The critic who described Anne Bronte as 'the Bronte without genius' got it very wrong indeed. That's how strongly I feel because now that I've finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, my first thought is that the book is riven and shot through with great big lightning bolts of genius.
Sorry, is that a bit excessive?
I wonder if it's because I can see so many contemporary parallels with Anne Bronte's subject matter?
Or is it because, for me this has proved to be the most readable of Bronte novels?
Whatever it is I'm kicking myself for leaving this book unread for so long and will urge this on all and sundry the minute the Bronte name is mentioned with the words "which one shall I read?" and all in the same sentence.
Admittedly I've focused on my sphere of interest which didn't include the religious themes this time round and many may find these slightly overbearing, but the issues of alcoholism and gambling addiction coupled with women and children trapped in abusive and violent marriages remain of the moment and contemporary. Anne Bronte's perceptive insights stand up to close scrutiny in the light of today's dilemmas as much as they must have done in 1848 when the novel was first published.
The mysterious tenant, Helen Graham arrives with her young child Arthur at Wildfell Hall amidst much neighbourly speculation regarding her past, and local suitor Gilbert Markham makes a beeline. Helen displays an acute fear and sensitivity to his amorous advances and at this stage I really wanted to book young Gilbert in for some anger management classes. He little realises that this approach will not cut the mustard with Helen who remains remarkably uncowed by the pressures and increasingly protective of her young son.
As the narrative voice changes from that of Gilbert, remarkably delineated by Anne Bronte, to the voice of Helen via the pages of her diary, both Gilbert and reader learn exactly what has forced Helen into this seemingly extreme position.Through her trials Helen transforms from fearful and down-trodden wife of Arthur Senior to an empowered and assertive woman in her own right and a loving and caring mother who knows exactly what is right for her child, taking steps to protect him from the abuse accordingly.
Social Services would have applauded Helen, Women's Aid would have employed her as a counsellor.
You can but imagine how much this all reflects Anne Bronte's own heartfelt concerns over the plight of women in the nineteenth century.
The moments of perception are many and some of the scenes of emotional abuse are quite breathtaking in their intensity, the mental cruelty abhorrent, yet in truth it still happens to women today. The entrapment is the same, the control as stifling, the means of escape as difficult and the effects of the abuse just as profound on all who experience it whether it be 1848 or 2008.
Anne Bronte doubtless had brother Branwell in her sights as an alcohol-fuelled living breathing example of all that she attempts to expose, and her method for ensuring that Helen's young son Arthur aquires an aversion to alcohol could well do with making a successful comeback.The social pressures to drink alcohol as great then as now.
Yet Helen harbours more common sense than ill-feeling and by the same token you sense Anne Bronte did too. There are some moments of genuine pathos as Helen effectively becomes the counsellor to her estranged husband's cronies as they too attempt to escape his controlling grasp and Helen exposes the most besotted of her suitors in their true colours.Emerging with a real understanding of what makes the chaps tick and which aspects could do with a little improving, there's little doubt that Helen Graham will make a new man of the one she eventually chooses.