my last holiday with my grandmother before she died only a few months later. We read it together, and for that I think I will always love this book a little bit more than all other Brontë novels. If anything I loved it more on a second read, I really did. And if you’re to read one classic this year, or ever, I’d urge it to be this one because it truly is incredible.