Sunday, January 07, 2007

Anne Bronte - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

As promised, a lightly edited copy of my original LJ post about the evolution of Bronte obsession, and a response to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I think it will be useful to learn The E Dots in html before too many posts about the Brontes go down looking sadly misspelled.


I just used the gift card my boss gave me for the holidays to buy a biography of Jane Austen, Juliet Barker's comprehensive biography of the Bronte family, Shirley by Charlotte, and Agnes Grey by Anne.

The weird thing is, I was never very interested in the Brontes before this most recent semester at university. The first time I read Jane Eyre, I was way too young to understand it, so even though I liked it, it was a Task, and I mostly remember that reading as one of confusion, not enjoyment. And then, in high school, I avoided reading Wuthering Heights entirely because our AP English class was unintentionally designed such that a relatively crafty student could, with the aid of SparkNotes, breeze through collecting straight "A"s and a 5 (of 5) on the standardized exam after having read absolutely NONE of the required texts. I'm living proof.

I finally read Wuthering Heights for the 19th Century Lit class I took last semester, and as some of you might recall the initial response was not favorable. Against my better judgment, however, I realized as I finished reading it that I liked it - liked it so much that I reread a lot of it during the chaotic final weeks of the semester so I could write my final paper on it. I really, genuinely enjoyed taking a preliminary dive into Emily's world, and I also enjoyed analyzing it against the context of Charlotte's editorial note and other materials our professor encouraged the class to utilize. It was like a little playground. Okay, a lot of this happened under the influence of extreme caffeine consumption and loud complaining about page limits, but it was a great learning experience, too, the kind that I really crave.

Then, we had to read Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Which I still haven't finished - I cheated and read the Penguin editorial notes to find out the ending so I could discuss it in class - but I do want to return to it. My mom (whose favorite book is Jane Eyre - she's even penned a retelling of it) can't stand Villette and I can see why - Lucy Snowe is priggish and obnoxious, the plot is meandering and dull, and the insights into Charlotte's own very strong prejudices (virulently anti-Catholic, and sneeringly anti-French) leave a bad taste in the mouth of a modern reader. I would never, ever claim it's my favorite book (as my professor does) and I'm doubtful it's a landmark female work superior to Jane Eyre (as Virginia Woolf implies) but I do want to finish it, mostly out of a fascination with Charlotte's style. I guess I'm willing to be convinced.

Anyway, I came home for the holidays to read Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. At first, I was disappointed, and all I could think was, "I can see why her sisters are more famous." But the more I think about the book, the more I realize her talent is comparatively undervalued - and if only she had lived longer, I'm sure her works would have become as critically acclaimed as her sisters' in literary canon. I'm also sure I'm not the first person to claim that - and speculation on the possible quality of unwritten works doesn't exonerate her existing work.

However, I think she suffers by comparison with her sisters, in part because she was writing about a radically different take on life in general - there are only echoes of the consuming passions and wild regrets employed in her sisters' works, replaced by a relatively down-to-earth understanding of how relationships evolve, and a patient, long-suffering attitude toward change and the pangs of memory. Gilbert Markham, the hero and narrator of most of the book, is no Rochester or Heathcliff - he's an ordinary guy, very very ordinary, and Anne humorously reveals that trait in Gilbert's narrative when he displays run-of-the-mill male vanity (simultaneously preening and depreciating himself) as well as a sometimes nearly comical misunderstanding of the opposite sex. He pursues the heroine, Mrs Graham, not with an earth-shattering passion, but with a mild curiosity that sharpens to affection, appreciation, and finally companionable romantic love and longing.

There are a few huge problems - one of which is that, halfway through the novel, the POV switches to Mrs Graham's diary (which Gilbert is reading) for maybe roughly a third of the novel's length (it's hard for me to judge because I was reading it on my computer with no page numbers). This diary constitutes one huge flashback to recap the events of her life from seven years ago to the present, ending just before her first encounter with Gilbert. Obviously, Gilbert is absent during this large segment - and the setting is completely different too, because it concerns the period of Mrs Graham's life before she took up residence in Wildfell Hall. So, gone is the narrator that has, for the first half of the book, nurtured the reader's trust and fascination, and gone is the location that has inspired the reader's primary mental image of the story. I've never read a book where such a huge and prolonged shift in POV has occurred without severing the reader's sympathy and interest.

Mrs Graham's diary is somewhat interesting even when her character is not; her biggest draw in the first half of the book was the mystery surrounding her arrival and the motives for her behavior. Her steely willpower and sharp-edged personality are intriguing, but would be more so if her actions followed through on her bitterness and anger. Instead, she's apparently all bark and limited bite, escaping an unsuitable situation only when it is at the extreme of outrageousness, and then, instead of seeking retribution, actually returning to the aid of those who have tormented her. But then again, that's consistent both with the social and legal limitations on women in that era. I can't criticize Anne for portraying what was, in fact, reality, even if I wish her heroine had had a little more sense earlier in life.

I think Mrs Graham's history is most interesting in the way she conveys the realistic evolution (and extinction) of conflicting emotions in a woman who once loved the wrong guy. It's like a reverse of her sister's work, Jane Eyre - in Charlotte's novel, the innocent young girl witnesses (and, in many ways, sets into motion) the transformation of a philandering, proud, restless and manipulative man into a devoted husband. In Anne's novel, the heroine struggles for nearly a decade to do the same, only proving conclusively that marrying a man will not change his nature. In Charlotte's world, love (especially passionate love) soars above personal flaws, waiting for God exact justice for one's sins, after which (say, a massive fire and some new physical impairments) love can finally settle upon the couple and grant them the ecstasy of peace. In Anne's world, if you love a rotten guy, you should follow the words of Cher in Moonstruck: "SNAP OUT OF IT".

I also found large chunks of dialog were...flat. Perhaps because they contrasted with the emotionally honest tone of the prose. I skipped a couple of paragraphs when Gilbert and Mrs Graham talk about their souls meeting in heaven, because it felt so jarringly out of place as to be ridiculous - it reminded me of Airplane, the part that parodies a WWII train parting scene, only from the take-off of a jet; the girlfriend's running along, screaming good-bye as the jet taxis out, and the young serviceman is tossing her his pocket-watch as a memento, and the whole joke is that YOU CAN'T DO THAT ON A RUNWAY. Well, Anne's story is on a jet runway but her characters are trying to share a train good-bye - it doesn't quite mesh, so instead it feels a little like a joke.

That's about all I have to say on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I did just see the most recent BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre and I have a lot to say about that, too, in a later post. I'm tickled that Toby Stephens - who plays Rochester - also played Gilbert Markham in the 1996 adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I'm really impressed by him, and I can definitely get behind him as the new Thinking Woman's Hunk (inventive and useful phrase mined from The Times by the entertaining folks on BronteBlog).


Sakshi said...

I found your little analysis to be very insightful. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an amazing book, and I really think that the reason that Anne is not as popular as her sisters is because Charlotte, her anti-everything sister, refused to have any more of Anne's work published. Charlotte felt that Anne was airing the dirty laundry, so to speak, as Huntingdon vaguely resembles Branwell, their alcoholic brother who was abhorred by Anne.
Charlotte enjoyed the impetuous heroines of herself and her sister, and the letdown of Anne's down to earth Helen was enough for her to order no more publishing of Anne's novels. Had the novels that she had published and the few that she had in the works, been left in better hands, they were more likely to weather the ages coming out looking like a classic, and not just the lesser known sister.

Just an opinion. I have to read this for my grade 10 portfolio, and I wanted to read one of the classics. I just detest Wuthering Heights, I could not get through it. And my character is just to march a little off beat to everyone else's drum, so this fit me just fine. :P

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