Tonight I am beginning a Gothic-romance of a novel by one of the Brontë sisters (ref. Emily Brontë of Wuthering Heights fame, Charlotte Brontë of Jane Eyre fame, & Anne Brontë of Agnes Gray fame) one that is now considered by many critics to be the very first feminist novel: Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. One 19th-century reviewer said about the boldness of a theme in the novel—a woman actually walking out on an abusive husband—that “the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England”.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the second and final novel by the English author Anne Brontë. It was first published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell. Probably the most shocking of the Brontës’ novels, it had an instant and phenomenal success, but after Anne’s death her sister Charlotte prevented its re-publication.
Above, left: Blake Hall—the inspiration for Wildfell Hall photographed in 1900.
The novel is framed as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend and brother-in-law about the events connected with the meeting of his wife. A mysterious young widow arrives at Wildfell Hall, an Elizabethan mansion which has been empty for many years, with her young son and a servant. She lives there in strict seclusion under the assumed name Helen Graham and soon finds herself the victim of local slander. Refusing to believe anything scandalous about her, Gilbert befriends Helen and discovers her past. In her diary, Helen depicts her husband’s physical and moral decline through alcohol and her desperate attempts to save their son from his influence in the dissipated aristocratic society from which she ultimately flees. The depiction of marital strife and women’s professional identification has also a strong moral message mitigated by the authors’s belief in universal salvation.
Above: Facsimilie pages from the first edition.
Most critics now consider The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be one of the first feminist novels. May Sinclair, in 1913, said that the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. In leaving her husband, Helen violates not only social conventions, but also the early 19th century English law.
Read more here about the novel’s fascinating back story and history…