book review: the tenant of wildfell hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I imagine, there must be only a very, very few men in the world that I should like to marry; and of those few, it is ten to one I may never be acquainted with one; or if I should, it is twenty to one he may not happen to be single, or to take a fancy to me.”

― Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Drugs, alcohol, and debauchery in a 19th century novel written by a woman? As relevant as that sounds for the modern young person, this story is just really sad. The protagonist, young Helen Lawrence, is courted and married to Mr. Huntingdon – a man who’s debauchery becomes his sole purpose in life. He not only neglects his wife, but flirts with other women in front of her, puts her in dangerous situations with other men, and teaches their child to drink, swear and behave badly just to make her mad.

The novel starts from the perspective of Gilbert Markhum, who only comes to meet Helen after she has run away from her malicious husband. The reader then discovers the tale of Helen’s woes from her diary which she gives to Markhum to make him understand why they cannot fall in love. Both Helen and Markhum learn about themselves, and true love and Christian duty, as the rest of the novel unfolds. Of course, all ends well for the well-behaved Christians and all ends horribly for the drunken Huntingdon and his gang.

While Anne Bronte hoped to preach that Christian values always win and that sin leads to destruction, I think the argument for discernment in a relationship is just as important. The initial love between Huntingdon and Helen can only be described as superficial and misplaced. Helen loves Huntingdon with a love that comes from her duty as a woman (and her misguided perceptions of his character) and Huntingdon loves Helen (if you can call it that) with an infatuated and shallow heart that fizzles rather quickly.

“He never could have loved me, or he would not have resigned me so willingly”

― Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

As a single woman in 2019, I really connected with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, not because I am self-righteous or morally superior – as is Helen – but because I see a lot of men act the part of a devoted boyfriend or husband who think it’s okay to run around on side. I also see a lot of women who think they can make a man change his ways.

“When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone – there are many, many other things to be considered.”

― Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I do not understand why a man would get married (or stay in a “monogamous” relationship) when he has no intention of being a companion or being faithful. This burns me. Does it really come down to societal pressures and expectations? Do cheaters truly just want to keep appearances up for the sake of their reputation? Huntingdon wanted Helen to stay at home and wait for him and heed to his every need. Even when they could no longer stand each other, he refused to let her go so that people would not think badly of him.

These relationships are brutal to observe from the outside and that was what reading this book was like — listening to a woman talk about her relationship and not being able to say what you really think about it. We all know a Huntingdon and a Helen. We know the player who woos and manipulates women. We also know the woman who falls for it every time. “He might leave his wife for me.” “He told me this time was different.” “He said he wouldn’t do it again.” — Girl. What do his actions say?

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