Over a short period in the 1840s, the three Brontë sisters working in a remote English parsonage produced some of the best-loved and most-enduring of all novels: Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a book that created a scandal when it was published in 1884 under the pseudonym Action Bell. Compelling in its imaginative power and bold naturalism, the novel opens in the autumn of 1827, when a mysterious woman who calls herself Helen Graham seeks refuge at the deso-late moorland mansion of Wildfell Hall. Bronte's enigmatic heroine becomes the object of gossip and jealousy as neighbors learn she is escaping from an abusive marriage and living under an assumed name. A daring story that exposed the dark brutality of Victorian chauvinism, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was nevertheless attacked by some critics as a celebration of the same excesses it criticized. 'Every reader who has felt the power of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights comes, sooner or later, to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,' observed Bronte scholar Margaret Lane.
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June 30, 2004
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Excerpt from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronta
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 sideboard, that shone like polished ebony in the cheerful parlour twilight.