This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.
I haven’t read many English novels from the mid-19th century. I’ve never read a work by Dickens, for instance, although others come to mind: George Eliot (Silas Marner), Jane Austen (Emma), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford), and from later in the 1800s, Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Oscar Wilde (The Portrait of Dorian Grey) and Thomas Hardy (Tess of the d’Urbervilles). Anyway, maybe I’ve done well enough to make the assertion that Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is singular and brilliant, both for its time and otherwise, and if I haven’t done that well, I’ll just say it feels that way to me.
There’s a quality to many of those novels, Silas Marner, Emma, Cranford and Tess of the d’Urbervilles in particular, that’s vexing, at least initially, to a reader raised on 20th century literature. The language and sentence structure are heavy going, and the characters interact at a level that seems, even taking into consideration the remove of a century, unrealistic. Reading those novels, I was never able to accept the posh-washing of life. When the subject matter gets dark, the authorial voice gets vague; events like pre-marital sex, adultery and murder – which take place rarely, if at all – are dealt with through vague and incomplete scenes, a polite “you work it out” shrouded in frustrating imagery. I found myself thinking people can’t have been that different in their vices. The middle class may be a new phenomenon, but I never fully believed that middle class behaviour didn’t exist. It became normal for me to invent excuses for authors’ refusal to tackle those subjects head-on.
Well, there’s no need for that in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Which sounds like a very quiet revolution, but stay with me.
The story is relatively straightforward: a widow moves into Wildfell Hall, a large vacant estate in rural England, bringing with her her young son, and the nearby residents (including your narrator, a young bachelor who finds himself oddly fascinated by the woman) begin to ask questions.
It sounds unremarkable, but even in the first pages these people’s flaws are there, and it’s brilliant. It’s not that they lack morals or don’t value social convention – they have them and value it – they just act like normal people: painfully imperfectly. They’re preachy and rude and kind and small-minded, all in one page. Even as I cared about the story, I was cringing and laughing, because I saw and understood the characters acting it out. Straight away, I felt I was reading a novel about real people who lacked perfect social graces, who were not plagued by propriety to the distinguishing of external manifestations of internal turmoil, or even basic flaws. Which is so refreshing. They combined upper class surrounds with behaviour those other novels seemed to want me to believe either did not happen, or had the character of a cloud behind a veil.
Which all sets up a very important precedent: you believe, so when things get very real, you care.
The other, significantly more revolutionary half of this story is the story of the widow, the novel’s namesake. How she came to be a “widow” is where this novel really distinguishes itself from every other 19th century novel I’ve read. Her husband, it is revealed, was a reprobate, and she unfolds the story of his decline into rampant alcoholism and adultery with perfect, gripping grace – and these aren’t half-formed scenes. Her experience of his adultery has names and faces, and his alcoholism rules scenes. Similarly, the way it affects her is palpable. Her experience of the worst is there on the page, and as her heart hardens to her husband, to the point where her son is the only light in her life, her experience feels closer to something from The Bell Jar or The Watch Tower than Austen’s Emma or Hardy’s Tess.
More than that, the villains aren’t just out-and-out scoundrels. There are “not all men” too, men who, when her tragedy is deepest, are wolves in lamb’s clothing, and her strength in the face of their entitled “betterness” is inspiring. The same goes, in fact, for the men who seem to be scoundrels but who reform in the face of great persuasion from good people – it has the effect of the best episodes of Parks and Recreation, reassuring you of the best in humanity.
Since finishing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I’ve heard that Anne is considered the lesser of the Brontë sisters. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are both on my list this year, so whether or not they deserve to be more revered or talked about than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I don’t know, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall spoke to me like a novel written to reflect a world I recognise. It seems groundbreaking for its time, and unputdownable regardless.
The No Man’s Land Reading Project so far:
#1: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) by Karen Joy Fowler
#2: Cranford (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell
#3: The Compass Rose (1982) by Ursula K. Le Guin
#4: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson
#5: The Tall Man (2008) by Chloe Hooper
#6 The Watch Tower (1966) by Elizabeth Harrower
#7 The Autograph Man (2002) by Zadie Smith
#8 The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
#9 The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt