I love Victorian Lit. I love stories with female protagonists. I love female writers. I love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. And yet, an ill-timed - and ultimately deeply unsuccessful - attempt to broach Villette whilst on a road trip through Andalucia a few years ago prevented me, until recently, from attempting any of the other of the lesser known of the Bronte oeuvre. A schoolgirl error, I now concede.
Firstly, I must address the fact that though the book is set - of course - largely in a secluded little mansion in the northern wilderness, Anne does not have that same talent as her sisters for making the landscape a character in its own right. She tries. And sometimes, she comes close. But there is none of the primitive cruelty of Emily's heathland, nor the savage romance of Charlotte's. No, the horrors of Anne's world spring entirely from the hearts of men.
A widow, Helen Graham - a pseudonym, we correctly suspect - arrives unannounced in a society familiar to anyone who has read Austen: one where the sexes "must fall each into [their] proper place", as Mrs Markham, the mother of our 'hero' Gilbert, reminds us continually. She tells her son, in a discussion of marriage, that "you'll do your business and she, if she's worthy of you, will do hers; but it's your business to please yourself, and hers to please you." And yet, this mysterious newcomer to the area, with whom Gilbert quickly becomes enamoured, seems not to abide by these proper laws. Indeed, she shuns society at any available opportunity, and rumours soon begin to chase her.
Anne uses, rather clumsily, it has been said (and I'm tempted to agree), the Chinese Box method of narration here, as we move into Mrs Graham's diary, whereupon we learn her true history: she had married, unwisely and against advice, a man who can no better be described than as a veritable rogue, a dissolute gambler and, to use the modern vernacular, party animal. As her marriage drags through years, our heroine, we discover, now a new mother, accepts all that is thrust upon her - humiliation, violence, neglect, imprisonment, for the very reasons Mrs Markham has outlined above. Because it is her business to do so. Because that is a woman's lot. Because one belongs to one's husband and a man may treat his property however he sees fit. But when this awful man starts to ruin her son, Helen will take no more. In order primarily to protect her child, she escapes, changes her name, and moves to an empty Hall in the middle of nowhere, where she earns a meagre living as an artist.
This is a remarkably modern story. Exactly such things may happen now. And that is where the story's power lies. This is a feminist tale - so much so, that even Anne's own sister Charlotte tried to prevent publication as she saw it is a step too far - and as such, still has much to teach us. The fear with which an abused wife lives has not changed in 150 years, and it is evoked here in all its horror. The sadistic husband, who delights in the torture he inflicts on his powerless wife, is enough to drive the reader to distraction. One roots for Helen all the way through, and although I found her piety a little wearing, her lioness-like protection of her son cannot help but draw one to her.
Gilbert, on the other hand, is rather unlikeable, hence my use of inverted commas around the word 'hero'. He is dangerously impetuous, has a tendency to violence himself, and is arrogant to the point of extreme vanity. But then, what man in that society would not be all of those things? Perhaps he is merely a realistic portrayal.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a strange mix of modern manners and outmoded mores. In places it touches a Mills and Boon-esque sensibility - but perhaps that now clichéd romance was exactly what these Bronte girls imagined and dreamed of. Whilst this novel's hair does not blow wild, like that of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, it is more compact, more restrained, more rooted. I loved it, and consider that it sits proudly and rightfully alongside its better known siblings as a more political, if less fanciful, equal.