(Rating: 4 stars out of 5)
When I first read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, during my tear through all the Bronte novels in existence, I ultimately deemed it my second-favorite, after Jane Eyre (and just before either Shirley or Wuthering Heights--I need to re-read those to remember and decide anew). But this time through I found myself irked by a couple of things. One was the meandering, hitting-you-over-the-head-with-moral-ins
Then again, that was Victorian England for you. And that was the exact reason Helen couldn't easily get rid of her abusive husband, or let herself indulge in a love on the side. So, without the piety, there wouldn't be much plot. Even so, I can't help being annoyed by it, because Anne Bronte seems to be defending the virtues of such a system even while showing what massive problems it holds. I for one would hate living in a society like that. (Except for the pretty dresses. And the servants to help with meals and child-rearing and stuff.)
All that said, I did find myself sucked into the story and wanting to keep reading it, which is my basic and most important test of the quality of a novel. And though some find Gilbert Markham vapid or irrelevant, count me among those who really, really like him. He's a perfect balance between the monstrous hedonism of hubby Arthur and the severe piety of Helen--he's passionate but responsible, with the capacity for fun. I don't think my liking is just because the divine Toby Stephens played him in the miniseries, but you can never be too sure. (Doesn't hurt that the also-divine Rupert Graves played Arthur. I'm willing to overlook a lot of plot changes for the eye candy in that one.)
Anyway. Maybe this book deserves five stars, not four. Hell, we'll compromise. Four and a half. Er, sorry, Miss Bronte; I meant "h---."