Full disclosure: I have a dog named Brontë, so this review will be in no way unbiased. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre stole my heart in the 11th grade and is still my favorite book, with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights not too far behind. Anne Brontë seems to be the sister largely forgotten in today’s curriculum, and it was not until just a few years ago that I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and was so pleasantly surprised by it.
Anne published Tenant in 1848 under the pen name of Acton Bell. Charlotte’s pseudonym was Currer Bell, and Emily’s was Ellis Bell — all three chose names with their same initials that were intentionally gender-ambiguous; not even the publishers knew the authors’ true identities. While her sisters’ wildly passionate novels feature Byronic heroes and Gothic drama, Anne Brontë firmly grounded her masterwork in reality. Its frank portrayal of marital breakdown and a woman’s forthright and daring response to her situation sent shockwaves through Victorian England, and the novel quickly became a publishing phenomenon.
The first edition flew off shelves even faster than Jane Eyre had a year earlier, requiring a second edition in just one month. This was, perhaps, largely due to the element of controversy surrounding it; it was inconceivable in that era that a well-bred woman would leave her husband and deprive him of his son, no matter how strong her reason. But back then as today, any publicity is often good publicity, and damning reviews made people want to read it for themselves.
The criticism it received led Anne Brontë to compose her well-known preface to the second edition: “My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it … To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest?”
However, this same criticism and controversy caused Charlotte not to continue its publication after her sister’s untimely death to tuberculosis in 1849, claiming that the book had been “a mistake” because the subject matter did not match Anne’s character. This break in publication so soon after its success stopped the popular novel’s momentum and is probably the main reason it does not enjoy the same acclaim as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre today.
In her introduction to the new Folio Society edition, Tracy Chevalier writes that the heroine’s perspective offers an insightful exploration of abuse and addiction in a marriage as well as of the classic yet unfortunate “bad boy” attraction, fueled by a feminine desire to help and reform. She writes, “Many wives have been there; even now, with the freedoms twenty-first-century women enjoy, many still don’t leave abusive relationships. Small comfort that such scenarios were also being played out in the mid-nineteenth century. The very remarkable thing is that Helen Huntingdon does leave, unheard-of as such an action was at the time.”
The beautiful binding, paper, and commissioned illustrations by Valentina Catto make this Folio Society slipcased edition a perfect Christmas option for a lover of classic literature, and it forms a trio with Folio’s similar luxury editions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Whether a linen-bound hardcover or a trade paperback, this book is regardless one worth pulling off the shelf!