Brontë’s writing talent has long been overshadowed by that of her older sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Although their work was romantic, even gothic, Brontë favored realism in her novels, anticipating the shift in taste that occurred during the nineteenth century. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a bestseller in its time, famous for its controversial depictions of oppressive and unhappy marriages as well as the heroine’s courageous effort to free herself. Brontë’s sisters did not approve of her stories, especially Charlotte, who survived all of her siblings and was executor of Brontë’s literary estate. This alone may be the reason The Tenant of Wildfell Hall went out of print and faded from the minds of the reading public.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in 1848, just one year before Brontë died. She published her works under the pseudonym Acton Bell, and many assumed she was a man. An anonymous critic for the Spectator, in 1848, describes Brontë’s subject as “offensive” and her writing as rough: “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall . . . suggests the idea of considerable abilities ill applied.” The following month, a reviewer for the Literary World writes more favorably of Brontë’s novel, although this person mistakenly attributes Wuthering Heights to Acton Bell. The critic describes the two novels as “crude though powerful productions” and goes on to criticize Brontë’s depiction of Huntington, Markham, and other characters as unrealistic. Nonetheless, the review affirms Brontë’s talent: “[i]t is the writer’s genius which makes his incongruities appear natural.” Interestingly, the reviewer also comments on the favorable reception these two novels have received, despite critical condemnation. The reviewer suspects the author to be a “gifted” woman.
Brontë responded to her critics in the second edition preface of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:
My object in writing the following pages, was not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.
She also deflects the question about her sex, stating, “I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be.” This opinion was fairly radical in a time when works produced by women were more leniently judged than those produced by men. The likelihood of not being taken seriously was a reason for adopting a sexually ambiguous pen name.
Just over fifty years later, critics of the twentieth century also gave The Tenant of Wildfell Hall mixed reviews. A reviewer for the New York Times considers it “far from unattractive as a story, and full of moral energy and strong ethical purpose.” But Walter Frewen Lord, writing for the Nineteenth Century in 1903 is disturbed by the casual manner with which the characters dismiss their own brutality toward each other. For instance, Gilbert Markham strikes Mr. Lawrence with a riding crop, nearly killing him, and Mr. Hattersley...
(The entire section is 762 words.)