Poor Anne Bronte tends to live in the shadows of her two older sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Readers only manage to get around to her after reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, if at all. This is most unfortunate, because though her writing style is different from her sisters, it is still poignant and relative to today's world. Her second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, shows the true beauty of grace and love and seals her right to join her sisters in the rank of classic author.
The novel is told as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his brother in-law, discussing earlier events in his life. "You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827. " At that time, Gilbert was a young, prosperous farmer who was casually courting the younger daughter of the local vicar, Eliza Millward. His life is pretty routine and ordinary until the arrival of a young widow and her son to nearby Wildfell Hall. The neighborhood is at once astir with curiosity and seeks to know more about her, though Helen Graham is reticent to be drawn in to the local social circles. At first, Gilbert is offended by her cool and distant treatment, but as he slowly gains her trust, he begins to discover the true sweetness and gentleness of her nature. They spend more and more time together, discussing her art (which she sells for a living) as well as literature. But as Gilbert's infatuation grows, ugly rumors begin to surface regarding Helen's past, most of them spread by the spiteful Eliza Millward.
Gilbert disbelieves everything said against Helen, at first. But as circumstances seem to point towards the truth of the rumors, his suspicions are aroused and he demands the truth from her. Her only answer is to give him her diary, which contains the dread secret that she has been so desperately trying to hide. As Gilbert reads Helen's sad story, his love for her grows. But the awful secret contained in the pages of her diary threatens to keep them apart forever.
My Review (Caution-Spoilers):
Oh, those lovely, lovely Bronte girls! All so different and all so wonderful. Like most readers, I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because I had already read Charlotte and Emily. Most critics talk down Anne's work, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I must say that I found it to be a very pleasant read. There are many similarities between Anne's and Charlotte and Emily's works, as well as many differences. Some of these make Wildfell Hall better, while others bring it somewhat below the other works.
The main difference between the works is the tone that Wildfell Hall takes. While it is certainly along the Gothic (as well as the Byronic) lines of the other Bronte novels, it leans more towards realism than romance. There is no mad wife locked in the attic, nor do ghosts appear at windows. Instead we have real people with real problems; problems that we still face today. Though Anne touches on the problem of a woman leaving her husband, that is not really the point. Unfortunately, Wildfell Hall, like Jane Eyre, tends to be painted into the "feminist novel" corner. Just because a novel has a strong woman as the main character does not make it "feminist". In the novel, Anne spends more time on the horrible problem of alcoholism (as experienced through her brother, Branwell) and the overwhelming grace of God than she does on "feminist" writing. In fact, you could almost say that salvation and grace are the biggest themes of the novel. Here we have Arthur Huntingdon who treats Helen abominably throughout the story. And yet, as he is dying, Helen returns to nurse him and comfort him. She tries to make him see that even now, with all of his sin, he can still accept the grace of God.
'"Stay with me, Helen," he says; "let me hold you so: it seems as if harm could not reach me while you are here. But death will come - it is coming now - fast, fast! - and - Oh, if I could believe there was nothing after!"
'"Don't try to believe it, Arthur; there is joy and glory after, if you will but try to reach it!"
'"What, for me?" he said, with something like a laugh. "Are we not to be judged according to the deeds done in the body? Where's the use of a probationary existence, if a man may spend it as he pleases, just contrary to God's decrees, and then go to heaven with the best - if the vilest sinner may win the reward of the holiest saint, by merely saying, "I repent!"'
'"But if you sincerely repent - "
'"I can't repent; I only fear."
'"You only regret the past for its consequences to yourself?"
'"Just so - except that I'm sorry to have wronged you, Nell, because you're so good to me."
'"Think of the goodness of God, and you cannot but be grieved to have offended Him."
'"What is God - I cannot see Him or hear Him? - God is only an idea."
'"God is Infinite Wisdom, and Power, and Goodness - and LOVE; but if this idea is too vast for your human faculties - if your mind loses itself in its overwhelming infinitude, fix it on Him who condescended to take our nature upon Him, who was raised to heaven even in His glorified human body, in whom the fullness of the Godhead shines."
Though I really enjoyed the story of Wildfell Hall, there are a few things that somewhat lowered it in my esteem. Perhaps it is because I have loved Jane Eyre for so long, but this novel just couldn't reach the heights of that one. The characters, though as full of passion as Rochester and Jane, never really seemed to come alive. I never lost that subconscious understanding that these were not real people. They just couldn't quite rise from the page. The other problem for me was the format that Anne chose to use. Though it is in the first person, it is addressed to an unknown reader, making me feel more like an intruder than the intimate friend that I felt I was while reading Jane Eyre.
Though it lacks the power and wonderful characterization of Jane Eyre and the technical skill and correctness of Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still a wonderful story of grace, love and forgiveness. And though Anne only lived to be 29, she left with as rich a literary legacy as her sisters. She is truly worthy of the name Bronte!
There have been 2 versions of this classic Bronte tale made for television, both by the BBC. The first was in 1968 starring Janet Munro and Bryan Marshall as Helen and Gilbert.
The other more popular version was made in 1996 and stars Tara Fitzgerald as Helen and Toby Stephens as Gilbert. I have only seen a few clips of it and it seemed fine. Toby Stephens especially seems to pull off the young, passionate Gilbert very well. The Amazon.com ratings are pretty good, though differences between the film and the book are noted in many of them.
Trivia: Both Tara Fitzgerald and Toby Stephens would star in the 2006 adaptation of another Bronte classic, Jane Eyre, with Tara playing Mrs. Reed and Toby giving a wonderful turn as Edward Rochester.