The intro to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall said that if it hadn’t been for the Brontë name attached to it, it would long ago have fallen into oblivion. I disagree with that assessment based on the fact that I’ve read many Victorian novels this year and this one is much better than most of them.
The year is 1827 and Gilbert Markham falls in love with Helen Graham, a beautiful, mysterious widow who moves to the neighborhood. But there exists a huge impediment to their happiness and the characters must decide if they will pursue their own desires or submit to God’s will.
I enjoyed this book very much. Unlike the annoying heroes and heroines in Margaret Oliphant’s novels, the main characters in this book learn and grow from their mistakes. The writing is good.( I loved savoring the words “diffidence, salubrious” and “termagant.”) The antagonist in the story is thoroughly despicable, making the book hard to put down. Brontë gives much food for thought on the subjects of love and marriage. And the outcome is satisfying.
BUT, I didn’t love this book. Although I admired Helen for her faith and her sense of duty, she is never as endearing as a Jane Eyre or a Lizzie Bennett. Literarily speaking, she was “weighed and found wanting.” Still, after so many duds, I was glad to read a Victorian novel that was a cut above. Tenant is often touted as a feminist novel because Helen is outspoken and unsubmissive, but I disagree based on her behavior toward Arthur Huntingdon later in the book. You’ll have to read it yourself to decide.