I'll admit I've been on a Brontë kick this summer; heat tends to drive me toward stories about simmering characters in cooler climes, a sure recipe for a Brontë book. But, for all of my repeated readings of Charlotte Brontë's prose and my disaffection for sister Emily's Wuthering Heights, I never bothered to read the work of Anne Brontë. Now, I want to bang on the front doors of all my English teachers and yell, "Why didn't you assign her books to your courses? What were you thinking?" Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may be the surprise sensation of my summer reading.
It seems the book has always defied expectations. Published when English Women had no right to vote, own property or even have custody of their children, it's a challenge to that "civilized" society. It dealt with issues like addiction and adultery so realistically it was a literary sensation when it was first published. It was so controversial, that sister Charlotte tried at one point to suppress the book's being reprinted.
The story's subtitle could be "the mysterious new girl in town, " and it's told by Gilbert Markham, a young, rather satisfied, gentleman farmer whose family has "always" been part of the community. He sees the same old friends all the time and visits the same old places with them. His mom doesn't like his girlfriend, but that's nothing new. Life, for Gilbert, is just a bit boring. Then strangers move into Wildfell Hall.
Everyone's curious about the new tenants, a Mrs. Graham, and her little boy and everyone wants to know more about them. But Mrs. Graham doesn't like to socialize. She stays away from parties and turns down invitation until many think she's anti-social. When Mrs. Graham's in a group, she voices strong-minded opinions on subjects like alcohol and education for girls. Gilbert's intrigued. Between his mom, his sister and the females of the village, he's used to flattery and flirtation from women, two things Mrs. Graham won't give him. The more he learns about her, the more he wants to know and the harder she pushes him away. Eventually, Gilbert learns his new neighbor is hiding from her charismatic bad-boy of a husband, a man who wants to introduce her and his young son to every degrading vice in the book. It's a complicated story, told in Victorian Language, but it reads like a modern page-turner.
There's something in the urgent voice of Mrs. Graham that compels you through most of the story. You can see why she married the wrong man and how initially she tried to make the marriage work. You understand how hard and necessary it was for her to shut the door against him and how frail is her hope of freedom. Even when she stops speaking and Gilbert again takes up the story, Mrs. Graham's voice is the one you remember.
It's astounding to realize this is only Anne Brontë's second book and her last one at that. She died at 29, the year after The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published. More strident than Charlotte and less moody than Emily, she is the realist of that intense family: Wildfell Hall is no romantic spot like Thornfield or Wuthering Heights, it's a big old house that sorely needs maintenance. And, instead of vengeance or spiritual transcendence, Anne's characters want and demand justice, a call that resonates today. Perhaps that's why, after almost 200 years, Anne seems the most "relevant" Brontë. She wasn't just the youngest Brontë sister. She was the most modern female in the bunch.