The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was very popular, though also very controversial, when it was first published. However, after Anne’s death it fell into obscurity. Her sister Charlotte (who famously wrote Jane Eyre) prevented The Tenant from being republished. Some say it was Charlotte being sisterly – trying to protect Anne’s reputation due to the controversy of her book (though she didn’t do the same for Emily). Others, however, think Charlotte wanted to promote her own book, and get Anne’s successful one out of the way, as she was always particularly critical of The Tenant. Only Charlotte knows really…but the evidence does seem more in favour of sisterly bitchiness…
Because of all that, I couldn’t help but compare The Tenant to Jane Eyre. Jane is one of my favourite books, particularly cherished because it was the first ‘grown up’ book I read, and The Tenant just couldn’t live up to that. But there was a lot in The Tenant to like.
The Tenant was one of the first feminist novels, and much of the book is about the status, constrains and general life of a woman in the Victorian era – you’re nothing without a marriage, and, once in that marriage, you’re stuck there no matter what. Essentially, The Tenant is about a woman who breaks those social rules, and suffers the social consequences, but ultimately has a happy ending (I think this is the first book in which a woman leaving an abusive husband led to a happy ending for her). The men are all extremely narcissistic, including the male narrator (for me, the ‘happy’ ending wasn’t all that happy, because I didn’t like the narrator). In fact, some of the conversations the men have with the women aren’t all that different from some I’ve had with narcissistic guys in the present. Much internal feminist ranting happened when reading this!
I think Anne was more religious than her sisters, and it comes through. Helen, the main character, is very religious, and often tries to convince her husband he is doing wrong through arguments about God. The pious characters in the novel meet happy ends, but those who do not reform do not. There’s also a strong warning against alcoholism throughout.
The reason it doesn’t reach the heights of Jane Eyre is just down to the writing – it isn’t as good. I also think Anne needed an editor. Not the one who published the hugely cut down version, but one who would tighten it up by getting rid of some of the repetition and waffle.
Perhaps not one to read as your first Bronte novel, but well worth a go, particularly if you want to see if you agree with Charlotte’s bitchiness.
[There is a version of The Tenant floating about which isn’t the full text. The full version opens with “To J. Halford, Esq. Dear Halford, when we were together last…” Make sure you get that one.]