My rating: 4 stars
The Brontë family wasn’t short of talent. The epistolary novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by the youngest of the Brontë sisters, Anne, is a story about how women cannot hope to change men’s behaviour after marriage and how a mother will always try to protect her son. Offering two complementary perspectives, this book comprises various fleshed out characters. But the pacing is not always perfect.
Gilbert Markham decides to write a long letter to his old friend J. Halford to reveal to him significant moments from his life. In the autumn of 1827, Gilbert’s mother and sister paid a visit to the new inhabitant of Wildfell Hall, a young widowed woman called Mrs Helen Graham. Only later did he make her acquaintance. As he was once passing by Wildfell Hall, he saw Mrs Graham’s son, Arthur, on the top of a wall and helped him climb out of it. This was only the first time that he had the opportunity to speak with her.
A few days later, Mrs Graham also paid a visit to the family at Linden-Car. They discussed her son’s education. It wasn’t part of her plans to send him to school, since she wanted to prepare him for the challenges of life herself. She believed that there was no need for boys and girls to have different types of education. Gilbert’s mother disagreed with her views and considered her to be too obstinate.
“You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others.”
As Gilbert continued to meet Mrs Graham, he became increasingly fond of her. Not only did he enjoy spending time with her, but also with her son. That growing proximity between the two caused him to lose affection for Eliza Millward, whom he had been courting. Upset that Gilbert was no longer showing interest in her, Eliza helped spreading rumours about Mrs Graham and who could possibly be the father of her son. Although he didn’t believe the rumours at first, after seeing Mrs Graham and Mr Lawrence together, Gilbert started to harbour suspicions. Revulsion and sadness took over him. The moment that happens is particularly atmospheric. In order to explain her actions, Mrs Graham gave him her diary, which also clarified how she had met her husband and how he later mistreated her.
Despite the story being told at first from Gilbert’s perspective, Mrs Graham is still believably portrayed. She seemed aloof at first, because she was not fond of small talk, but she liked sharing ideas about art. In order to support herself financially, she painted pictures to be sold in London. She could be witty, friendly and even passionate on occasion. There was something that made her hold back, though. She was very reserved about her past and her private life.
When we are presented with entries from her diary, we learn more about how her marriage transformed her into the person that she was at the beginning of the book. Her younger self was much less wise, and some of the first diary entries even verge on the melodrama in a silly way. The evolution she went through is, however, justified. It’s a shame that some of the entries go on for too long. If the middle section of the novel had been cut short, her predicaments would have still been clear.
Some of Helen’s actions can be infuriating, but they are not beyond the realms of possibility considering the time that the story is set in. To make readers care about the characters is the ultimate aim of most books. And in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë managed to achieve that.