The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

February 12, 2010

tenant-of-wildfell-hall Plot summary (with spoilers): This story is told in the form of a letter from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law Halford. It tells the particulars of how Gilbert came to fall in love with Mrs. Graham, a widow who recently moved into the neighborhood as a tenant at Wildfell Hall, a dark and gloomy residence. Though she is a widow, Mrs. Graham is not the elderly kind that needs wrinkle lotion and creams. She’s still quite young. And because of Mrs. Graham’s perceived aloofness and her overprotective disposition toward her child Arthur, it’s not long before tongues start to wag. Mrs. Graham is subsequently the subject of much gossip among the other folks in the area, and even Gilbert doesn’t like her too well at the beginning.

But Gilbert strikes up a friendship with the boy, and gradually comes to know Mrs. Graham a little better. Indeed, Gilbert finds himself falling in love with her after a time, much to the chagrin of Eliza Millward, who thought Gilbert would soon propose to her. But Mrs. Graham, though she seems to feel the same about Gilbert, continually puts him off. Gilbert thinks this is due to the fact that Mr. Lawrence, another young man in the neighborhood, shows a great deal of interest in Mrs. Graham as well. But instead of telling Gilbert her story, Mrs. Graham lets him read it on his own through her diary.

It turns out that Mrs. Graham is actually Helen Huntingdon and is still married to Arthur Huntingdon, who lives in a distant county. In the diary, Helen recounts her courtship and marriage to Huntingdon. They were in love at first, but it didn’t take long for her feelings to change. Huntingdon became restless at being married and living away from his friends in London, so he frequently went for months-long sojourns in the city, leaving Helen all alone. He drank too much, and had numerous affairs — even brazenly inviting his mistresses to stay in the house with them. Huntingdon also hurled endless streams of verbal abuse at Helen, and didn’t care that his friends followed suit.

Helen, not wishing to have little Arthur grow up under this terrible influence and perhaps turn out like his father, decides to run away. She enlists the help of her brother Mr. Lawrence(!), who gets Wildfell Hall ready. Mr. Lawrence also secures painting supplies, by which Helen means to earn a living to support herself and Arthur. Helen and Arthur make their escape, bringing the action up to the present time.

Gilbert despairs at the news because now there’s no way he can marry Helen. But she tells him they simply have to wait until Huntingdon dies. It turns out they didn’t have to wait very long, as that man’s bad habits finally caught up with him. He succumbed to illness, leaving Helen free to marry Gilbert — which happens after a decent interval has passed.


  • I enjoyed the basic love story between Arthur and Helen. I was completely fooled by Helen’s behavior and her relationship to Mr. Lawrence, so I liked that reveal very much.
  • I loved that a book published in 1848 highlighted the problem of domestic violence and abuse. Surely this kind of thing must have gone on a lot behind closed doors, but there wasn’t any public discourse about it or anything. I read somewhere that this book pretty much blew the lid off hidden Victorian vices, and was talked about quite a lot in its day (not all the coverage was favorable, of course).


  • It took a heck of a long time for this story to unfold, and there were lots of boring scenes along the way. I think a fair amount of the narrative could have been cut (particularly some of the repetitive passages from Helen’s diary), which would have made the book more appealing as a whole.


Overall, I appreciated a few of the elements contained in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, especially the historical significance of the subject. Nevertheless, this is not the kind of novel that stands up to the test of time, as Huntingdon’s transgressions don’t seem so outrageous these days and Helen’s escape doesn’t seem quite so dramatic and unheard of. I think most modern readers will be bored by many sections in the book, just as I was. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

4 Responses to “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë”

  1. I respectfully disagree with your thoughts on this book. I’m not sure if you really know what a woman’s position in society was during that time period. It was little more than that of slave and concubine, if her husband chose not to respect her.

    I’m sorry that you don’t understand that feeling trapped with an alcoholic man who verbally abuses you still occurs to this day (I’ve lived it), but I think even you would agree that having to receive your husband’s mistress as a house guest would be the utmost in psychological abuse. I think his transgressions are very bit as outrageous as Brontë intended to make them. It is a mystery to me that you do not.

  2. I don’t think you actually read this book, or you didn’t read it all the way through, at least.

    “Huntingdon’s transgressions don’t seem so outrageous these days…” Seriously? It’s not outrageous to get your 5 year old son drunk these days? It’s not outrageous to have people over for a party that ends in a fist fight? If that’s the kind of lifestyle you’re living, you really need an intervention of some sort.

    Admittedly, leaving your husband isn’t very outrageous these days, but when you read a novel, you tend to read it through the eyes of the narrator(s). Otherwise, you miss out on really great stories, like Les Miserables, because you can’t understand why having an illegitimate child was such a big deal in the early 1800’s.

    Worst. Book Review. Ever.

  3. “Bev” and “Joy” are both posting from the exact same IP address:

    I guess you (singular) have a very strong opinion about this book. Great! Duly noted. Now stay away.

  4. And if you think that fistfights at parties or mistreating children is outrageous (in the sense of “shocking” or unheard of), then crawl out from under your rock and turn on the news.

    Is this type of behavior bad? Of course. But is it jaw-droppingly appalling? Depends on what you’re used to seeing/hearing/reading about, I guess. I doubt that a modern social worker would even blink at what Huntingdon did.

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