Book Talk: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Book Talk: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne BrontëThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Published by Penguin Classics on April 16, 1996
Genres: Classics, Romance
Pages: 542
Format: Paperback
Source: Gifted
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This is the story of a woman's struggle for independence. Helen "Graham" has returned to Wildfell Hall in flight from a disastrous marriage. Exiled to the desolate moorland mansion, she adopts an assumed name and earns her living as a painter.

Do you ever feel like more of a jerk than when you don’t like the book someone not only recommended you but actually gifted you? I mean, okay, probably. BUT I do always feel like such a shit friend when I don’t like (or even worse) hate a book that a friend thought I would love as much as they do. Like, I don’t really even put it on the friend; it’s more like I’ve failed them. Still, it happens sometimes, as is the case with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.


Tenant is my first foray into the least well-known Brontë sister. For years, people have told me that she’s the most similar to Jane Austen of the three sisters, and I was capital E Excited about diving into Tenant. I anticipated a ship and strong characters and some subtle and witty social commentary. Let me just say: Jane Austen, Anne Brontë decidedly is not.

Now, obviously, the book is well-written blah blah blah. There’s no doubt that she can write complex and beautiful sentences. There’s merit to this book, and I’m not trying to challenge its status as a classic or anything like that.

For the first hundred and fifty pages or so, I actually was loving The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s about this dude named Gilbert who becomes manic pixie-level obsessed with the mysterious woman, Helen Graham, who moves to the neighborhood, where she lives in the crumbling Wildfell Hall. Small towns being what they are, gossip abounds about what has brought Mrs. Graham here with her child and why she lives as she does. Gilbert gives no shits, because she is beautiful and he is in lurve.

From Gilbert’s point of view, I loved Helen. She’s decided and out-spoken in her opinions, despite being of a more diffident disposition. When people try to tell her what she should do or how she should raise her child, she shuts them down right quick. She seemed intelligent and strong and like she was fighting the system.

Gilbert confesses his love for Helen, and for some damn reason she says she likes him too. He tells her nothing could shake his love for her, but she is hesitant to commit for reasons she doesn’t feel prepared yet to tell him. Shortly thereafter, he sees her speaking with another man and, of course, assumes she’s a huge ho-bag and beats up the man he saw talking to her (who turns out to be her brother). Then he stomps over and gets all shirty with her, and, rather than being offended by his so-called unshakable love, she gives him her diary, so that he can read it and understand why they cannot be together.

This is where the book hits a wall. A massive wall. A wall I hung on for literal months. Gilbert proceeds to transcribe the whole fucking diary and mail it in letters to the friend the whole book is written to. Like, I skim my mom’s eight paragraph emails. Who the fuck is going to want to read these endless, tedious missives written by some pious woman you don’t even know? Absolutely no one.

Certainly not me. It took me months to read this book. I can read one or two books a day, but most every page of this felt like torture. Helen’s diary took away any positive feelings I had for her. Well, no, that’s a bit harsh. I do sympathize with her plight. Short version: she marries a hot guy against her family’s recommendation, and he turns out to be a flighty hedonist who cheats on her. That absolutely sucks for sure. It’s just hard for me to like someone who does nothing but moralize for four hundred fucking pages. Helen is Christian to the degree that I sometimes found the book actually laugh-out-loud funny, like when she tells Gilber that they can be together in Heaven, and he’s sad because they wouldn’t be as “intimate” in Heaven and she’s legit deeply offended that his love is of this earth. Helen, you have a child and married (advisedly) for love; you know what’s up. Her diary really could have been summarized in twenty to fifty pages without a loss, but, no, you get every boring detail of her life.

Then there’s constant sadness that they can’t be together, so she has to leave town. And she ends up taking care of her incredibly sick husband, who is dying of dissolution basically. This book is pretty much a PSA about the dangers of drinking, sex, and over-indulgence. The husband conveniently dies, and eventually the two of them wed.

Frankly, I’m puzzled why I’m supposed to want Gilbert and Helen to wind up together. Initially, I didn’t think he was a good choice for her, and by the end I’m concerned she’s going to bore him to goddamn tears. There’s the start to a book I could have loved, but I hate the craft and story that unfold.

As much as I wanted to love this classic, I feel like the storytelling drags on endlessly and ineffectively, and that the plot ends up resorting to lazy plot points. Likely, it was impressive at the time, but it’s tough when this sort of craft would never be used today (with good reason).

Have any of you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? What did you think?

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:


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