He dislikes me to have any pleasure but in himself, any shadow of homage or kindness but such as he chooses to vouchsafe: he knows he is my sun, but when he chooses to withhold his light, he would have my sky to be all darkness; he cannot bear that I should have a moon to mitigate the deprivation. This is unjust. – p254 (Helen Huntingdon)
As controversial as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was at its time of publishing, it is as much loved, if not more, compared to Anne Brontë’s sisters’ works now in my opinion. Published in the Victorian era when women had not much to say, Helen Huntingdon (or Mrs Graham as she is first introduced) is a woman ahead of her time. She’s a mystery to Gilbert when she arrives as the tenant of Wildfell Hall and when a mysterious woman appears in a small town, the gossipmongers dig deep. Accusing her of having an affair with Gilbert’s friend, and Gilbert being in love with Helen, Gilbert is determined not to believe any of it. And then he discovers that where there’s smoke, there’s also a fire. It’s only after a passionate (for its time) discussion with Helen, that she shows her inner thoughts and feelings and that her secrets are finally slowly revealed.
The story had a slow beginning but as soon as I was being pulled in Helen’s life, the pages were quickly turned. As it touched themes such as abuse, alcoholism and feminism, there was only one thing left for me to do: fall in love with the book. I originally thought that Helen was a passive character but I was wrong. She probably had more strength than I could ever have. She struggled with what was expected from her by society and what she thought would be better for her and her child. When she finally decided to defy her husband, and thus society, I appreciated her even more.
It’s easy to understand why this novel didn’t receive the appreciation that it should have had. A woman wasn’t supposed to stand up for herself or deny her husband. Add the fact that the men were portrayed as drunken selfish swains, and the worst swain being her husband Arthur, and I suppose you have the perfect Shock the Culture cocktail.
Although I truly admire Anne Brontë’s courage to publish a novel like this, the love story didn’t meet my expectations. I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë early 2012 and although that felt over the top dramatized, I’m sure Anne could have used 10% of that drama to add to her own storyline. The relationship between Gilbert and Helen felt at the least…stretched. If it hadn’t been literally written down for me to read and know, I would have never thought Helen felt the slightest emotions towards Gilbert. This resulted into the fact that the ending left me hungry for more. Negatively. I couldn’t believe the relationship as it felt rushed. Therefore, I can only give 4/5 for the whole story.
If you ever feel the need to read a classic by the Brontë’s sisters, then I definitely recommend you this one (in comparison with Wuthering Heights). It’s not as known but definitely better in more than one way.