Many people are familiar with the literary classics Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. But there is a third, perhaps lesser known Brontë sister, Anne, whose books I actually prefer. My favorite is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were born in the early 1800s as the children of a poor clergyman. Much of their lives they lived in Yorkshire, with its windswept moors featuring prominently in some of their novels. Anne was the youngest sister, and her novels are usually read less. However, her book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a bestseller and considered shocking at the time of its publication. The “tenant” of the title is a widowed woman with her young son who moves into a dilapidated manor in a small town. Various rumors circulate about the new resident, and an intrigued gentleman farmer seeks out the truth. But the truth is not what he expects. It involves an impulsive marriage, alcoholism, child endangerment, a Victorian woman breaking the law, and forgiveness. If you’re familiar with a very different classics author, Jane Austen, it is a bit like if Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice had married the rake Wickham, and been trapped in an untenable situation, with the laws of the time preventing women from having their own income, or even custody of their own children if the husband did not permit it. The novel is psychologically realistic in its portrayal of the various characters, and I can understand why the Victorians found it shocking to their sensibilities. It highlights some of the darker aspects of a society that could value the appearance of respectability over actually being moral. But it isn’t unrelieved darkness; it’s also a story of endurance and hope through severe trial. If you are interested in hard-hitting historical fiction, you might give this book a try.
-Reviewed by Josephine K., Technical Services Librarian