Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a book ahead of its time. Published in 1848, the story of a young woman fleeing an abusive marriage and asserting her own independence is rightly considered to be a feminist classic, yet remains curiously underrated.
“I absolutely love it,” says author Sam Baker whose latest book The Woman Who Ran is a gripping contemporary re-imagining.
“It is my favourite Brontë novel by a long way and it has always surprised me that it hasn’t had as much attention as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.”
The Woman Who Ran has deservedly won much praise since its publication in January – it is pacy, compelling, haunting – and while Baker emphasises it is not a rewrite of the youngest Brontë sister’s second novel, she has cleverly updated the narrative while retaining the original’s powerful central theme of a woman in crisis determined to take charge of her own destiny.
“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a jumping off point,” she says. “I re-read it and it really has stood the test of time. I looked at aspects of the novel that were still relevant today, what has changed about the social and economic status of women and what hasn’t.”
The facts are sobering – we happen to speak on the day that Labour MP Jess Phillips stands up in the Commons to read out the names of the 120 murdered women who were victims of domestic violence in the UK in the past year. “I had done a lot of research on abusive relationships over the course of my career as a journalist,” says Baker who was a magazine editor for 15 years, including six years as editor in chief of Red magazine. “So I had a lot of material to draw on.”
Baker’s protagonist is Helen Graham who arrives in a small Yorkshire village on the edge of the Dales to rent a dilapidated Elizabethan mansion that has been empty for years. While the locals gossip about who she is and why she is there, Helen is befriended by recently retired journalist Gil, former news editor of an esteemed regional newspaper. He becomes intrigued by Helen whose migraines and blackouts, memory loss and anxiety attacks all point to a traumatic episode in her mysterious past. In fact, Helen is an acclaimed war photographer with a reputation for fearlessness; she is no stranger to combat zones – including, it turns out, in her personal life. “It is only recently that people have started to talk about PTSD in terms of scenarios other than war experiences,” she says. “Living under the constant threat of violence or emotional abuse can have the same effect.”
Helen has intermittent memories of waking up choking in a smoke-filled flat in Paris, crawling away from the flames and past a dead body on the floor. When Gil discovers who she is and that her foreign correspondent husband is missing, he senses he could be on to a good story, but also that Helen might well be in danger…
And so the tension begins to mount as the twisting plot of this thought-provoking psychological thriller races inexorably towards its nail-biting conclusion.
The Woman Who Ran, £7.99, is published by HarperCollins.