I was led to this book by another book, Jane Eyre's Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine's Story written by Jody Gentian Bower. I wanted to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall based on her plot synopsis. I can't swear whether she got the plot of the book wrong or I did but this was a completely different book than the one I thought I was going to read.
I went into this book expecting a pretty standard 19th century novel. And all the typical elements were definitely there: People whispering in drawing rooms, detailed descriptions of fashion, a woman trapped by her circumstances, disapproving aunts, a joyous marriage, etc. What surprised me was how modern the novel felt. It felt less like a woman of her age writing albeit under the male pen name of Acton Bell, and more like a 21st century woman trying to write in a more restrained style. I offer that as a great compliment to the long dead Anne Bronte. Good literature should be timeless and reach across centuries with universal themes.
A brief, but I promise this time correct introduction of the plot would not necessarily lead anyone to consider it a must read. The book is largely written from the perspective of Gilbert Markham. A mysterious woman, Mrs Graham rents a local mansion for her and her young son. This sets the neighborhood buzzing and in short order she is branded an immoral woman. Because of her fondness for Gilbert she allows him to read her diary and letters and learn who she is and how she came to Wildfell Hall.
The book was controversial for it's time and the author's sister Charlotte refused to give permission for its re-publication upon her passing. Although the Bronte sisters' pen names were a thin shield indeed, they did still use male ones and it must have been shocking for those not in the know to think the book was written by a man. It is startlingly feminist for the age. The tenant, Helen, is allowed to pick her own husband, question his behavior, and expect equality and respect from him. Her husband does not grant her that respect and a strong critique of the different moral expectations and mores for the sexes is a running theme throughout. I'm sure many a housewife in 1848 read it and said, "Ugh girl! Same here." The book also introduces the notion that a woman can support herself and decide her own life path, and it does not dismiss this as absurd. Remember this book was published in 1848.
One of my chief complaints with the books of Anne and her sisters Charlotte and Emily is their affection for bad boys and that the love of a good woman can change them. (see Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre) This book has several male characters of "dissolute habits" and a majority of them do not change their ways.
I will say that the book like many of the era gets bogged down in describing social etiquette of the time. I read the works of Jane Austen and other classic novels for this in part. I love turning off the internet and the modern scourge of men sending unsolicited pictures of their genitals and going somewhere polite. I love the return to civility and decency. All those societal rules could be oppressive to women but they also provided a security that we no longer have. Having said that, I found myself yawning in the middle and almost a 100 pages could've been trimmed. Otherwise I recommend this book. Read it with a pot of tea and your cellphone turned off.