This is not a new novel, far from it, and countless reviews have certainly been written on it. There are probably some Coles notes available and every new edition has its own explanatory preface about the novel and its writer, one of the BrontÃ« sisters.
I was impressed enough by it, though, to want to share my impressions both as a reader and as a writer.
The novel, originally published in 1848 under the pseudonym of Acton Bell, was deemed scandalous and “utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls.” It is considered the first feminist novel, and a novel that frankly addresses the differences in what is permissible for the two sexes.
‘I beg your pardon, Mrs. Graham – but you get on too fast. I have not yet said that a boy should be taught to rush into the snares of life, – or even wilfully to seek temptation for the sake of exercising his virtue by overcoming it; – I only say that it is better to arm and strengthen your hero, than to disarm and enfeeble the foe; – and if you were to rear an oak sapling in a hothouse, tending it carefully night and day, and shielding it from every breath of wind, you could not expect it to become a hardy tree, like that which has grown up on the mountain-side, exposed to all the action of the elements, and not even sheltered from the shock of the tempest.’
‘Granted; – but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?’
‘No; you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant – taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil. But will you be so good as to inform me why you make this distinction? Is it that you think she has no virtue?’
The novel was astonishing to me. Not only did Helen, the protagonist of the story, deny her husband his marital rights but she leaves him and denies him access to his son. She is strong-willed, courageous, righteous. She is also pious, but this latter quality, which is strongly underlined throughout the story, does not make one forget that she behaves not like the submissive wife of the times but as her own person, in accordance with her belief of what is right. She refuses to accede to the role society has imposed her but in doing so, imposes on herself a more stringent code of behavior, knowing full well that to some, it would not matter.
The novel is also shocking in other ways: BrontÃ« adds to her story many aspects that only male writers had dared address before: adultery, both from men and women, debauchery, drink, and baseness of character. Most of the players in this game are weak in that they bow to the pleasures of the flesh, Helen’s husband, Arthur, being the worst of the lot. But it’s in her frank treatment of these vices that she stands out and makes her protagonist shine.
And this is what, as a writer, I find so interesting. Anne BrontÃ« has used this mirroring trick –or the-two-sides-of-the-coin trick– to show how virtuous and right Helen was in her behaviour. In the face of so much wickedness, what choice did she have but behave as she chose to?
Yet, throughout the story, I was reminded how unreliable a witness a first person narrator is. Because most of the story is told by Helen herself, we have only her say-so that the people around her were wicked, depraved, or too meek to defend themselves. Her story is from her own perspective only and why wouldn’t she make herself appear more righteous than she really was and others more wicked than they were? Who is there to confirm or deny that what she states happened really happened, and in that manner?
As a reader, we don’t get any feedback from others, except through Helen’s interpretation of events. This is emphasized often throughout the narrative, so that the reader is left with the uncertainty about the accuracy of events.
Even when Gilbert takes over the narrative (at the beginning and the end of the book), the story is still in first person, and unconfirmed by anyone else.
As a result, the story is more passionate, more personal and intimate than it could’ve been if it had been told in third person. The reader isn’t certain that these characters are completely honest with themselves but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they care so passionately.
In the end, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Oxford World’s Classics) offers a satisfying read, even 160 years later.