If your first reaction to the title was: “that’s probably Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s sister!” this one’s for you. The seventeenth of January marks the two-hundredth birthday of Anne Brontë, best known for her novels Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Upon reading the latter, Charlotte Brontë condemned it as ‘coarse and brutal’, leading to its effective ban for years. It is this work I will defend here.
The novel begins with the arrival of a mysterious young widow, Mrs. Helen Graham, the titular tenant, at Wildfell Hall. She is an object of scrutiny and intrigue to everyone, including the initial narrator, Gilbert Markham. Whilst the narrative initially appears to be centred on the romantic relationship between the two, this thread is quickly abandoned. After leaving her previous marriage, which was marred by alcoholism and adultery, Helen becomes the protagonist. This epistolary novel is composed of letters and diary entries and is fast-paced, tightly structured, and heavy on dialogue. Besides it being an unconventional (and delightful) way of structuring a novel, Brontë’s epistolary style gives a direct voice to humanise Helen, a firm dissenter against the social and legal bindings of Victorian marriage.
Brontë’s story is marked by direct sincerity and compassion. There is a tendency to respond negatively to this overly moralistic tone, in particular her protagonist’s disapproval of alcohol. This may bring to mind the repressive and pompous Women’s Temperance Movements of the Prohibition era. I would instead argue that it embodies a strong sense of justice whilst dealing with uncomfortable subject matter. Even though Helen is defined by her goodness, she is by no means agreeable most of the time.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall most significantly improves on the more famous novels written by her sisters in this one key aspect: the portrayal of the Byronic hero. Anne Brontë’s withering takedown of this figure, machismo and all, is my favourite part about the novel. Huntingdon, Helen’s first husband, is neither romanticised (like Emily’s Heathcliff) nor defended (like Charlotte’s Rochester).
This is a very long-winded way of saying that Anne Brontë is an incredibly under-rated writer worthy of more recognition. She received a lot of criticism in her time because, in her own words, she would rather ‘whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense’. Her novel was quietly revolutionary; you shouldn’t dismiss her.