Great Novel No. 13: “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

by Anne Brontë

***

The Tenant of Wildfell HallI find myself having to write a review where I really have little to say on the book in question. And it seems I’m not alone; most people don’t have a lot to say when it comes to Anne Brontë, the youngest of the famous sisters. She seems to be largely forgotten — or worse, regarded as lower order literature when compared to Charlotte or Emily. I confess I feel a bit sorry for her.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shocked both readers and critics when it first appeared in 1848, with subject matter that simply wasn’t normally discussed so openly in the Victorian era. Using the device of a story within a story (along with a switch of narrators, much like Emily did in Wuthering Heights), the novel tells the dissolution of a marriage and for its time it is a remarkably feminist portrait of an abusive relationship. Helen (the eponymous tenant) flees from her husband and in so doing breaks every social convention of the period. Charlotte Brontë actively prevented the novel’s reprinting after Anne’s death, it offended her so much.

The novel’s power to shock and offend has obviously withered over the years, and so only one question is left to the reader: Did you enjoy it?

For me, the answer has to be no. There’s nothing about the characters to truly endear me to them, and occasionally I found myself mentally yelling at them for being so dense. The story is fairly predictable, no matter how long I waited for a twist. And ultimately I finished it only out of a sense of obligation. It’s not a book that easily offers itself to critical analysis or to a friendly recommendation. And since I don’t like writing negative reviews I will keep this one simple and considerably shorter than the book it discusses.

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