The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an 1848 novel by the youngest of the Bronte sisters, Anne, published under the pseudonym Acton Bell. A mysterious young widow arrives at Wildfell Hall, an Elizabethan mansion which has been empty for many years, with her young son and servant. She lives there in strict seclusion under the assumed name Helen Graham and very soon finds herself the victim of local slander. Refusing to believe anything scandalous about her, Gilbert Markham, a young farmer, discovers her dark secrets. In her diary, Helen writes about her husband's physical and moral decline through alcohol, and the world of debauchery and cruelty from which she has fled.
It is worthwhile remembering how much this novel went against the social norms of the day. The very fact that Helen leaves her husband is a big thing. Writer May Sinclair said of the book in 1913: "the slamming of (Helen's) bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England."
With themes of domestic violence and alcoholism, the story is essentially about a woman's desire to save her son, and to prevent him from growing up like his father.
№ 6 in 20 Classic Books You Must Read Before You Die.
№ 30 in Goodreads 100 Best Nineteenth-Century British and Irish Novels.
This book has 305 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1848.
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Excerpt from 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall'
You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.
My father, as you know, was a sort of gentleman farmer in ——shire; and I, by his express desire, succeeded him in the same quiet occupation, not very willingly, for ambition urged me to higher aims, and self-conceit assured me that, in disregarding its voice, I was burying my talent in the earth, and hiding my light under a bushel. My mother had done her utmost to persuade me that I was capable of great achievements; but my father, who thought ambition was the surest road to ruin, and change but another word for destruction, would listen to no scheme for bettering either my own condition, or that of my fellow mortals. He assured me it was all rubbish, and exhorted me, with his dying breath, to continue in the good old way, to follow his steps, and those of his father before him, and let my highest ambition be to walk honestly through the world, looking neither to the right hand nor to the left, and to transmit the paternal acres to my children in, at least, as flourishing a condition as he left them to me.
“Well!—an honest and industrious farmer is one of the most useful members of society; and if I devote my talents to the cultivation of my farm, and the improvement of agriculture in general, I shall thereby benefit, not only my own immediate connections and dependants, but, in some degree, mankind at large:—hence I shall not have lived in vain.”
With such reflections as these I was endeavouring to console myself, as I plodded home from the fields, one cold, damp, cloudy evening towards the close of October. But the gleam of a bright red fire through the parlour window had more effect in cheering my spirits, and rebuking my thankless repinings, than all the sage reflections and good resolutions I had forced my mind to frame;—for I was young then, remember—only four-and-twenty—and had not acquired half the rule over my own spirit that I now possess—trifling as that may be.
However, that haven of bliss must not be entered till I had exchanged my miry boots for a clean pair of shoes, and my rough surtout for a respectable coat, and made myself generally presentable before decent society; for my mother, with all her kindness, was vastly particular on certain points.
In ascending to my room I was met upon the stairs by a smart, pretty girl of nineteen, with a tidy, dumpy figure, a round face, bright, blooming cheeks, glossy, clustering curls, and little merry brown eyes. I need not tell you this was my sister Rose. She is, I know, a comely matron still, and, doubtless, no less lovely—in your eyes—than on the happy day you first beheld her. Nothing told me then that she, a few years hence, would be the wife of one entirely unknown to me as yet, but destined hereafter to become a closer friend than even herself, more intimate than that unmannerly lad of seventeen, by whom I was collared in the passage, on coming down, and well-nigh jerked off my equilibrium, and who, in correction for his impudence, received a resounding whack over the sconce, which, however, sustained no serious injury from the infliction; as, besides being more than commonly thick, it was protected by a redundant shock of short, reddish curls, that my mother called auburn.
On entering the parlour we found that honoured lady seated in her arm-chair at the fireside, working away at her knitting, according to her usual custom, when she had nothing else to do. She had swept the hearth, and made a bright blazing fire for our reception; the servant had just brought in the tea-tray; and Rose was producing the sugar-basin and tea-caddy from the cupboard in the black oak side-board, that shone like polished ebony, in the cheerful parlour twilight.
“Well! here they both are,” cried my mother, looking round upon us without retarding the motion of her nimble fingers and glittering needles. “Now shut the door, and come to the fire, while Rose gets the tea ready; I’m sure you must be starved;—and tell me what you’ve been about all day;—I like to know what my children have been about.”
“I’ve been breaking in the grey colt—no easy business that—directing the ploughing of the last wheat stubble—for the ploughboy has not the sense to direct himself—and carrying out a plan for the extensive and efficient draining of the low meadowlands.”
“That’s my brave boy!—and Fergus, what have you been doing?”
And here he proceeded to give a particular account of his sport, and the respective traits of prowess evinced by the badger and the dogs; my mother pretending to listen with deep attention, and watching his animated countenance with a degree of maternal admiration I thought highly disproportioned to its object.
“It’s time you should be doing something else, Fergus,” said I, as soon as a momentary pause in his narration allowed me to get in a word.
“What can I do?” replied he; “my mother won’t let me go to sea or enter the army; and I’m determined to do nothing else—except make myself such a nuisance to you all, that you will be thankful to get rid of me on any terms.”
Production notes: This edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published by Global Grey ebooks on the 1st March 2021. The artwork used for the cover is 'Nameless and Friendless' by Emily Mary Osborn.