Anne Bronte’s literary love story

English countryside

Stick around — Helen and Gilbert will be walking by any minute. Image courtesy of Jusben, Morguefile.

Those Brontë sisters were such rebels. First, along comes Charlotte with Jane Eyre, pointing out that people should marry for love, rather than social position or money. Then came Anne with lesser-known novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, where the wife deliberately leaves her abusive husband. Both concepts were radical — almost unknown in their era.

Tenant is the story of Helen Huntingdon, a young woman who marries possibly one of the nastiest male literary characters ever created. Husband Arthur is narcissistic (spoiled rotten as a kid?), constantly complains about trivial things and delights in tempting other people into wickedness. He drinks and eats to excess, doesn’t mind turning people against one another and has no respect whatsoever for others’ privacy.

You have to wonder why Helen fell in love with him and married him in the first place.  Maybe she thought she could reform him — handsome and witty bad boy reformed by good woman. Arthur’s basically a button-pusher — he loves to get people mad and laughs at them when they do.

Gradually, Helen’s love for Arthur turns to hatred by two things — Arthur’s affair with his friend’s wife (can we say tacky?) and Arthur’s attempts to corrupt her son (also named Arthur). The kid’s only a few years old and Arthur’s getting him to drink alcohol, swear and say nasty things about his mum.

Arthur Sr. underestimates his wife, though. Not smart. Mama bear’s going to protect her cub at any cost.

Helen runs away with her son and faithful servant, Rachel. The three of them settle into Wildfell Hall, where Anne assumes the last name of Graham, paints in peace and earns a living by selling her paintings. She mostly abstains from the society of her busybody neighbors, but gradually falls in love with local farmer Gilbert Markham. She has a hard time of it because some of the busybody neighbors start spreading spiteful rumors about her.

This book was so good, I had a hard time putting it down. It was addictive. I kept wanting to know, “What happens next? What happens next?” Plus, I wanted to see what happened with Arthur Sr. and if he got what he deserved. I liked Gilbert and how he stuck up for Helen against the gossips. (Atta boy!) And he’s a good influence on her kid.

It’s a soap opera before there were soap operas. If they adapted this storyline with modern characters (similar to “Scents and Sensibility”), there would be a lot of characters that viewers would understand.

I also liked how the book was written. Anne Brontë used an interesting literary technique that I’ve rarely seen. It’s told in the form of letters from one character to another as well as a section of Helen’s diary, so it’s very easy to piece together the story.

There are elements of Anne’s brother in the story, such as his addiction to alcohol. I have to wonder if Anne ever met an Arthur Huntingdon in real life. Hoo, boy.

I thought it was a good love story, so I’m writing about it today since it seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day. If anyone’s interested, Tenant is also a 1996 movie with Toby Stephens as Gilbert, Tara Fitzgerald as Helen and Rupert Graves as Arthur Sr. Below is a Tenant video, set to the music of the Westlife version of “The Rose”. Have fun watching, period drama fans, and Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Anne Bronte’s literary love story

  1. I think that’s the only one of the Bronte sisters novels I haven’t read. When I have a chance, I will have to give it a go :-)

  2. My favourite Bronte book – Charlotte was jealous and shocked by it, and tried to suppress it after Anne’s death, but it rocked the literary world, and more when Helen slammed the door in her husband’s face – an illegal act back then, to deny him his conjugal rights!!!!

  3. Wow! This story does sound great. I’ve never heard of it, but you’ve piqued my interest to go look for it now.

  4. I’d not heard of this at all, but I’m going to look out for it now-it sounds riveting!
    Gwen

  5. Let us know what you think of Wuthering Heights if you ever get around to reading it. I read the book after viewing a film version decades ago. Shocking! But little so, compared with what Brontë must have achieved at the time of its publication. Heathcliff will remain (to me) a twisted, broken, wicked, violent being, a masochistic misogynist, the likes of whom I never want to read again. At each turn of a page, I wished to read of his death.

  6. In the AP class we are gearing up for the novel unit and I don’t know which to focus on–Jane Eyre (a fave) or Wuthering Heights (soap opera fer sure). Those Bronte girls did harbor a wild side to them, didn’t they?

    • It was probably the only outlet they had. It seems like Papa had the whole family on a pretty tight leash, or at least that’s the impression I got from Charlotte Gaskell’s bio of Charlotte. Maybe that’s why Branwell rebelled?

      I recommend Jane Eyre. You can then have the fun of showing them the Timothy Dalton movie, the Cieran Hinds version or the Michael Fassbender version. Those are the best adaptations, to my mind.

      • Oh, Timothy is my fave, for sure. Students usually question why I consider Heathcliffe a Byronic Hero (the unit emphasis) when they find nothing heroic or admirable about him at all. Now Rochester–oh definitely.

  7. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I never heard of Tenant. Not a huge Bronte fan, but your review intrigued me. Think I’ll give it a try.

    • I recommend the movie too. In my case, I saw the movie first, then decided to read the book second to see how closely the movie compared with the book.

      I’d be interested to hear your reaction. The book was rebellious for its time, since that was an era where wives were supposed to obey their husbands and stick by them, no matter what. Anne was definitely flouting convention by having her main character run away from her husband.

  8. Generally, I don’t care for the Bronte sisters books, but this film looks good. Besides, I like Tara Fitzgerald a lot. Thanks and thanks for the song too. My roses are beneath the bitter snow. Dianne

  9. This is my next Bronte read. I didn’t care for Agnes Grey so hopefully Anne can win me with this one!

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