— Anne Bronte, Preface to the Second Edition, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
A most intriguing and superb novel - it utterly captivated me, surprised me, resonated with me and will remain a cherished favourite.
I had never read anything by Anne Bronte before, and I think a lot of people would be in the same boat - Charlotte and Emily seem to outweigh Anne in popularity. Personally, I loved Jane Eyre and very much disliked Wuthering Heights. After reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I say without hesitation that Anne is the best of the Brontes. I think it’s horridly unfair that she is so often relegated to the bottom of the list (quite possibly due to Charlotte’s own refusal to permit reprinting of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death). I can’t wait to read Agnes Grey and more of the Bronte sisters’ poetry.
The story of Helen Huntingdon (the tenant in the book’s title) is a brutally honest illustration of the dangers and consequences of her marriage to Arthur, a thoroughly nasty man whose repulsive habits and attitudes only fully surface after they become man and wife. Despite this, she devotes her love and energy to trying to influence his morality for the better, but to no avail. To protect her child from further violence and debasement, she flees to her childhood home, Wildfell Hall, and in so doing, risks everything. In Victorian times, when the laws of the land were vastly different to those in existence now, Helen would have been guilty of kidnap, as her son was the rightful property of her husband, and she could not even legally earn her own living, due to every penny she gained being legal property of her husband. Still, she escaped and painted to provide for herself and her son. Then she meets Gilbert, who is different from Arthur in every way. A mutual fondness develops, but Helen is determined to remain true to her duties and station as Arthur’s wife…
Anne Bronte’s faith is evident in many parts of this novel, and I admire her for taking such a stand in speaking “an unpalatable truth”, as she herself puts it in her preface. This is a novel that everyone should read, and in so doing, redress the balance that has been leaving Anne Bronte’s work in the shadow of her sisters.