Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Book Book of 2014 - Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Published by: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1848
Format: Hardcover, 486 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Wildfell Hall has a new resident. A mysterious widow and her young son who want nothing to do with the outside world. The outside world disagrees. The nosey neighbors must know everything they can about the mysterious Mrs. Graham. Young Gilbert Markham wants to know everything but for a very different reason, he is inexorably drawn to the young widow and cannot understand why she remains aloof and detached, craving solitude over companionship and love. Gilbert Markham's attentions to the young widow do not go unnoticed by others and leads his spurned ex, Eliza Millward, to spread malicious gossip throughout the small community about the widow. The whispers combined with Helen Graham's feelings for Gilbert lead her to make a decision she might regret. She decides she must disclose her past so that he can move on and realize their love is doomed, and not just because her husband isn't dead, but because he doesn't really know who she is. To that extent she gives him her diaries. All her inner feelings and thoughts and all her secrets bound forever between the pages of a book.

Mrs. Helen Graham is really Mrs. Helen Huntington, the wife of a cruel man who has more vices than she could enumerate and surrounds himself with the worst of humanity at their home, Grassdale. Though their marriage wasn't destined to debauchery. At first Arthur Huntingdon was witty and pretty and Helen in her naivete thought she could reform this bad boy. At the birth of their son though things changed. Arthur didn't like his son and heir getting all of Helen's attention and set out to form the boy in his own image. Helen fled her husband because he was trying to imprint their your son with his own dubious morals. She could have suffered anything if it was just herself that was the target of Huntington's malice, she stubbornly married him after all, but their son is another matter. Her brother helped her escape the life she trapped herself in only to find herself wanting that which she can not have due to her circumstances. But after years of feeling hunted in her own home can she remake her life? Is freedom enough without Gilbert Markham? Or will her old life haunt her until she or Huntington is dead?

Sometimes I am a very contrary person, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a case in point. Instead of reading the book before watching the miniseries I decided to watch the miniseries first which then put me off the book. I know, it has Toby Stephens and James Purefoy in it so how could it be bad? But I watched it prior to Sherlock partially redeeming Rupert Graves in my eyes and my hate of Rupert Graves has been a long standing issue. My hate is also a hard thing to put my finger on, was it The Forsyte Saga or Take a Girl Like You, both where he played cheating cads, that made me want to forever punch him in the face? I think I might never know. Putting the Rupert rant behind us my steadfast rule of reading the book prior to watching any adaptation for some reasons is exempt when it has to do with the Brontes. I had seen so many adaptations of their books prior to ever picking one up that they are grandfathered into my weird reading habits with this clause. Yet I still question how this adaptation failed with that cast! It was dull and lifeless and I remember barely being able to finish it and this from a girl who finished the Jane Eyre adaptation with Ciaran Hinds. PS I hate Ciaran Hinds more than I've ever hated Rupert Graves.

The miniseries turned me off the book and because of this the book languished for years waiting for the time when I would pick it up and love it. I seriously can not think of any reasonable excuse why it took me this long to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I was under so many misconceptions about this book that I should have just trusted my gut which tells me that Anne Bronte is awesome. I am serious when I say that I think Anne might just be my favorite Bronte. This isn't just me rooting for the underdog, though she is the least embraced of the sisters, this is totally to do with how awesome her books are. Let me brake it down for you. Charlotte is the most famous, I mean, Jane Eyre, while Emily is the one the more malcontent readers are drawn to with her sole writing credit, Wuthering Heights, and that leaves Anne kind of stuck in the middle with her two books, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey. And I call foul! To all the readers and especially English teachers out there the world over who gravitate towards the two ends of the Bronte spectrum and fail to educate others that Anne is the best of both worlds! She has the darkness of Emily with the narrative structure of Charlotte. I think I need to form an Anne support group...

But what's so interesting about Anne is that in her work she is in some ways responding to her own siblings as people and writers. Anne's desire for "truth" in this novel comes from a desire to counter the pro bad boy image her sisters had created in their works. But there's a deeper part of me that wonders if she's not just messing with Charlotte and Emily a little. Who, given the chance, wouldn't try to mess with their siblings a little? Her sisters did everything to make this bad boy redeemable by love trope and then in comes Anne and blasts them out of the water. Huntington is a bad boy to equal Heathcliff and Rochester, but love is unable to sway him. He even wants to corrupt his own child! The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an opus to the irredeemable. I can just picture the sisters sitting around their fireplace on a cold night in Haworth talking about their dream men and Anne just looking askance at them and plotting how to prove them wrong, preferably in three volumes, she was, after all, a silent plotter. I don't think anyone has ever summed this up better than Kate Beaton in her "Hark, a Vagrant" comic, "Dude Watchin' with The Brontes," so I won't attempt to and move onto other things. Though I will mention I have this piece framed in my library I love it so much.

Moving on... What I find amazing in this book, and in fact all the work by the Brontes, is how they were able to capture an entire outside world while living their cloistered lives and put it on the page. It just goes to show that sometimes writing what you know isn't the only answer, but writing what you feel is. Over a hundred and fifty years later this book pulses with life. It was criticized at the time for being too repulsive and scandalous, but that is why it resonates till this day. It is the truth of human nature and fallibility that Anne sought out to capture and did. Infidelity, adultery, drugs, drink, games of chance, everything not written about in literature of it's day that still causes so much heartbreak. Yes, you could argue that Anne was filtering this all through the lens of the hedonist lifestyle her brother Branwell lived. But you can't say that dealing with Branwell's multiplicity of addictions and personality defects didn't bring the darker aspects of humanity right to Anne's front door. So, arguing against myself, maybe she was writing what she knew? Either way, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shows that no matter how you live your life it gives you an understanding of the world at large and it's degradation's.

The degraded life that Helen lives made me connect to her because, not only did I pity her, I worried that she wouldn't make it out of this situation, ironic because having watched the miniseries I knew the outcome, but still I worried. But as to the debauchery, one problem I have always had and mention repeatedly in literature set during this time is the overuse of the Hellfire Club. It seems if you are debauched during the Regency or early Victorian eras you therefore have to belong to some incarnation of said Hellfire Club. But here I make an exception. Usually the Hellfire Club is just a trope used by modern writers, as in those still currently writing, as a basic touchstone for debauchery that modern readers will latch onto. Think of the spunk it took for a little ex-governess to allude to the Hellfire Club in a book written in 1848! You Anne Bronte are the exception that proves the rule! When you wrote those few lines alluding to fire and brimstone it was not yet hackneyed, it was controversial. I wish I could tell you how much you mean to me and literature. This poorly written review will have to suffice.


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