“But he who dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.”
The Tennant of Wildfell Hall
by Anne Bronte
When one thinks of the Bronte sisters work, Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre”, or Emily’s “Wuthering Heights” come to mind. I am a fan of both those novels, and the other works of those two Bronte sisters, however, not too long ago I realized that I was unfamiliar with the work of the third sister.
Anne was the baby of the family. She published a volume of poetry with her sisters, as well as two novels of her own. The first novel published in 1847 was “Agnes Grey”. It chronicled life as a governess, of which Anne had personal experience. The second novel by Anne was published in 1848; it was “The Tennant of Wildfell Hall”. This book is my unsung hero.
Like her sisters writing, it is dark. She also shares her sisters beautiful use of language. That is what initially drew me in, however what captured my attention was the subject matter. The multilayered plot deals with alcoholism, licentiousness, and the rights of women in the 19th century. This raw subject matter was brilliantly depicted in a time when these topics were off limits, and that is what sets this book apart certainly from her sisters writing, but also from other writing of the time.
The “Tennant of Wildfell Hall” was wildly successful when it was released and sold out within months of its publication. Further publications however were squashed by Charlotte Bronte who said: “Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.”
Helen Graham, the protagonist in the book makes the decision to run away from her abusive, alcoholic husband, in an attempt to protect her young son from his fathers influence. She escapes and becomes the tenant of the Wildfell Hall, living under an assumed identity, supporting herself and her son by painting while living in hiding, fearful of discovery. Such actions are difficult in current times, however in Victorian England they not only violated social mores, but they were illegal. Women were the property of their husbands.
Perhaps not as shocking as it was when published, it is still poignant and relevant. It is considered to be among the first sustained feminist novels.
This book puts Anne Bronte ahead of her time. Sadly, she died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1849 at the age of 29.
“It is better to arm and strengthen your hero, than to disarm and enfeeble your foe.”
The Daily Post
We all have our semi-secret, less-known personal favorites — a great B-side, an early work by an artist that later became famous, an obscure (but delicious) family recipe. Share one of your unsung heroes with us — how did you discover it? Why has it stayed off everyone’s radar?