Like most people, I seem to have neglected Anne Bronte. I'm in the middle of reading Juliet Barker's mammoth The Brontes and so decided to take a break and read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I'll admit that I wasn't expecting much. What actually happened was me realizing that I perhaps preferred this to both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
The novel is essentially a letter from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law. The first section focuses on Gilbert's attendance on a new addition to the area, the mysterious tenant of the title, a Mrs Graham. She has a small son, Arthur, and is little reluctant to ingratiate herself in local affairs. Gilbert falls in love with her, though there are rumours that she's conducting a relationship with his friend, Frederick Lawrence. Helen eventually gives him a manuscript which explains her unhappy marriage to a drunkard and adulterer. Since I don't want to spoil the finale, I'll stop there.
What's striking about this novel is the portrayal of Helen Graham (Helen Huntingdon). To a modern reader, perhaps, her firmness in abandoning her husband (and, of course, taking her son with her) is unremarkable and expected but taken in the context of the period it's nothing short of astounding. What's more, Bronte never really suggests that Helen's in the wrong. Her portrayal of the degenerate husband is unflinchingly honest. There is one section in particular where Huntingdon and his friends really push the boundaries of respectability while staying at the Huntingdon home, Grassdale. The sustained scene of debauchery sticks in my memory as probably the most powerful in the book.
There are a couple of niggles, as with any novel. Essentially, we have to get to know two circles of friends and this proved especially tricky for me when we came back from Helen's diaries to Gilbert's own narrative. Remembering the intricacies of those relationships took me a little while. Equally, the final few chapters felt a little fragmented because of the events taking place over a period of time and involving several quick changes in the circumstances of the protagonists. That said, I'm nit-picking, trying to find fault with a novel I really enjoyed. It gave me food for thought but also managed to surprise me with its honesty. Not a lesser novel at all but a thoroughly excellent one. I'm not surprised Charlotte refused to have it reprinted after Anne's death!