Review 1642: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Gilbert Markham is a young man running a family farm when a new, mysterious person moves into the neighborhood, taking up residence in an old, half-derelict house named Wildfell Hall. She is Mrs. Graham, a beautiful young widow with a five-year-old son, Arthur. She tends to be reclusive, which makes the neighborhood more interested in her. Finally, Gilbert goes with his sister to call and finds that Helen Graham is supporting herself working as an artist.

Gilbert falls in love with Helen, but she will not allow him to express any of his feelings. Then, he hears an ugly rumor about Helen and his friend Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s landlord. Helen has secrets, but they’re not the ones being repeated about her. She finally decides to confide in Gilbert by giving him her diary.

I hadn’t read this novel for many years, so I put it on my Classics Club list. I found the structure of the novel—epistological first because Gilbert is writing a very long letter to a friend, and then the diary—to be cumbersome. It seems as though a straightforward first-person narration would be less artificial for the first part, which must be the longest letter ever written. For the middle, diary portion, I understand why Brontë chose that method of telling her story, which makes up the bulk of the novel, but it seemed a little clumsy and too long.

Finally, there were times when I tired of the self-righteous Helen. It seemed to me that her attitude might have driven a better husband than the one she chose away from her. Of course, he is a scoundrel, so there was probably no attitude she could adopt that would reform him, which makes the ending kind of absurd. I don’t know how to explain it without spoilers, but I thought it might be a sop to the critics of Brontë’s time who would have thought Helen should not have deserted her husband. Either that or she is destined for sainthood.

I am probably being overcritical of this book, which would have been quite shocking for its time because of making a woman who has fled her home with her child its heroine. Although I’ve read a gothic novel or two with the same premise, I’m sure this one was more groundbreaking through the husband’s faults being those of cruelty and dissipation rather than, say, robbery and murder. Here, we see Brontë taking up a feminist viewpoint, and I guess I’m just saying that I found Helen a little too rigidly moral. She spends an awful lot of time being outraged. Jane Eyre is also moral, but somehow from her it doesn’t seem as irritating.

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