The book you meant to read

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte
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The Independent Culture
Plot: The novel's narrator is Gilbert Markham, young farmer and decent chap. He falls in love with Helen Graham, the beautiful, mysterious tenant of Wildfell Hall. She has a son and is presumed to be a widow. The locals gossip about Helen's "friendship" with her landlord, Frederick Lawrence. Initially Gilbert is sceptical, but subsequently overhears an intimate exchange between Helen and her friend, loses his temper and thumps Lawrence.

Helen, afraid that Gilbert will push off, reveals all to him in a diary. Her dark secret is brought to light.

When young she married Arthur Huntingdon, a drunkard and a rake. In standard Victorian fashion, Helen believed that the love of a good woman would reform him, but Huntingdon is beyond her redemption. She runs away to brother Lawrence who provides the tenancy of Wildfell Hall.

After Gilbert learns the truth, Helen returns to her husband who dies of dissipation. She is now ripe for re-marriage. Gilbert joyfully complies.

Theme: Marriage is not what it is cracked up to be. Helen's union with Huntingdon proves to be a legalised misery.

Good behaviour cannot purify a depraved character. Helen's virtues prove less attractive to her husband than the brandy bottle.

Style: The galloping melodrama of the plot is curbed by a prose which owes more to Mansfield Park than Wuthering Heights. The mixture of Gilbert's staid narration and Helen's emotional diary is piquant.

Chief strengths: Bronte's straightforward honesty of purpose constantly surprises: "I maintain it is better to depict vice and vicious characters as they are than as they would wish to appear." (Preface).

Helen's boredom and despair is counterbalanced by a sympathetic understanding of Huntingdon's self destructive addiction.

Chief Weaknesses: The concluding tinkle of wedding bells is hard to accept, given the acidulous portrait of the nuptial condition.

What they thought of it then: Reviewers noted the book's skill but deplored the "morbid love for the coarse". There was disapproval of the "splenetic bitter tone" and the "disgusting language". It was deemed "unsuitable for lady readers."

What we think of it now: Anne is emerging from her role as the anaemic Cinderella of the Bronte sisters. Her forthright approach is less sexy than her siblings, but it is also less insistently "romantic".

Responsible for: The forthcoming BBC adaptation which will suffer from the usual costume elephantiasis and remodel Wildfell Hall as a cross between Castle Howard and the Escorial.

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