I remember reading this about ten years ago, when I was a newly qualified teacher and faced a long daily commute. It seems fitting that I’ve come back to it as I start a new period in my life and it’s delighted me that I enjoyed it just as much a second time.
I’ve said before that as I get older, Anne makes the most sense of any of the sisters to me- Charlotte drives me mad with her prissiness and Emily’s a bit full on. The quiet fury of Anne’s work speaks to me both as a reader and a feminist.
The book tells the story of Helen Graham, through the eyes of Mansplainer Extrodinaire Gilbert Markham. She appears suddenly one day, with a little boy in tow and a mysterious back story that doesn’t make sense. The village gossips go into overdrive trying to work out just who the beautiful widow-artist is and why exactly she’s there. A whirl of scandal and slander envelopes her before she reveals all to Gilbert.
Charlotte Bronte loathed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and thought it was unsuitable as a novel; it went against her idea of her sister as some kind of sweet, saintly martyr. The novel instead rails against the unfairness of the position women found themselves in once married and deals with the unpleasantness of living with an alcoholic (something the Bronte family knew well in later years with Branwell’s descent into addiction.)
That’s not to say that this is a book without charm and humour (Gilbert regularly makes a prat of himself), but it’s not always an easy read- mainly because it’s a bit tricky to get into at first, although I would say that this is a trait that all three sisters share in their work. For me, the most compelling section of the book is the middle part, in which Helen tells her own story in her own voice; Anne Bronte’s female protagonists are strong and it’s tempting to think how far she might have gone if she’d lived longer. It’s a relief that Charlotte didn’t cast this book into the fire when she had the chance.
PS- I recently visited the Bronte Parsonage Museum and wrote about it here.