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Why Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a forgotten gem


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Anne Brontë, born 17th January 1820, is perhaps the least well-known of the Brontë sisters. While, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, the renowned novels written by her older sisters, Emily and Charlotte have become household names, Anne’s novels have not quite garnered as much fame. 

Yet, out of all three sisters, Anne’s writing is the most mature, the most grounded and the most relevant to contemporary life. Anne wrote two novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, before her tragically premature death at the age of 29. She lives on through the beauty and eloquence of her written word and is cherished by thousands of Brontë followers across the globe. 

Image courtesy of Megan Kenyon

Anne’s second novel, The Tennant of Wildfell Hall, published in 1848, is ahead of its time in its depiction of women and women’s rights. Set on the Yorkshire Moors, around the area in which Anne herself grew up, the novel details the life of Helen Graham before, during and after her marriage to the narcissistic and shallow Arthur Huntingdon. We initially meet Helen through the eyes of Gilbert Markham, a young man living in the village in which Helen takes refuge. Her character begins to come into its own in the second half of the book when the narrative moves into Helen’s diaries. 

The character constructed by Anne Brontë is initially a naive young woman, looking to secure the only option open for most of her gender at the turn of the 19th Century: marriage.  Helen’s initial meeting and romance with Arthur Huntingdon is beautifully written, reflecting the joys and excitement of young love whilst laying the groundwork for later developments. The Helen we meet at the end of her diaries, although recognisable, has undergone change, growing harder and stronger as she deals with the repercussions of her husband’s decline. She grows from a young woman, coming of age in a time when women were entrapped in conventional roles, into a headstrong, fearless and inspirational heroine, willing to do anything to protect the welfare of her infant son. 

Brontë’s novel shocked readers when it was first published and for good reason. Helen stands up to her husband in an act unprecedented by any female character in literature. Her unwillingness to back down or be passive was practically unheard of in a society in which women were expected to bow to the will of their husbands. Unlike women in her sisters' novels, Anne’s characterisation of Helen does not have her trapped under the thumb of a toxic, controlling and repulsive male character but rather has her defy her husband, breaking convention and setting the tone for a new kind of heroine. 

Despite this, Anne’s novel is pragmatic. Her characters are well-rounded and appear realistic whilst her language is effortlessly beautiful, weaving together an exciting, heart-breaking yet fulfilling narrative. Anne Brontë’s novel, although perhaps not literally feminist, set the tone for a better representation of women in literature. Her brave and feisty heroine deconstructs the common trope of the passive female character, paving the way for others like her and inspiring generations to come. 

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