This book is basically presented in three unofficial "parts"-- the first third of the book is written as a letter from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law, the second third is the diary of a woman introduced in the first part, and the third third (hehe) is back to the letter by Markham. I thought it was a clever way to present the story, but have to admit that I thought the middle part was the easiest to read; perhaps because, presented in the voice of a woman, it was the most naturally written by Bronte.
The story is yet another love story (I apparently chose several 19th century English love stories... and I'm not hating it.) It begins with Mr. Markham's acquaintance with Mrs. Graham, the tenant of the abandoned Wildfell Hall. No one knows anything about her, and she is largely desirous to leave it that way; she does eventually open up to Markham as their relationship develops. The story that everyone believes when she moves to town is that she is a widow; you early on discover that this is not the case-- her husband is very much alive, and she has left him, taking their young son Arthur with her. Her real name is Helen Huntington, and she has assumed her mother's maiden name and kept her whereabouts secret in order to remain out of her husband's sight.
Eventually, a jealous former love interest of Markham's starts a rumor that Mrs. Graham's landlord is in fact the father of her child (when he is actually her brother, but no one knows that) and the increasing gossip forces Mrs. Graham (Huntington) to decide to leave. She gives Markham her diary in an effort to explain everything to him, imploring him to come back the next day.
The diary (the second third of the book) explains how she came to be Mrs. Huntington, despite the warnings of a few friends and her aunt who suggest that Mr. Huntington has a reputation for being a bit of a scoundrel. A year into their marriage, son Arthur has been born and Helen is realizing that people may have been right about her husband. He leaves for months at a time, comes home in bad shape physically and mentally, and has a tendency to be emotionally abusive toward his wife. Over several years, he develops a serious problem with alcohol and begins an affair with the wife of a close friend; when the affair is discovered by Helen, she does almost nothing, only declaring to her husband that he is free to do as he wishes, she doesn't love him anymore, she is only staying in his home for the sake of their son. However, when the husband of his mistress finds out about the affair two years later, the affair is ended, and Mr. Huntington leaves to spend several months in London. When he returns, he informs his wife that he has hired a governess for their son-- it is, in fact, his new mistress. This is the final straw for Helen, and with the help of her servant Rachel, she flees the home with Rachel and Arthur, moving in to the empty home formerly owned by her estranged and now deceased father, now owned by her brother, Frederick Lawrence.
The last third of the book returns to the present-- Markham has finished with the diary and returns it to Helen. He now realizes why she has refused his romantic advances, despite her love for him, and sees why she says she cannot marry anyone. She promises to send him a letter in six months, but tells him not to contact her until that time, and after a few weeks pass she leaves.
I won't give away the ending, but I was satisfied with the turn-out, I will give you that much. Another really good story by another Bronte sister.
I found her writing style to be slightly drier than that of her sisters, and a little more rambling in her descriptions; however, this being a pretty common writing "style" of the time, I don't hold it against her.
It's funny to me, however, that the book starts with an introduction by Bronte, in answer to the critics of the first edition of "Tenant"... apparently it was considered a pretty scandalous book at the time. Writing about drinking, affairs, and a wife leaving her husband was considered pretty incendiary, I suppose. It's just strange to think of now, when if a woman was subjected to the things Helen Huntington was subjected to by her husband, the general public would think her an idiot NOT to leave and take her son with her, and the law would very likely be on her side. I'm not generally very feministic in my views, but the difference between a woman's rights in the 19th century and now makes me want to high five all the key players in the Women's Rights movement (of which I wrote a lengthy research paper in 11th grade.)
And because this nice weather lends itself beautifully to sitting on my deck while my kids nap, reading and ignoring my housework, I will be writing a blog very shortly on my next book, "The Scarlet Letter." Likely in owl-print fleece pajama capris and a dirty t-shirt, since I'm actively avoiding doing the laundry.