Home > Book, classic, Feminism, Genre, Review, Society > Book Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall By Anne Bronte

Book Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall By Anne Bronte

coverthetenantofwildfellhallSummary:
Cited as the feminist antithesis to her contemporary Austen’s romantic 19th century ramblings, Anne Bronte’s best-known novel presents the much more dire image of the very real risk of marriage in a time where the wife loses all her human rights to her husband. Gilbert Markham becomes infatuated with the widow Helen Graham who has moved into his neighborhood with her son, but rumors soon start to spark up around her. When he confronts her about her conduct, she shows him her diary. There he learns her travails and sufferings at the hands of her still very much alive husband.

Review:
I came to this book with high expectations. I heard of it simply as the one of the earlier feminist novels written in response to such works as Austen’s. I felt this opened the door to many possibilities, but perhaps I was thinking about this with too much of a 21st century brain. What held The Tenant of Wildfell Hall back was the relentless presentation of Helen as the picture of Christian piety. Given the fact that Helen behaves quite willfully and controversially for the time period by leaving her husband’s home to live separately from him, this was probably quite necessary for Bronte’s contemporaries to find Helen a sympathetic character. For me though her severeness sometimes had me siding with her tyrant of a husband in my mind. He calls her cold and calculating. Well all she ever talks about is living piously now to be joyous in heaven after death. I would find that cold and calculating as well.

This book does hold value for the modern feminist though if we re-position ourselves to look at it through the lens of how society at the time has messed up both Helen and her husband, Arthur. Society tells Helen that it is her job as a woman to be the pious one. Although single men may go cavorting about she must sit respectably at home or go out to supervised dances. Men may behave however they desire as long as they settle down after marriage. This belief leads Helen to make her foolish, egotistical mistake of thinking that marrying Arthur is alright for she can change him after they are married. To a certain extent Arthur makes the same mistake. He has been told the ideal wife is a highly pious one, so he marries Helen thinking she will save him when, in fact, they are the most mis-matched couple ever.

Arthur enjoys cavorting, playing cards, and drinking. Helen refuses to do these things out of piety and nags Arthur not to do them. They both come to realize they are mis-matched, but in their society divorce is a painful embarrassment to both parties. Helen doesn’t even consider it for Christian reasons; Arthur in order to save face. This leads to their gradual loss of caring for each other, although Arthur’s comes much faster and more brutally when he carries out an affair with the wife of a visiting friend.

Arthur no longer wants Helen, but she is his wife and he would be a laughing-stock if he couldn’t control her, so he starts abusing her emotionally–repeatedly telling her it disgusts him to see her pale skin, for instance. He also carries out the afore-mentioned affairs with her full knowledge and at first forbids her from having any of her own. I am not condoning Arthur’s ill-treatment of Helen. He made the situation far more worse than society alone would have had them make it. He could, for instance, have allowed them to set up separate households, which was sometimes done. He at least could have shown her the respect she deserved as a human being, but instead he came to view her almost as a hated prison guard. This would not have been the case if they could have parted ways amicably.

I must admit what struck me far more than the restrictive society was Helen’s restrictive religion. She almost constantly lives only thinking of her reward after death in Heaven. She possesses nearly no joy for her beliefs require that she squander her life away serving a man who hates her. The only reason she even leaves him for a time, relieving some of her pain, is because she believes her duty to raise a pious son outweighs her duty as a wife, so she is justified to remove her son from the soul-risking influence of his father. Helen’s faith seems to bring her no joy, but instead demand she behave as a judging marble statue.

Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not an obvious feminist manifesto, it as an excellent rendition of the oppression of 19th century society on both men and women. Reading of their struggles and realizing as a 21st century observer that there is essentially no way out for either of them beautifully demonstrates how far we’ve come. Bronte’s writing style is complex enough that what could be a bit of a boring, straight-forward tale remains interesting throughout. She changes perspectives a few times via diaries and letters. She does suffer from the 19th century literature trap of overly extensive descriptions of settings, but these are easily skimmed. An excellent example of 19th century literature, I wish Bronte’s realistic work was assigned more often in literature classes than Austen’s fluffy, unrealistic drivel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

Buy It

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: