The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

By Megan Thomas

One of my new year’s reading resolutions is to read more classics, perhaps as penance for attaining an English Literature degree while avoiding them like the plague. I’m absolutely loving the experience. Jokes on Student Me!

I have only read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë in terms of Brontë novels, and Anne Brontë’s second and final novel was where I decided to venture. Next up will be Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Any thoughts on that before I tell you what I thought about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall?

What struck me most about this novel is that despite being published in 1848, it was so fiercely feminist and socially scathing in a way that resonates today. The story of a single painter called Helen Graham, who mysteriously arrives with her young son to the Elizabethan mansion called Wildfell Hall, is told through letters. Some between a somewhat overly-friendly neighbour called Gilbert and his friend, and others between Gilbert and Helen, in which we learn the circumstances under which Helen fled to Wildfell Hall.

Learning of Helen’s escape from an alcoholic, abusive partner and an unhappy marriage through the framing of these letters is a fascinating literary device. It means we are held at arm’s length from the narrative throughout, and yet emerge from the reading experience inexplicably connected to the characters. Anyone ever think, “ahh, so that’s why they’re still publishing this hundreds of years later” about a book, and feel like an idiot for taking so long to read it?

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