Monday, October 10, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I was not a big fan of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and I really hated Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I keep trying though, and so, for my Back-to-the-Classics challenge "book with the name of a place in the title" I chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. So far, I’d have to give the nod to Anne.

The book is constructed in a rather gimmicky way. It combines letters and a diary, which should give it a boost since I ordinarily love epistolary novels. However, in this case, the artificiality of the style is too striking. Even in the heyday of communication by letters, I can’t see anyone writing letters like these. (The male hero writes a letter to a friend recounting the arrival in his town of a mysterious woman with whom he falls in love. In order to fully explain the mystery, he passes on a diary given to him by the woman.) The diary doesn’t read like a real diary any more than the letters read like letters. The female narrator records the events of only red letter days, and years pass with only rare summary entries. It spares the reader the dullness of day-to-day life and it works as narration, but not as a diary.

Nevertheless, structural issues aside, the novel is a compelling story of a woman who makes a terrible mistake at a young age, falling in love with a charmer and insisting on marrying him despite the counsel of friends and family. He’s a drunkard, a womanizer, and a bully. Once he has her away from her supports, he verbally abuses her and takes a mistress in front of her. He goes on drunken debauches and insults her in front of his friends, most of whom are little better than he is–though they improve with time as they realize what an appalling creature he is.

The woman, Helen, is a gentlewoman with a small inheritance who is being brought up by her aunt and uncle when she makes her disastrous choice. A deep religious conviction sustains her through her trials, but also leads her to believe that, as a wife, she must support her husband and live with the consequences. She suffers a great deal, but sees no option for escape. It’s a horrible commentary on nineteenth century oppression of women.

Things change after the birth of her son. Rather than reining in the wicked father, Helen watches as he does everything possible to corrupt the child. Helen has had enough. She escapes to a tumbled down old house owned by her half-brother who is willing to hide and shelter her. Her identity and whereabouts must be kept secret because her husband is completely within his rights to demand back the child out of spite.

Helen is impressively strong. The young squire who falls in love with her at Wildfell Hall matures into a worthy husband for her, though at the beginning he’s a vain and shallow fellow. And the eventual outcome is satisfying. The main characters are a bit too black-and-white with one pure goodness and one pure evil, but it’s an interesting character study none the less, and a realistic picture of an alcoholic death.