Anne Brontë was an honest and courageous author who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to warn against the danger of marrying the wrong person.
The story begins in 1827 when a mysterious woman moves to the English countryside with her son, causing the villagers to gossip. The narrator, Gilbert, warily falls in love with her before learning the truth behind her tragic tale.
Don't marry for love
The novel reflects the mores of the time and place, when the "romantic notion" of marrying for love was considered almost sinful and against one's duty. Women in particular should marry for money, rank, and a good home. Once married, the only choice is to be "happy" no matter what happens because there's no way out that doesn't involve social ostracism. Still, Brontë herself, unlike some of the characters, doesn't disparage romantic love but warns against falling in love foolishly, that is, naïvely choosing a partner with a bad character.
Husbands and wives
The novel's main husbands are shockingly badly behaved and their wives clearly expected by everyone including themselves to put up with it. One of the wives says she's content in her marriage, even after her cad of a husband clobbers her.
This education starts in the family. Gilbert's sister, Rose, must wait on her brothers, who are told by their mother what married men can expect of their wives: "You please yourself, she pleases you..." 79 Not completely agreeing with this vision, Gilbert serves as a rare example of a more just way of thinking.
Some small criticisms
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is excellent; scenes of the husband's misconduct and the heroine's journey are particularly engrossing, as are the points of view of the villagers. Still, the diary technique used in the second part of the book occasionally slows down the pace. I also found it hard to believe the heroine would have married Huntingdon in the first place. She is intelligent and sees signs of his bad character before their engagement. I didn't feel any attraction, romance or love between them, but was nonetheless expected to believe she wanted to marry him due to being carried away by her feelings. I guess you could argue that she was just interested by his charm which may have presented a better option than marrying an old rich guy, for example. At any rate, the novel succeeds in delivering a warning against characters like the husband, as well as the message that women can speak their minds; I recommend reading it. But even if you don't, read the Preface to the Second Edition.
Brontë's novel was an instant success, at the time even surpassing the sales of her sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre. Nonetheless, it was condemned by critics who considered the the badly behaved husbands too vulgar and brutal, while some suggested such men didn't exist. But Brontë, who knew from her own experience the characters were not exaggerated, responded confidently and candidly in her Preface to the Second Edition, where she writes: when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own. In light of the time period she lived in, I am full of admiration for Anne Brontë as a brave person who cares about the truth and won't accept anything less.
After Anne's death, Charlotte prevented the novel's re-publication, saying it should never have been written. This damaged Anne's reputation for many years to come. In fact, I just talked about this post with a friend who referred to Anne Brontë as "the one who isn't well known". Read this very interesting article about why Charlotte censored Anne's work. Note: Branwell is Anne's brother whose life came to a tragic end after he got involved with the wrong people and activities. Thanks to Yvonne for making me aware of this censorship.