The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

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An epistolary novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall follows the courageous journey of the protagonist, Helen Graham, as she struggles to escape her socially imposed role as dutiful wife, while also acting on her moral responsibilities as a mother and self-respect as a woman. Published in 1848, under the pseudonym Acton Bell, the novel provoked much criticism at the time of its release due to its shocking content and atypical portrayal of an English wife, who not only defies the strict conventions of society, but also consciously violates the law that legally represses the rights of women. The novel begins with the narration of Gilbert Markham, as he recounts the arrival of a mysterious widow who takes up residence in Wildfell Hall together with her young son. Introduced as Helen Graham, the tenant ignites much curiosity among the town’s residents, as her reclusive behavior irritates their inquisitive nature. Consequently, Gilbert Markham, a young farmer, is also allured by her reticent nature and soon develops feelings towards the beautiful young woman. However, following a jealous outburst by Gilbert’s spurned love interest, a series of scandalous rumors about Helen are spread throughout the town. Subsequently, the accusations inspire Helen to reveal the truth about her past to Gilbert, as she gives him her diaries which provide the answers to all his grueling questions. Nevertheless, Anne successfully presents a pivotal figure in feminist literature and is also regarded as having laid the foundations for gender equality, as the novel had finally evoked a much needed reaction from an otherwise passive society. Moreover, a compelling novel focusing on themes including marriage, betrayal, abuse, social oppression, duty, and morals, The Tenant of Wildfell is an insightful piece that offers a vivid illustration of life during the first half of the 19th century and the unequal treatment of women in a male dominated society. Regarded as one of the first sustained feminist novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall successfully secures Anne’s literary reputation, as she masterfully employs a multi-layered plot and an endearing heroine, while simultaneously challenging the prevailing social and legal structures of the established norms of the Victorian era.