When a mysterious and reticent young woman moves into the country abode of Wildfell Hall, with a young son but no husband, the interest and suspicions of the villagers are soon aroused. Gilbert Markham, a young farmer in the village is intrigued by the newcomer, Helen Graham. They become friends and before long Gilbert falls for Helen. However, the other residents of the village start imagining all kind of things about Helen’s past and start spreading gossip and half-truths, especially regarding her apparent relationship with her landlord Mr Lawrence. Gilbert confronts Helen, and it is only when she allows him to read her diary that he understands her reluctance to make friends or discuss her past – Helen has left her alcoholic and cruel husband, and has taken their son in order that her husband cannot be a bad influence upon him. But can she ever escape the spectre of her unhappy marriage, and find happiness again…?
Anne Bronte is far less celebrated than her two sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Most readers are familiar wtih Charlotte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre (one of my personal favourites), and Emily’s only novel, Wuthering Heights. (Even people who have not read the books usually have an idea of the storylines,due to the numerous television and film adaptations.) This is the first time I have read Anne Bronte, and I am at a loss as to why she is less well known than her sisters, because I thought this book was superb.
The narrative has three distinct parts – the first and third take the forms of letters written to an unseen friend, by Gilbert Markham, in which he tells his friend about the mysterious stranger who has taken up tenancy in Wildfell Hall, and the events surrounding her arrival in the village. The middle section consists of Helen’s diary entries, which detail the events in her marriage and her flight from her husband.
For the time it was written, this was a very brave subject to tackle – no matter how badly a husband treated his wife, a wife was simply not expected to leave him. Indeed at the time, it was not possible for a woman to obtain a divorce from her husband – although there was nothing to stop a husband divorcing his wife. Helen comes across as a strong character, reluctantly but necessarily flying in the face of social convention, and finding herself the subject of salacious gossip rather than sympathy for her troubles.
Comparisons to the works of Charlotte and Emily Bronte are inevitable, and whereas Emily depicted Heathcliff as a passionate and incredibly romantic hero, Anne portrays a far more realistic picture of life with such a man – her husband is certainly attractive and passionate in the beginning, but she soon realises that he is selfish, cruel and concerned more for himself than anybody else. I rather admire Anne for daring to show this less than savoury aspect of his character.
The characters were extremely well drawn, and while Helen verges on being overly pious and religious, it is important to remember the time that the book was written, when people were expected to be devoutly Christian, and not to go to church was seen as a serious transgression (early on in the book, the local Vicar calls on Helen to admonish her for her non-attenance at church). Helen does however come across as wilful and strong in extrremely difficult circumstances, and is determined to do what she believes to be right, even if it is not what others believe to be right. She was an admirable heroine.
Gilbert was a very likable and believable haracter. He was essentially a decent young man, but perhaps due to his mother who pandered to his every whim, he sometimes could behave in a selfish or childish manner – a fact that he himself was not blind to. However, this just served to make him all the more believable and realistic.
The other main character is that of Arthur Huntingdon, Helen’s husband. He does not narrate any of the book himself, but is fully brought to life in Helen’s diary, and was a despicable and ultimately rather pathetic character.
The story had sufficient twists and turns to suprise me on many occasions, and the ending was very satisfying. There were also moments of unexpected humour, although unlike some other reviewers, I did not see any similarity with the humour of Jane Austen.
Above all, this is an exciting story, with a heroine who was ahead of her time in many ways, but trapped by the social conventions of the time in which she lived. The book kept me gripped throughout, and I would recommend this without hesitation, especially to anyone who may have read books by the other Bronte sisters, but have yet to give Anne’s work a try.
(For more information about the author, please click here.)
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