Monday, May 13, 2013

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant at Wildfell HallDear Halford, When were together last, you gave me a very particular and interesting account of the most remarkable occurrences of your early life, previous to our acquaintance and then you requested a return of confidence from me.

Like The Professor, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins with a letter, though the subject of the story is very different. "When the mysterious and beautiful young widow Helen Graham becomes the new tenant at Wildfell Hall, rumours immediately begin to swirl around her. As her neighbour Gilbert Markham comes to discover, Helen has painful secrets buried in her past that even his love for her cannot easily overcome. Her marriage to a dissolute, unfaithful, and cruel husband is chronicled in her diary and leads to the drastic measures she took to escape from him." According to the back of the copy I read, Anne's more famous sister Charlotte feared that it was "an entire mistake" to write this book, which deals with some controversial issues at the time and defends a woman's right to flee a disastrous marriage. 

I didn't love Agnes Grey, but I loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after about 100 pages. It was definitely an interesting book. It was much more meaningful than The Professor; the issues that it talked about were probably really pressing at the time that it was written, and still are to some extent. It was also really entertaining, and Gilbert Markham's conflicted feelings were shown so well. I found Agnes Grey to be rather dull, but The Tenant of Wildfell was not. Nothing too thrilling happens, yet the reader is absorbed by this novel. 

In some ways, I may even have liked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall more than Jane Eyre. It was somehow more moving and immediate to the modern reader. Some parts were a bit cringe-worthy (Helen Graham's over-the-top piety, for example), but at the time, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a very bold book. I feel like it gripped me more than Jane Eyre. Jane was a compelling character, but Helen is more so. The reader admires her for determination to be free. There was a great review on Goodreads by Elizabeth. Here's part of her review that I think really captures one of the great elements of this novel: "The book has a dual narrative and this theme is in both parts, both in Helen's journal and Gilbert Markham's letters. In the former, Bronte presents the extreme case of wantonness, vice, dissipation, and domestic cruelty. In the latter, the subtle examples come out: country gossip, small minds, spiteful old ladies, catty rivals for men's affections. It's delicious. " That's exactly it. We get to see all these not-so-appealing things, but the portrait of it is painted so, so well. I found everything about this novel really well-done: the writing, the characterization and the plot. It's so finely crafted.

One thing that I noticed was really interesting is that in many fairy tales, and also in Austen's novels, the heroine seeks to change a man, to teach him to be better, and to reform him. Which is probably really unrealistic; I don't think a person can be changed quite that easily. At any rate, Helen tries to do that, and it results in disaster. The Bronte sisters generally paint a more realistic - if more bleak - portrait of humanity. Sometimes they can be a bit over the top, but I absolutely loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; it was an amazing book, definitely a must-read. It was much more thought-provoking and entertaining than The Professor. I kind of picked this up on a whim, and I'm really, really glad that I did. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an excellent Bronte novel, definitely a favorite. 

Read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:
  • if you like Anne Bronte 
  • if you like the Bronte sisters
  • if you like British literature
429 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

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