Monday, February 18, 2013

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Brontë

I finished reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall last week. I had high expectations for this book because of everything I had heard of it and all my expectations were completely exceeded. I think Anne might have become my favorite Brontë, even though I didn’t know I could admire someone more than Charlotte. She’s in my list of epic writers, the ones I get too excited about, the ones I never tire of, the ones that inspire me and make me want to be a writer myself. Now Anne has entered that list, going directly to the first place.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a novel formed by letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend about this mysterious new woman living in Wildfell Hall. He writes his own thoughts and recollections but he also copies from the diary of the mysterious woman herself, known as Helen Graham at the beginning of the story. This way we get two different perspectives of the story. And the part of Helen’s diary is extremely intimate and touching.

This is no conventional Victorian story. It’s raw, realistic, intense. It created such a scandal in its time because it challenged the contemporary ideas of decency that even Charlotte felt the need to suppress it after Anne died.

Some say The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the first feminist book. I don’t necessarily agree with that because I don’t think that was Anne’s intention. I think she wrote very straight forward, she didn’t have any intentional propaganda hidden in the book. She wrote what she though was right, what should be. The fact that the heroine of the novel leaves her dissolute, abusive husband was not a feminist message, plot, or whatever. Its is what she thought was true and right. A lot of critics at the time complained about the way the “ugly” was portrayed. They felt offended for having to read something so disagreeable to their decent tastes. She said to them “When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would like to appear”.

It is interesting that this book, so ahead of its time, so powerful and complete, was written by the sister who everyone thought was the least talented. I’ve been wondering, what was it that made everyone disregard Anne in such a way? What made her different from her sisters? 

I’ll admit that Anne’s writing is less romantic, has less poetic imagery, the fates of her heroines are normal. Is it that at the time, the need for some dramatic romance was so important that a realist like Anne, who wrote things as she saw them, without embellishing them to make them more agreeable to the reader or herself, was underestimated and forgotten? 

I found this comic the other day (source: Hark! A vagrant). It is an exaggeration and it’s not really fair to Charlotte and Emily but there is some insight to it. It certainly made me laugh. My opinion is that this is the reason Anne is not as popular as Charlotte or Emily. She didn’t romanticize as much as them. 

When I read the Juliet Barker biography of the Brontë family I didn’t know much about Anne. I had read Agnes Grey and loved it but I always preferred Jane Eyre. Then, as I found out a little more of the family I saw what Anne meant when she wrote Agnes Grey. Everyone always thought Charlotte was a revolutionary because she was the first one to write about a plain, ordinary woman as the heroine of a novel, but it was Anne who did that first with Agnes Grey. This book portrays much better the reality and the difficulties of being a governess. 

I now think the books she wrote fit perfectly with her personality. She was quiet, the baby of the family, the one everyone seemed to forget, but she was its silent pillar. She had a core of steel, a sense of duty that made her want to get an education that would let her earn her own living. She was the one who worked the most, even though she probably did it in the worst conditions. She said Agnes Grey was based on the truth and according to that, the children of the families she worked for were the plague.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall made my heart beat faster as I was reading it, but not because of a romance, an adventure or anything else you would expect. It was because I could see the genius behind it, the down to earth woman who wrote it without seeking fame or acceptance. She wrote what was true to her. It was a completely different experience than the ones of reading Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

If there is something I didn’t like that much of this book was the relatively short ending, compared to the build-up of the story. I don’t think the relationship between Helen and Gilbert developed enough to make me believe they were each other’s happy ending. Why would Helen fall in love with Gilbert? I can see why it would happen the other way around, she was a beautiful, mysterious woman, but who was he to her? He was a plain, ordinary man. And maybe that is the key. After suffering so much with an “extraordinary man”, extraordinarily charming, rich, handsome but also extraordinarily drunk, abusive and manipulative, maybe she wanted normal. A good, decent, normal guy. I don’t know. I still don’t think that relationship is believable, but is just a small thing in a great, great book.

When I finished reading it I felt sad. Sad that now I had already read the only two books Anne Brontë ever wrote. I wanted more. It seemed unfair she had to die so young. But she died as calmly as she lived. She was, until the very end, the collected, supportive one. (Barker, 2012) “Even while she lay dying, her thought was for others: seeing Charlotte barely able to restrain her grief, Anne whispered, ‘Take courage, Charlotte; take courage’. Conscious to the last, Anne died, very calmly and gently, at about two o’clock in the afternoon on Monday, 28 May 1849.” 

I will reread Agnes Grey in the coming weeks. I feel it will be a completely different experience knowing more about her now. I want to encourage everyone to read and enjoy Anne's work and to overcome the prejudice that she was the least talented. I don’t think any of them should be labeled as the least talented, they were different and great in their own way and each of them contributed to the challenging of the Victorian traditions and conventions and the way women were supposed to write.

And for those of you who love the Brontës as much as I do, check this out: The newly restored Brontë Museum.


Caro said...

Yes yes yes! Excellent post. I'm so happy that you loved this book so much. I felt it too - the awareness of raw, powerful genius within the pages. It's the same thing I felt with Wuthering Heights (and now I want to reread Jane Eyre, because I feel guilty for not loving Charlotte half as much as I love the other two).
Ah, the universal question: just what the hell did Helen see in Gilbert? I understand the appreciation for a quiet, steady man after the crazy alcoholic she was used to, but still, Gilbert struck me as so... childish, in comparison to her. Knocking a guy off his horse because he seems to have a relationship with a woman you like? Seriously?

Dude watching with the Brontës! That cartoon will never not be hilarious.

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Thank you Caro! I really loved this book, it has become one of my favorites ever. I do still admire Charlotte as much as I did before but Anne has become really special to me. Maybe because she was not appreciated in her time. I kind of resent now even more that Charlotte made The Tenant disappear because she didn't understand it.

I have to reread Wuthering Heights, it's been a long time since I read it and I'm probably going to have a different experience reading it now.

I also thought Gilbert was too childish for her. What did she see in him? I saw the BBC adaptation for this and Toby Stephens played Gilbert. I can see why the Helen from that adaption would notice Gilbert, hehe :P. (I didn't like this particular adaptation, too many changes).

I'm so glad you liked my post :).

Diana said...

Anne is in no way the least talented! She's simply underrated. Slowly, but surely, bloggers are spreading the word. :)

When we discussed Tenant in the Bronte module I took there was a lot of talk about how Gilbert isn't quite up to par with Helen. In a strange way, I sort of like this. He clearly knows she's superior to him, but he's not threatened by it. In fact, he's turned on (to use a modern phrase) by her intelligence, forthrigthness and independence. It takes a real man to appreciate that, especially in the Victorian period.

Diana said...

P.S. Have you seen Kate Beaton's Jane Eyre comic? It is also brilliant!

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Diana, I had not seen it in that way. It is true that it takes a real man to appreciate a woman like Helen, especially during that time. That elevates Gilbert in my eyes. What I didn't like was that Gilbert was so quick to judge when he saw something he didn't understand and, even if it were true, what right had he to judge?

I do hope we can continue letting the world know that Anne is just as fascinating as the other two Brontes.

I have not seen the one about Jane Eyre, I'm going to look for it!