Friday, January 9, 2015

Classics: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

*While this book is about 150 years old, I may have revealed a little too much for some people's tastes. However, nothing I revealed is more than what I found through online synopses before reading it. Read at your own risk.

The names of both Charlotte and Emily Bronte have their names carved deeply into the stone of literary history, but their sister Anne isn't known quite so widely. There's a reason or two for this if you do some Googling, but Anne certainly is not less well-known because her work isn't good - it is. And it's important. In fact, she caused quite a bit of drama with her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because it's so utterly feminist. The world may not have been ready for such a bold statement when it was first released, but now we can all undoubtedly and unabashedly look at Anne with unquestionable admiration and still be considered normal and not improper.

The new tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham, is sparking a lot of curiosity among the neighborhood. Everyone knows that she's a widow and clings to her only son as though she wouldn't trust anyone but herself to be with him... But neighbors talk. They form theories. And they know that there's something off about this newcomer. Gilbert Markham cannot bear to think anything wrong with her, for his affections for her only increase with time and she seems like a lovely woman. But there is a deeper story behind her, one that would be frowned upon.

It would be a spoiler long ago to mention this, but knowing this fact is the reason why people read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall today: Helen left her husband because he was a horrible excuse for a human being. That wasn't something people did in the nineteenth century, and when they did, they were social outcasts. Anne Bronte, however, found it reasonable, and she made it evident in this novel.

All the while, it's interesting. The Bronte sisters have a way of appealing to my heart, and this novel is no exception. Gilbert's love for Helen just overflows, and Helen's attempts to push him away (even though she obviously loves him) spark impatience and anxiety. Furthermore, I loved seeing how much Helen cared for her child's well-being. Her son was at times all the happiness she had, and I don't think I've ever read about someone so maternal (not to mention forgiving and religious) before. Even now, I'm sure there are women who can relate to her. And of course, there's Huntington, who had me feeling quite the opposite: He's such a plague. Just when you think he can't get worse, he does. I don't think he could've possibly wronged Helen any more.

But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not perfect, there are some aspects that seem a little drawn out and improbable (particularly the ending with poor Gilbert's trials and journeys), but I really enjoyed it. Considering its general message, it's hard not to, but as I said, Anne knew what she was doing. She told a story and expressed a social view, and she did both well. It's definitely still relevant... Even today, there are still women who marry or stay with men who are as underserving as Huntington... I hope they all read this book and figure out what to do. And I hope they find a Gilbert Markham someday.

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