I haven’t read as many classics as I’d like. Left to my own devices, I’d probably work my way through crime novel after crime novel, emerging only briefly to complain about whodunnit. In a bid to remedy this and force a bit of diversity into my bookshelves, a few years back I joined my local library’s reading group. The book of the month is always a surprise, and when we were handed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a month before Christmas, I think we were all secretly a little disappointed it wasn’t yet another Costa Coffee Award winner, something that might have been a little easier to flip through in between present wrapping, mince pie baking and frantic last-minute sales shopping. With no slight at all meant to Brontë, there’s something just a bit daunting about being faced with A Proper Classic™ that requires a level of concentration Christmas doesn’t readily allow for. Needless to say, I was relieved when we mutually decided to shift it back to January and give ourselves some breathing room.
I went into the book almost entirely devoid of context. I’ll admit to knowing little about 1800s England, and even less about the Brontë sisters. While on some level this may have detracted from my appreciation and understanding of certain elements, it also allowed me to approach the story with fresh eyes and few expectations. Our entry-point to this world is through Gilbert, a handsome young farmer from origins enigmatic, who finds himself increasingly taken with the mysterious tenant of Wildfell Hall. The beginning third of the book took a long time to hook me, filled as it was with extensive descriptions of family parties and lengthy walks to the beach. It was only when we really began to know Helen, the Hall’s reclusive inhabitant, that my interest quickly increased.
The middle section of the book takes the form of Helen’s diary as she recounts her courtship and marriage to her scoundrel of a husband. For the most part, I listened to the Audible version narrated by Alex Jennings and Jenny Agutter. Agutter’s narration made the diary come alive, and was always enjoyable – even when the cast of characters became largely interchangable, populated by all together too many Huntingdons, Hargraves’, Haldfords and Hattersleys. From what I understand, this was probably one of the first popular novels to depict a woman defying her husband in favour of her own happiness and independence, for which it is entirely commendable. The religious piousness didn’t come across well to a modern reader, but I couldn’t help but think there still is a lot here that would adapt well to a modern telling. Helen would undeniably work marvelously as a helicopter parent surviving the trials of single-parenthood and impertinent friends angered at being friend-zoned.
I was quite disappointed when we finally had to rejoin Gilbert for the last third of the book, and found the final slog quite hard-going. It’s the middle section that really shines here, and while I am glad to have read it, I think it’ll be a little while before I dip into another classic.