Firstly, to me the Brontë authors are amazing. So before reading this book I already had the mindset of someone who would love it, which is biased, but I always have been for a Brontë novel.
‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ is about a young gentleman Gilbert Markham intrigued by the widow Helen Graham renting Wildfell Hall whose reclusive nature has sent the town gossiping. Through his friendship with her, Gilbert not only becomes more besotted with her character but wants to defend her honour to the town; and he is only able to do so once she lets him read the diary detailing her past disastrous marriage.
Now a plot like this can seem pretty blasé to readers of today, but it was probably seen as ahead of its time when it was written. Anne Brontë challenges ideas of gender in this text through expected roles of women and men and what should be deemed appropriate, whilst also dabbling with differing ideas of the Christian faith held at the time. I particularly liked these characteristics of the book, particularly the tensions between women’s roles and how they should be viewing themselves in relation to their society. This concept is something I think is still valuable for readers today, for even though society has changed in many ways, particular gender roles still seem expected or are taken for granted. Helen Graham therefore, becomes a much stronger heroine even for one created in a different time.
It is probably for this reason then, that I found the majority of the other characters lacking. While some personalities in the book even reflected Helen’s own, the majority of them were in deep contrast to her character and much less developed intellectually. While I can only suppose that this was Brontë’s aim in order to give Helen much greater virtue and likeability (Helen is incredibly pious and moral), it meant that I found a lot of the other characters less interesting and important, and who all met expected ends according to their own nature and character (or lack of it). I even found Gilbert a little too flat and simple; even if he believed he could desire Helen for her own merits, simply because he still seemed too selfish and less progressive.
I know people will think that it is too cold an analysis of Gilbert Markham, particularly when because he is the protagonist we are able to see his thoughts and emotions more openly, allowing these elements to appear more real in terms of how he comes to know Helen and what he thinks of her. Perhaps that is simply it, for there is a strong contrast between him and Helen’s past husband (who is actually a blast to read because of his childish selfishness and vices … readers love bad boys, right?) and he is more careful in how he respects Helen compared to others in the book.
A final note on the text would be that like every classic, take your time in reading it as the language is much heavier and some words could be unfamiliar (how often do people today use the word animadversion?). Besides that, you will also have to try and remember the context of the time, to enjoy this book and some of its concepts. But this book is also filled with a strong sense of finding oneself and knowing who they really are and how hard it can be to exist in a society that may not understand or accept this. So it is definitely a recommended read for anyone willing to take on a Victorian text or who is just in love with the Brontë sisters (check out Anne’s sisters’ books too … writing is in their blood).