A number of contemporary critics have recognized The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a landmark feminist text, but it had long been unfavorably compared with the works of Anne's more celebrated sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Although critics are by no means incorrect in suggesting that Tenant lacks the psychological complexity of Jane Eyre (1847) or Wuthering Heights (1847), the novel has unnecessarily suffered from the dismissive labels imposed on it by earlier scholars, beginning with Charlotte's disparaging comments in her preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Charlotte claims that Anne had made a poor choice of subject in her second novel:
She had, in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was a naturally sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind: it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course, with fictitious characters, incidents and situations), as a warning to others. (qtd in Andrews 27)
This critical attitude has been perpetuated in our own century by such critics as Winifred Gérin and Margaret Lane, the latter of whom in The Drug-Like Brontë Dream (1952) patronizingly designates Anne "as 'a Brontë without genius,' but as one who certainly had her share of the Brontë temperament" (31). For her own part, Gérin makes the unconvincing argument that the didactic nature of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall precludes it from having literary merit: "It was written too obviously as a work of propaganda, a treatise against drunkenness, to be considered a work of art" (Gérin 39). This sort of argument has proven damaging to the text because it discourages the critical reader from investigating the novel on anything more than a superficial level.
However, although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has received a significant amount of critical censure, it has also gained attention for its surprising radicalism. Contemporary critics have demonstrated an ability to overcome the traditional prejudices that have prevented deeper investigations of the novel in the past and have subsequently discovered in it a number of subversively modern ideas. In "'Imbecile Laughter' and 'Desperate Earnest' in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" (1982), Juliet McMaster rejects the notion that she should try to defend Brontë's novel rather than simply investigate it: "I proceed on the assumption that The Tenant is a fine and important Victorian novel that deserves serious critical attention as a work of fiction, and apart from biographical considerations" (352). From this critical position, McMaster is able to concentrate on how the structural and thematic pattern of the story-within-a-story "is supported at the dramatic level by the vivid delineation of irresponsible laughter and moral seriousness in the sayings and doings of characters" (368). In effect, the critic argues that Brontë demonstrates an awareness not only of the dangers of dissolution and profligacy or of the moral standards that differentiated the Regency and Victorian periods, but by associating these different standards with her characters she shows her acute (and remarkably contemporary) understanding of the inequitable distributions of social power to men and women in the nineteenth century.
In "The Question of Credibility in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" (1982), Arlene M. Jackson acknowledges that Bronte's writing lacks the qualities which have made Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights canonical texts, but implies that this should not prevent critics from appreciating the important contribution of a novel like Tenant: "Without the searing intensity of Charlotte or the dramatic inventiveness of Emily . . . Anne demonstrates through her writing that she has a conscious, perceptive control of her fictional materials. This control gives Anne Bronte a claim to artistic merit in her own right" (198). Jackson recognizes that the often brutal realism of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has a way of exploding Victorian myths about gender roles in "revealing a marital discord full of suffering, agony, and even ugliness" (200). Thus, like McMaster, Jackson understands the novel's uniqueness in the way it asks bold questions about the power structures that define sexual relationships during the Victorian period:
Anne Brontë also answers a question that other novels of her time do not ask: what happens to a marriage and to the innocent partner when one partner (specifically, the male) leads a solipsistic life, where personal pleasures are seen as deserved, where maleness and the role of husband is tied to the freedom to do as one wants, and femaleness and the role of wife is linked to providing service and pleasure not necessarily sexual, but including daily praise and ego-boosting and, quite simply, constant attention. (203)
Although she acknowledges Anne's limitations as a writer in the opening paragraph of her article, Jackson is able to set these aside and concentrate on specific gender issues in the novel that are deserving of elucidation and critical commentary.
It is precisely this sort of attitude that contemporary critics have adopted in order to give Anne's second novel its due.
Andrews, Linton. "A Challenge by Anne Bronte." Brontë Society Transactions 14:5 (1965): 25-30.
Gérin, Winifred L. The Brontës: II. The Creative Work. Ed. Ian Scott Kilvert. Burnt Mill: Longman, 1974.
Jackson, Arlene M. "The Question of Credibility in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall." English Studies 63:3 (1982): 198-206.
Lane, Margaret. The Drug-Like Brontë Dream. 1952. London: Murray, 1980.
McMaster, Juliet. "'Imbecile Laughter' and 'Desperate Earnest' in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall." Modern Language Quarterly 43:4 (1982), 352-68.
last modified 17 March 2000