Having watched the recent television play about the Bronte family, I decided to read "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall", by Anne Bronte.
Anne was the youngest and least-known of the three Bronte sisters. She died of tuberculosis at the age of just 28, but during her tragically short life she wrote two novels; completing this, her second, shortly before her death in 1849. At the time it was considered rather shocking.
The story is set back in the flamboyant, amoral age of George IV, twenty years before the time it was written. The "tenant" of the title is a mysterious and reclusive lady, apparently a widow, who has rented a tumbledown house in desolate moorland. It turns out she has run away from her abusive husband, and is concealing her identity for fear that he should take away their infant son, whom she has brought with her. Most of the book is her account of an unhappy marriage.
Her husband, Mr Huntingdon, is nothing like those other memorable Bronte men, Heathcliff and Mr Rochester. Instead he is portrayed as essentially a very weak character; unable to resist the temptations of alcohol and gambling, responding with childish petulance to any setbacks, and forever criticizing his wife and shouting at the servants. Easily bored with country life, he disappears to London for weeks at a time (presumably for a dissipated life of booze, cards and women, though Anne does not tell us), or invites his dissolute friends to stay at his house, despite his wife's disapproval of them. At the same time, we can understand why he gets irritated with her, because she is very "preachy" at times: I'm not sure whether Anne intended to give this impression.
The structure of the novel is a bit clumsy (at a crucial point of the story three important male characters all have surnames beginning with "H", which is confusing!) and the ending is too sentimental, but even so it's an impressive achievement for such a young writer. One has to wonder, though, how on earth the Bronte sisters - maidenly daughters of the parsonage - ever conceived of such remarkable male characters!