Since the new Jane Eyre movie just came out, it seems like as good a time as any to take a look at the Brontë sisters. I don't feel prepared to comment on Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre at the moment, not because I haven't read it a hundred times, which I have, but because I haven't read it recently. It's on my to-read stack at present, and a post on that can wait.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written by Anne Brontë, the youngest of the six Brontë children. It's an interesting book for a variety of reasons, not least because it stands in great contrast to the two other most famous Brontë works (Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights); while Anne indulged in a fair amount of melodrama, just like her sisters, Wildfell Hall is a much more realistic story. The wild-eyed frothing moor-beasts* of Wuthering Heights are nowhere to be found, and there are no madwomen confined in attics. There's an alcoholic husband, an assault, and some pretty sordid affairs, but overall the subject matter is tame compared to Anne's sisters' most famous works.
Perhaps due partly to the fact that the heroine of Wildfell Hall was written as a relatively normal person, rather than a psychopath or sociopath (Catherine Earnshaw Linton and Catherine Linton Earnshaw respectively, yes, you read that right**, of Wuthering Heights) or as an eccentric (the eponymous Jane Eyre), she's become something of a feminist literary icon. While Jane Eyre and the two Catherines are all a bit too strange to be viewed through the lens of normal psychology, Wildfell Hall's heroine is sane enough that her actions, whether socially acceptable or not, can be interpreted as being carried out by a person who at least knows and cares what society expects of a normal individual.
The book begins when a mysterious widow with a young son moves to a small village and slowly becomes friends with a local almost-gentleman farmer. The widow, it transpires, is not a widow at all, but instead the runaway wife of one of the most one-dimensionally unappealing men in the history of literature. He drinks, curses, gambles, lies, gets fat, sleeps with the governess, abuses his wife, sleeps with his friend's wife, drinks some more, feeds liquor to his toddler son, curses, gets more fat, drinks a great deal more, and finally becomes really unpleasant.
Feminist critics love the fact that it was considered a somewhat shocking turn when this man's wife eventually up and left him. Many critical mills have been gristed with Wildfell Hall, and some of the essays and books produced are actually interesting, believe it or not. From a critical perspective, the way the heroine deals with her husband and then deals with leaving him is the most interesting part of the book.
From the perspective of the casual reader, the novel's both smoothly written and entertaining. Some may find the characters not to their taste; there's a good point to be made that with the exception of the hero's younger brother there's not one really likable character in the whole book. With that said: Wildfell Hall easily earns three and a half stars overall. There are weaknesses to be found, but they don't outweigh the pleasures.
* The protagonists.
** Wuthering Heights is a copyeditor's worst nightmare. Heathcliff (who, like Madonna, needs only one name to express the power of his awesome) loves Catherine Earnshaw Linton; instead, he marries Catherine's sister-in-law, who is then Isabella Linton Heathcliff, and they produce a son, Linton Heathcliff. Catherine Earnshaw Linton's daughter Catherine Linton eventually marries Hareton Earnshaw, thus becoming Catherine Linton Earnshaw; Hindley Earnshaw is by this time long dead, but his initials, confusingly, live on.