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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Vol. 1) by Anne Bronte

I am joining Emma Barry and Genevive Turner on their Tenant of Wildfell Hall discussion next Monday but I wanted to write down my impressions of Vol.1  while they are still fresh in my mind. I have already started listening to Vol. 2.

I have read novels by 2 out of 3 of the Bronte sisters.  I really loved Charlotte Bronte's novels Jane Eyre & Villette.  I hated most of Wuthering Heights by Emily but I had not read anything by Anne. So far Anne's writing has more in common with Charlotte than with Emily.  

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the story of an unconventional and opinionated widow, Helen, who along with her young son is trying to live quietly in a secluded home in the moors.  She becomes the objects of interest and speculation among the people of the rural community near her rented home. She is scratching out a meager living as an artist, and no one really know where she is came from and she refuses to speak about her past.

The first volume is told from the point of view of Gilbert Markam, a young farmer who becomes infatuated with Helen.  His opinion of Helen changes greatly through the course of the first volume.  At first he is vexed by her strong opinions and her unwillingness to cater to him.  As the eldest son and head of the family, he is oblivious to the way everything and anything in his home is done for his benefit. As he grows to respect Helen, he becomes aware of the faults of the people he has previously long admired and starts to question many of his own assumptions.  There is a fantastically humorous conversation where he confronts his mother on her insistence that relationship between men and women should be completely lacking in reciprocity. 

Anne Bronte's depiction of Gilbert as a suitor is not without many sharp barbs. In the novel Gilbert is recounting the whole affair to a friend via letter after the fact.   I particularly liked how sharp Bronte is showing us how Gilbert moves from casual infatuation and admiration of Helen,  to trying to become her defender when she becomes the subject of scandalous gossip. Bronte does a wonderful job portraying how swiftly Gilbert moves from ardent knight to betrayed and self-pitying when he thinks he has encountered proof of that the gossip is true.

There a lot of great little character studies in this first volume.  Eliza Millwood, flirt, petty gossip and jealous harpy.  I loved how Rose (Gilbert's sister) is aware long before Gilbert is of Eliza's claws.  I was also fascinated by Rev. Millwood.  His pomposity and deluded self-assurance are broadly drawn but he does not become a caricature.  I think we have all met someone who is generalizes from his own experience and thinks it applies to universally to everyone.

I am listening to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall via audiobook I borrowed from the library.   It is narrated by Jenny Agutter and Alex Jennings. The narration is excellent, although I wish that when they digitized it they would have cut the "end of side 1" markers, although it gave me a pleasing flashback to my days as kid listening to lp and tape audiobooks.


I am looking forward to joining the discussion of  Vol. 1 on Twitter on December 21 at 9 PM EST/6 PM PST using the hashtag #TOWH.  Volume 1 is only 15 chapters long and you still have time to join us!

Vol. 2 will be discussed at the same time on December 28 and Vol. 3 on January 4.

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