Tuesday 16 June 2020

TV Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996)

I’m a huge lover of all things related to the Brontes. In fact, my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which comes out in under two months (!), prominently features several members of literature’s most famous family. However, somehow it still took a pandemic in the year of Anne Bronte’s bicentenary to make me wonder if either of her novels had been adapted for film.

Turning to IMBD, I discovered that Anne, the youngest of the three novel-writing sisters, had been overlooked on the big screen, as much as elsewhere. There are a slew of adaptations of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights, but Anne’s Agnes Grey and Charlotte’s other novels have yet to been given the Hollywood treatment. There is just one lone TV adaptation of Anne’s second, more controversial, novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This was made by the BBC in 1996. Thankfully for those of us in quarantine, it’s currently available via Amazon Prime Video.

The miniseries, which is three episodes long, was directed by Mike Barker and stars Tara Fitzgerald as runaway wife Helen Graham, Rupert Graves as her abusive husband, and Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham, the farmer who falls for the mysterious “widow” renting nearby mansion Wildfell Hall.

I was initially sceptical about how the book would translate to film, comprised as the novel is of letters and a diary but, reader, I loved it.

There are minor plot alterations, especially related to the more streamlined cast of secondary characters, but the TV adaptation remains true to the spirit of Anne’s novel. We are closer to Gilbert’s perspective in the first and third episodes, but, when he is handed Helen’s diary, it is her voice that details her unhappy marriage.

The adaptation also does a great job of editing down some of Anne’s most didactic passages, leaving us with the best of Helen as she begs her husband to prepare for heaven, or argues that boys should be protected from vice as much as girls, directly calling out gendered double standards in Victorian childrearing.

I especially enjoyed the shots of the Yorkshire landscape and the original soundtrack (composed by Richard G. Mitchell). The Tenant of Wildfell Hall certainly has its dramatic moments but, as in Agnes Grey, Anne favours a quieter romance, and the music and setting enhanced this. Charlotte found her youngest sister’s second novel shocking because of its depictions of alcoholism and debauchery, but today we might look at the book as a heart-warming second chance romance.

If you’re a lover of costume dramas, consider checking out this lesser known adaptation. I hope that eventually Anne’s Agnes Grey makes it onto our screens (and Bronte’s Mistress, of course!).

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  1. Great review! This book is so underrated, and Anne had the misfortune to be born into a family with two geniuses or surely she would have gotten more attention.

  2. Thank you, Kiri! Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. There is just one lone TV adaptation of Anne’s second, more controversial, novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

    Actually, there are two television miniseries adaptations of "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall". The first one aired back in 1968. However, I can only find the 1996 version.

    1. Interesting! Let me know if you manage to track it down. :)