Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (thoughts)

I finished Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall last night. I read over 200 hundred pages compulsively, through my tiredness. I guess I was just on a roll.

Bronte arranged the book in a pretty complicated fashion. At first, the story is told through letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend (and brother-in-law) about events that occurred twenty years ago, in 1827. Markham is a "gentleman farmer" (his words) in a somewhat remote English county. His small, comfortable world is shaken up by the sudden arrival of a mysterious widow, Helen, and her young son, who live as tenants at (you guessed it) Wildfell Hall. Markham becomes more and more interested in the lady, but she is quite reclusive and reticient. Without giving away too much, things come to a head, and the lady gives Markham her diary. In my book, the diary begins on page 120 and ends on 365 (with the book ending about one hundred pages later).

Therefore, a little over half of the book is told from a pious woman's point of view, in diary format, while the other half is told from a middle-aged man recalling his younger, histronic self in letter format. You can see how this can become complicated.

It works, however. I enjoyed the letter half of the book for the subtle, but definitely present, sense of humour. You get the idea that Markham is quite amused at the strong passions and black-and-white world view of his younger self, and through this Bronte allows the reader to be quite amused as well. I feel like Anne's writing is more tongue-in-cheek than either of her sisters, at least for this part of the book.

The diary portion is quite serious, however; it's being written as events happen, and Helen does not have the benefit of hindsight to lighten her strong emotions. And yet, despite its lack of humour, this portion is quite impressive. The diary spans a period of six years, and Helen goes from being an innocent and fun-loving young woman to an adoring newly-wed to a wife who loves her husband despite his daults to an utterly estranged and desperate runaway. Bronte handles the transformation magnificently; slowly, bitterness begins to replace love and resignation to replace hope. And yet, through it all, Helen's core character remains the same: her piety and her strong sense of honour never leave her. To me, this is a pretty realistic portrayal of how people mature: while much about them migh change, there's always that kernel of who they are that simply cannot.

But what, readers may ask, is the cause of Helen's sad deterioration? Well, simply that her husband (Arthur Huntingdon) is a gentleman scoundrel. He drinks too much, gambles too much, and makes love to other women. While its bad enough that he does this in London, he soon decides to invite his friends to the country estate where Helen lives, thereby bringing all the debauchery under her nose. Bronte doesn't pull her punches, either. She addresses adultery, wife abuse, and enough disfunction to satisfy any tv drama. It's painful, but powerful. In fact, she's at her strongest when portraying the husband and his friends as complete blackguards. In this scene, one of the friends (Hattersley) is drunk, and trying to force another friend (Lowborough) who has become a teetotaler to drink.

"By heaven and earth, you shall resemble us all!" cried Hattersley, starting up and rudely seizing him by the arm. "Hallo, Huntingdon!" he shouted;"I've got him! Come, man, and help me! And d--n me, if I don't make him drunk before I let him go! He shall make up for all past delinquencies as sure as I'm a living soul!"
There followed a disgraceful contest: Lord Lowborough, in desperate earnest, and pale with anger, silently struggling to release himself from the powerful madman that was striving to drag him from the room. I attempted to urge Arthur to interfere in behalf of his outraged guest, but he could do nothing but laugh.
"Huntingdon, you fool, come and help me, can't you!" cried Hattersley, himself somewhat weakened by his excesses.
"I'm wishing you God-speed, Hattersley," cried Arthur, "and aiding you with my prayers: I can't do anything else if my life depended on it! I'm quite used up. Oh-oh!"-and leaning back in his seat, he clapped his hands on his sides and groaned aloud.
"Annabella [his wife], give me`a candle!" said Lowborough, whose antagonist had now got him round the waist and was endeavoring to root him from the doorpost, to which he madly clung with all the energy of desperation.
"I shall take no part in your rude sports!" replied the lady coldly back. "I wonder you can expect it."
But I [Helen] snatched up the candle and brought it to him. He took it and held the clame to Hattersley's hands, till, roaring like a wild beast, the latter unclasped them and let him go." (254)

That was one of the most sensational passages in the book, but I think Bronte does a great job and showing the various kinds of drunks. Furthermore, she doesn't fall into the trap of making all of the bad guys bad and the good guys good. Indeed, several of the characters reform, or reveal themselves to be bad despite their good exteriors. While the book definitely has a moral, it isn't really beaten into your head like a public service accouncement. Instead, it feels like Bronte wanted to explore how men and women can become wicked, and how they can turn that wickedness around. While it was written in the mid-nineteenth century, it still feels pretty modern. Sure, at some points the characters become a little silly (esp. Markham), but that happens in real life as well. :)

So, I would recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to anyone looking for a timeless classic. Bronte's characters ring true, and the plotline is Gothic enough to satisfy anyone. I hadn't read Anne Bronte before this, and now she's become my favourite of the three sisters! In fact, I plan to track down a copy of Agnes Grey after I'm through with my summer challenges!


meli said...

Sounds like an interesting book - I'll have to get on to it sometime. If you're interested in the Bronte sisters, you should check out 'Ask The Bronte Sisters'. You can ask them questions about writing. It's pretty funny.

Laura said...

I really enjoyed your review. It was a different take on a book I also enjoyed -- here's my review from earlier in the year:

Sarah said...

Thanks for writing such a good review.

I agree that this is a throughly enjoyable read. When I read it, I couldn't put it down and couldn't believe it wasn't more widely acclaimed. I must get round to reading everything else by Anne!

Petunia said...

Thanks for the great review of The Tenant. I've heard good things about it before and hope to read it soon. I read Agnes Gray earlier this year and found it disappointing. I'll give The Tenant a try.

Dewey said...

Hmm, I don't think I've read this sister at all. Have to remedy that!

Gentle Reader said...

I love Agnes Grey, too. I know, don't the Brontes feel modern, even though they wrote in the middle of Victorian madness? I love Charlotte's lesser known stuff, too--both Villette and Shirley are pretty good. Poor Emily died before she wrote another novel after Wuthering Heights, but her poetry is amazing.

I'm also a big fan of Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote around the same time. Her North and South is really good, and made a good BBC TV movie...

Imani said...

I checked one of the local book stores and can you imagine? Not one book by Anne! I suspect that I'll have to check out the used stores to see what they have.

Bybee said...

I really liked Agnes Grey. Thanks for the review of Tenant.