“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (Kindle edition), 1848. A review of Anne Bronte’s forgotten classic.
It’s no secret that I adore classic novels. Just a few days after borrowing my Kindle in Italy, C’s mum handed it back to me and said “you’ve got a lot of Anthony Trollope, haven’t you?”
However, I’d never heard of Anne Bronte, the least famous of the Bronte sisters, until downloading this book. And it almost immediately became my favourite classic novel, beating out Dickens, Austen and, yes, even Trollope.
In short, wealthy landowner Gilbert Markham falls in love with the new tenant of Wildfell Hall, the mysterious Mrs Helen Graham. As the story unfolds, we learn about Helen’s past and about the cruel strictures in place against women – and her attempts to preserve her morality while combating those strictures.
The novel is perfectly written and the story moves along with all the things you most love in a classic novel: witty social observations, wry stabs at stuffy conventions, humour, drama and sensibility.
Is it a feminist novel? It’s odd to think of it as one. But at the time, the idea of a woman being as brave and forthright as Helen was almost scandalous. Many critics suggested that the book should not be read by women at all (all the more reason for you to read it right now!). Helen’s actions seem normal and justified in the bright light of 2014.
For me, the most interesting thing was the idea that women should be shielded from vice at all costs, while men should learn about it at all costs – but to the same end. What a weird world it is when we think that men and women can’t know and learn the same things.*
Here’s a lengthy quote which explains better than I can:
‘Well, but you affirm that virtue is only elicited by temptation;—and you think that a woman cannot be too little exposed to temptation, or too little acquainted with vice, or anything connected therewith. It must be either that you think she is essentially so vicious, or so feeble-minded, that she cannot withstand temptation,—and though she may be pure and innocent as long as she is kept in ignorance and restraint, yet, being destitute of real virtue, to teach her how to sin is at once to make her a sinner, and the greater her knowledge, the wider her liberty, the deeper will be her depravity,—whereas, in the nobler sex, there is a natural tendency to goodness, guarded by a superior fortitude, which, the more it is exercised by trials and dangers, is only the further developed—’
~ LOCATION: 77412 – 78215
In summary, I think this is an absolute cracker of a book.
*oh, that’s right, some people still think that… I’m looking at you Tony Abbott.
For other reviews of this book, see: