Why The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Is My Favorite Work by the Brontë Sisters

Classic Remarks

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This Week’s Prompt:

Which of the Brontë sisters’ works is your favorite?

In 1848, the publication of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shocked Victorian society. The plot follows young Helen Grahan as she marries Arthur Huntingdon, a rake she imagines she can reform through her love. As Arthur descends into increased debauchery, however, publicly cheating on his wife and teaching their young son to drink, Helen realizes she has to make a bid for independence in order to save her son from following in his father’s footsteps.

Anne’s depictions of alcoholism and adultery were more than critics could stomach. After Anne’s early death, Charlotte prevented The Tenant of Wildfell Hall from being republished, saying that the themes did not reflect her gentle sister’s true nature–though Anne surely knew the dark side of human nature well, as Arthur Huntingdon’s arc is probably based upon Branwell Brontë’s own struggle with addiction. Charlotte’s suppression of her sister’s work is a move some now see as a major reason Anne’s literary reputation fell even as Emily and Charlotte’s rose.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is arguably, however, more radical and more visionary than either of Emily or Charlotte’s work. Both Emily and Charlotte have a tendency to make “bad boys” attractive. Anne, however, shows what a marriage to a bad man could really look like. But she also argues that, when one’s life or soul is in danger, a woman has the right to leave. In this sense, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can be read as a feminist work that was truly ahead of its time.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, however, has some ambiguity about it that makes the story more fascinating than even an outright manifest of female independence. For example, Helen’s story of her life, told through her diary entries, is framed by the letters of Gilbert Markham, a would-be suitor. Why did Anne chose to Helen’s voice by a man’s? And is the ending really a happily-ever-after, or is Helen still constrained by social mores and the patriarchy? These questions do not have clear-cut answers.

I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because it is a more daring work than anything her sisters wrote. Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Villette all make controlling, domineering, and even violent men look attractive. They are romances tinged with a hint of the fantastical–the idea that men who are good at hurting women might be good lovers. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has the courage to shout that women deserve better, and that they have the right to control their own destinies. It dares to question society, and the laws that keep women trapped in unhealthy or even dangerous marriages. Anne has been depicted by history as a meek, spiritual lamb, but her book shows her to be a lion.

18 thoughts on “Why The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Is My Favorite Work by the Brontë Sisters

  1. Pippin Corbet says:

    I really loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – it’s been a long time since I read it, though, and I think I need to pick it up again! I didn’t realise Charlotte stopped them from publishing more editions of it after Anne’s death. That certainly isn’t a very kind or sisterly thing to have done. I feel like I’ll have to reread Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Wildfell now to decide which one is my favourite out of the three. I remember hating Wuthering Heights and loving Jane Eyre, but it’s been ten years so it’s likely my reading taste has changed!

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    • Krysta says:

      Some people speculate Charlotte wanted to protect her sister’s reputation since critics found her work too “unwomanly.” But, of course, one could also argue Charlotte was jealous. We may never really know!

      I have never actually managed to finish reading Wuthering Heights. It was too melodramatic for me!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Pippin Corbet says:

        I think that’s what has put me off going back to it. I just remember really disliking all the characters. And yes, it’s certainly very gloomy!

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  2. Siena says:

    I’ve never heard much about this book, people usually tend to recommend either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, but I’m going to add it to my TBR now!

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  3. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts says:

    This is my favorite too! I need to reread it someday. It does require some patience, since (if I recall correctly) it has a slower start than Jane Eyre. Worth it, though.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, it has a framing narrative, which can slow things down. Generally, I dislike frames partly because of that. They don’t feel like you’re reading the “real” story. They’re just leading into it.

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  4. neeruahcop says:

    I tried reading Agnes Grey but couldn’t proceed much. This seems to be much more interesting. Seems to me Charlotte had no right to suppress its republication.

    Haven’t read much of the Brontes, only Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Dislike the former, love the latter.

    Glad to have discovered your blog.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do think Agnes Grey is a bit more slower-paced than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. And it’s not as shocking, at least today. For Bronte’s readers, it was shocking to see someone say that the upper classes weren’t morally superior to the lower classes, but I think we’ve largely accepted this now! So, yeah, I would say Agnes Grey has lost some of its timeliness–perhaps because it was ahead of its time!

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  5. Paula Vince says:

    Wow, I’ve just finished reading and reviewing this one. I was so impressed by Anne’s decision to not romanticize the bad boy, and making this her mission. She sure did depart from her sisters in this. I was puzzled by Charlotte’s behaviour though, as I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t have disapproved of Helen’s leaving Arthur, being a great feminist author herself. I’m sure Jane, Shirley and Lucy would have been on board.

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    • Krysta says:

      Critics were suggesting that the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall must have been unwomanly to have written about such things as drunkenness and other lewd behavior. Anne was vigorous in defending herself, saying that it was only moral to show how ugly such behavior really is. Charlotte, however, didn’t show the same spirit and reacted by preventing the book’s re-publication, ostensibly to protect her reputation. Just another reason I love Anne. She’s depicted as really meek and boring, generally, but her writing suggests she was far from that!

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  6. Trav45 says:

    TWH is my favorite Bronte novel, too. Finally–a Bronte with a sense of humor. Gilbert’s interactions with his siblings are hilarious.

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    • Krysta says:

      I hadn’t thought about it much before, but, yeah, I wouldn’t say Charlotte’s books are humorous at all. I have, sadly, never managed to finish Wuthering Heights.

      Like

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