Anne Brontë & The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Oscar Wilde once described a second marriage as “the triumph of hope over experience”, and these words are only too true in the case of Helen Huntingdon, heroine of Anne Brontë’s powerful novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Helen’s first marriage is miserable, violent and lonely, but she is a strong heroine who emerges from the experience wiser and able to make a better choice. Her second love affair is markedly different from her first.

Victorian women did not have an easy lot in life. Girls were subject to their fathers (or male guardians), then as married women they became subject to their husbands. Politically a woman had no rights and no vote and generally female education was rudimentary. A girl was prepared for marriage by being taught dancing, needlework and sometimes drawing or music, and once married she was expected to stay at home and care for husband and children. A woman’s intellectual, sexual and physical energies were largely repressed.

“I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral … Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? … if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts … there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.” – Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall depicts a woman who is intelligent, talented and strong. She marries twice and in each case the courtship is very different. Courtship was as much a matter of property and economics as of affection. When a man and woman became husband and wife, they became legally one person and, in the words of jurist William Blackstone, “the husband is that person”. He even owns the children and can remove them from her care if he so wishes.

This is a strongly feminist novel. Even the heroine’s choice of profession was a little shocking. To take one’s child and run away from a husband was extremely unusual – to write about it, even more so.

This was a novel that shocked the Victorian reading public – “coarse”, “brutal” and “morbid, revelling in scenes of debauchery”, were just some of the insults thrown at it. Critics felt Anne Brontë had focused on morbid and disagreeable subjects, and that her book should not be read by young females. However, the novel also excited readers and within a month of publication, a second edition was being prepared.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an honest and moving account of a troubled marriage, it is a plea for the education of women and their rights, and it is a moving and tender love story. In my view, it is a true classic of English literature that is remarkably modern and still highly relevant today.

Come with me on a journey into the fictional world of Anne Brontë and discover this fabulous novel. Then discuss it with me by leaving a comment below.

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