May’s Choice: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Let me begin by saying that of the three Bronte sisters, Anne is the least well-known and almost certainly the least appreciated. Say the name “Bronte” and you think instantly of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights (both of which are books that I love and have read multiple times). But Agnes Grey? The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Neither of Anne’s books are widely read, though I think they deserve to be. I’ve had a love affair with the Brontes since I read Jane Eyre when I was 12 and Wuthering Heights when I was 13. I’d read Agnes Grey as part of a research project on the Victorian governess, and I decided to have the book club read Tenant with me.

The story of Tenant begins in the autumn of 1827, when Helen Graham, a widow with a young son, moves into a few rooms at the largely decrepit Wildfell Hall. An artist, her reclusive ways first intrigue and then frustrate the townspeople. Gilbert Markham, a young gentleman farmer, though he thinks himself in love with Eliza Millward, the vicar’s daughter, is intrigued by Helen, and after a chance meeting he strikes up an acquaintance with her son. Helen, however, is much more difficult to befriend. Helen is very private and unwilling to really be friends with anyone. Slowly, however, Gilbert and Helen’s friendship grows, until Gilbert realizes that he is in love with her. In the meantime, rumors about Helen have begun circulating – that she is no widow; that the landlord of Wildfell Hall, Mr. Lawrence, is actually the father of her son. When Gilbert goes to Wildfell Hall to try to find out the truth from Helen, she promises that she will tell him all the next day. As he is leaving, he stays behind in the garden for a moment. His fears about Helen’s character are confirmed when he sees her walking arm-in-arm with Mr. Lawrence. In anger, he fails to meet her the next day. Several days later, after another chance meeting with Helen, she gives him her diary and asks him to read it to find out the truth. After this point, Helen, through her diary, becomes the narrator for around 250 pages.

The truth revealed in her diary is this: that Helen is not a widow. Her name is not Helen Graham at all: it is Helen Huntingdon. She has fled her callous, drunkard (and still-living) husband Arthur to live secretly at Wildfell Hall, which is owned by her brother, Frederick Lawrence. Her diary tells of her life from the time of her courtship and marriage at 19 to her husband’s worsening behavior (including alcoholism, gambling, and adultery). Though she did her best to live with the reality that her marriage was nothing but a sham, Helen is spurred to do the unthinkable and leave Arthur when she sees the effects his behavior is having on their son.

I’m going to stop here. I hate having the ending of a novel spoiled for me, and even though all of us here at Tales from the Bookshelf have read the book, I’ll leave the rest of the story untold for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

Coming soon . . . our discussion.

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Published in: on June 15, 2008 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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