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REVIEW:  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

REVIEW: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

tenantI’ve been making my way through the Bronte sisters’ oeuvre for the past couple of years; for the longest time I’d only read Jane Eyre (in school, originally). Then I dove into the big bowl of crazy that was Wuthering Heights, before taking the suggestion of readers that Anne’s quiet realism was an antidote to Emily’s lurid and twisted imagination, and picking up Agnes Grey.That book was just alright in my view; it wasn’t bad but the first person narrator was kind of dull and sanctimonious. Still, I again listened to readers who said that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a good deal better than Agnes Grey, and decided to continue the great Bronte experiment with this book. I’m glad I did.

The novel begins with a framing device (those Brontes loved their framing devices!): Gilbert Markham writes his friend about the mysterious widow who has moved into the neighborhood with her young son. Helen Graham paints and resists attempts from her neighbors to know her better. Despite her standoffish attitude, she and Gilbert form an attachment; Gilbert also becomes a friend to her young son Arthur. Rumors fly about Helen, spread by a spurned love interest of Gilbert’s. He finds himself torn by jealousy and frustration; Helen won’t let him court her and resists his romantic advances. When he accuses her of loving another man, Helen gives Gilbert her diaries, which explain the truth of her circumstances. Most of the rest of the story is then told by Helen, as narrated in those diaries.

The truth is that Helen isn’t a widow at all; she has fled her profligate husband and is essentially in hiding with her son. The diaries trace her early infatuation with Arthur Huntingdon, a handsome and witty man whom her aunt cautions her against (Helen was raised by her aunt and uncle). Despite her aunt’s warnings, Helen much prefers the charismatic Huntingdon to her other dull suitors. She knows that he has bad habits and is not as devout as she is (and that’s putting it mildly), but she thinks she can reform him. (A sentiment that is no doubt familiar to female readers since time immemorial.)

As her diaries go on to show, Helen’s living in Delusionville, and the Truth Train’s about to choo choo on through. Not only is Huntingdon reform-proof, he actually gets worse over time. Both his increased drinking and the birth of his son (of whom he’s alternately jealous and ruinously over-indulgent) serve to blacken Huntingdon’s already tarnished character. His low point comes when he carries on an affair at a house party the Huntingdons hold, more or less right in front of Helen and the woman’s browbeaten husband. Huntingdon is definitely the type of character whose bad behavior builds upon itself. It’s almost like the worse he acts, the worse he feels like he has to act, in order to top himself.

Certain aspects of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall really were a bit shocking to me, or rather they were shocking coming from a 19th century novel written by a woman. The depiction of Huntingdon’s affair, while exceedingly tame by today’s standards, felt unusually frank for a book published in 1848. The book is considered by some readers to be an early example of a feminist novel; it was condemned by many at the time it was published for its alleged “coarseness.” I’m at a loss, though, as to how any reader could believe that the depiction of debauchery in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall amounts in any way to an endorsement of said debauchery.

My view is that the main moral intention of the novel was to show young women the dangers of marrying impetuously (it’s a theme Bronte returns to several times, as when Helen counsels friends about their own romantic travails). As such, I can see it being received badly; mostly male critics would not like the implied criticism of their bad habits. It’s not stated explicitly but it’s nonetheless made quite clear just how powerless Helen is in her marriage; her first attempt to gather a nest egg and flee Arthur on her own is found out and brutally quashed. She eventually has to enlist the aid of her brother, which just drives home the point that women of the era were helpless without some sort of male sponsorship.

Helen is indeed admirable as a feminist heroine. She reminds me a bit of Jane in Jane Eyre; she has a sense of self and of morality that is inviolable. She commits the scandalous act of actually fleeing her husband, something readers today will not judge her for, but I’m guessing some readers did when the book was published. (She does it mostly to save her son from becoming a wastrel like his father, but still.)

Huntington is undoubtedly a villain, but he has some dimension. The structure of the novel doesn’t really allow for much of an understanding of why he is the way he is, but he presents as a spoiled child who has always had sufficient charm, looks and money to get what he wants, and who has never had to grow up and learn to focus on someone other than himself. At least in Helen’s view, he just doesn’t seem to want very much to be good; he can’t be bothered. Her goodness seems to irritate him, perhaps pricking at the tiny bit of conscience he has left.

Later in the book, it becomes clear that Huntingdon is an alcoholic, as well as given to other vices (possibly opium, definitely overeating and womanizing). Still, it’s hard not to feel a bit of pity for him in the end, on his deathbed (uh, sorry, spoiler, I guess) – he is terrified of dying but won’t accept the comfort that Helen offers by repenting his sins.

(Incidentally, it’s thought that the character of Huntingdon was based on Branwell Bronte, the Bronte sisters’ only brother. Branwell was a dissolute who died at 31, probably of tuberculosis exacerbated by his drinking problem.)

To the degree that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall works as a romance, one big sticking point is the hero – Gilbert. He’s better than Huntingdon, sure, but he’s not great. Markham comes off in his own first-person account as childish, petulant and given to lashing out (he attacks Helen’s brother at one point, thinking him her lover, and when he realizes the truth, his apology is insufficient and sullenly given, IMO – especially considering that he actually does real injury to Lawrence). It was hard to see what Helen saw in him, except that he wasn’t Huntingtdon.

Helen herself is most interesting as a character early in her own writings, when she is first drawn to Huntingdon. She’s a good person, but young enough to be somewhat foolish. She convinces herself that she can reform the bad boy because she wants the bad boy; he’s so much more interesting than her other uninspiring marital options. By late in her marriage, she’s developed a pious streak that can be a tiny bit off-putting. Still, her saintliness is never too irritating (even when it defies belief) because it lacks the martyrish aspect that is so present in many a goody-goody heroine. Furthermore, she’s not naive (at least not after a few months of marriage to Huntingdon); she’s just extremely firm (to the point of stubbornness) in her beliefs.

So, my grade for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a B+. What next? I think I still have Villette,  Shirley and The Professor, all by Charlotte, to go in my Bronte-a-thon.

Jennie

 

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Exclusive: Historical Hookups by Jennifer Haymore

Exclusive: Historical Hookups by Jennifer Haymore

In celebration of historical releases from Forever, they set up a group blog tour of their authors.  The task for the author was to create a 500-600 word short based on the criteria set out by the author’s fans.  We published Eileen Dreyer’s piece last time and requested Jennifer Haymore for this go around.

HaymoreJennifer

Her short had to include the following elements:

  • Hair color - Reddish-brown hair, the color of mahogany
  • Social status - Dishonored heiress
  • Family situation - It’s complicated
  • Hero’s archétype  - Rake
  • Scene takes place in - The cloakroom

***

 

Original Pieces Graphic

 

Garrett Wayland slipped into the coatroom behind her. Concealing himself between a glossy ermine cloak and a woolen overcoat that smelled of wet cat, he watched as she sat on the floor, propped her diary on her knees, and began to write.

Alicia Stratton.

Her beauty twisted his gut. The meager light danced over her thick mahogany hair, enhancing endless shades of red, gold, and brown. A furrow dug between her brows as she chewed on the top of her pencil, a gesture he found exceedingly charming. The curve of her bosom, clad in ivory silk, contrasted against the darkness of the wall behind her, making his skin prickle with the urge to touch her.

It had been over a month since he’d been this close to her. He’d thought to protect her by staying away, but that had been a mistake.

He stepped forward, clearing his throat softly. “Miss Stratton.”

She glanced up, unsurprised, as if encountering him in an abandoned cloakroom in the middle of a theatrical performance was the most natural thing in the world. She inclined her head in greeting. “Mr. Wayland.”

“I see you’ve given up on The Man Hater. In the middle of act two, no less. And you chose the cloakroom as your escape.” He glanced around the tiny room, lit only by a lamp on its lowest setting on the miniature desk at the entrance, and crowded with hanging cloaks, coats, capes, and various other coverings.

Her lips twisted. “It is a most comfortable cloakroom. Far more comfortable than my father’s box.”

He understood. Even from across the theater, the tension had prickled across his skin. People had looked down their noses at her, cutting her. It had infuriated him.

Tonight was her first public appearance in the six weeks following the Stratton Family Scandals. Her father had come through unscathed, despite being caught in bed by his third wife with three mistresses and having an unprecedented three CrimCon proceedings filed against him by three cuckolded husbands.

Alicia, however, was not so fortunate. The vultures at Almack’s had caught her in a lip-lock with a man—Garrett, to be specific—and her reputation had been shredded. It hadn’t been their first kiss; it had been their calamitous kiss. Not necessarily for Garrett, but what the ton saw as a bit of sport for a rake like him meant dishonor and disaster to Alicia. He had watched in growing disgust as society had swooped in and attempted to peck away her spirit.

It hadn’t succeeded.

“You’re not a man-hater, then?” he asked, half in jest.

She shrugged. “I am told I should be.”

“By whom?”

“My stepmother. She assures me that none of you are to be trusted.”

“Do you agree?”

Gripping her diary in one hand, Alicia rose gracefully to her feet. “Should I?”

Truthfully, he’d never given any woman a reason to trust him. But damned if he didn’t want this one to trust him. Damned if he didn’t want to give her a reason. A hundred reasons.

Loyalty…devotion…honor…love. All alien ideas to him. But as she stepped closer, he breathed in her rosewater-tinged femininity and those concepts swam within him, circling like sharks until he was sure they’d devour him.

Crazily, he wanted to be devoured.

“Can you be trusted, Mr. Wayland?” She gazed up at him with golden-flecked brown eyes that peeled away the rakish skin that had protected him for so long and exposed the man underneath.

The man who was in love with her.

“Yes. I can be trusted.” The words emerged in a low rasp.

She opened her diary and held it out to him. The page contained three sentences:

 I saw him in his box tonight.

I wonder if he’ll follow me to the cloakroom.

I hope he does.

The diary slipped from her fingers and landed on the floor with a soft thud. She wrapped her arms around his neck, brought his mouth down to hers, and her fresh taste burst over his lips. Soft but insistent, sweet but erotic, a challenge and a surrender. The kiss altered his universe. It settled all those odd and confusing concepts prowling about within him, and he found peace.

It was time—past time—he did what was right. Not only because honor compelled him. But this was what he wanted. What he needed. Beyond any desire or need he’d ever experienced in his meaningless existence.

Alicia brought him meaning. She brought him clarity. She’d become everything to him.

When the kiss ended, he stood there, his body and mind reeling, his eyes squeezed shut. Then he whispered, his voice hoarse with emotion, “Marry me, Alicia.”

He opened his eyes.

But she…and her diary…were gone.

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