I always feel that Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s work tend to eclipse that of their sister Anne, who wrote poetry and published Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are so celebrated that often (unless we are die-hard Brontë fans!) Anne’s work is somewhat overlooked. For that reason, I’d like to introduce you to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Today, we see Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as dark, stormy love stories. They stand out to because of their spooky tortured narratives, and though they certainly stood out against their contemporaries, Anne’s Tenant was one of the sisters’ most scandalous works at the time of publication. Tenant deals with the incredible unfairness of England’s marital laws, portraying a woman unable to divorce an alcoholic, unfaithful, abusive husband. In some ways, Tenant reminds me of Austen’s biting social commentary, without any of Austen’s trademark humor and lightness.
At the start of the novel, the narration focuses on a wealthy, eligible bachelor Gilbert Markham, who is interested in a mysterious widow, Helen Graham. Mrs Graham’s presence at Wildfell Hall, along with her young son is surrounded in intrigue and rumor, which only seems to increase Markham’s interest in her. Eventually, after some somewhat strained interactions, Helen gives Markham her diaries in explanation for why she cannot pursue a romantic relationship with him.
I don’t want to reveal too much to you, but this is the meat of what made Tenant so scandalous at the time. A story of an abused wife and child emerges and is heartbreaking in that Helen cannot legally escape her husband with her child. One of the reasons I love Tenant so much is that Anne’s passion for women’s issues shines through, making every detail of Helen’s story as poignant as possible, showing readers the complete unfairness of a legal system that reduces women to property.
Tenant is sometimes thought of as one of the first feminist novels and I would agree that it has feminist bones. Its reception included frequent commentary that Helen Graham/Huntington was an “unlikable” protagonist, criticizing her lack of feminine qualities. It’s just that lack of femininity that I find so attractive. Helen is fighting fiercely for her child’s safety and her own independence. She is an artist and an incredibly intelligent woman, if somewhat misguided in the ways of love and marriage. In short, Helen is so very, very human in a sea of contemporary work that often reduced women to tropes. Helen’s role as a difficult protagonist is beyond refreshing.
I think that if you like other work by the Brontë sisters and you’d like to read a historically feminist text, you’ll be happy with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which has all the tortured romance of the Brontës more well known works with a strong historical message behind it.
Allison Carr Waechter is lost in the great northwoods of Wisconsin right now, where it is cold, blustery and grey –perfect for indulging in any of the Brontës work.