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Cathy

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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I just read this for the first time, and have to say: Wow!

 

Also, have realised I was spelling it wrong the whole way through, I really should read a bit slower!

 

Its such a contrast to Austen, for Bronte a small vilage with 4 or families is definitely not enough to start off with! Its very cynical in a lot of ways, except for the romantic ending, very negative about men and marriage in general. There are far more unhappy couples than happy couples and most of the characters go into marriage for cynical reasons like money or status. Even Gilbert has his violent moments - the whip incident on the moor will have fuelled some interesting essays about sado-masochism no doubt! Or am I looking for that too much as the sado-masochistic side of the Brontes is something I see in the other sisters novels like Jane Eyre? I can just imagine the kind of thing I would have had to read at uni would be an essay about homoerotic undertones, based on Gilbert sort of fancying Helen's brother...or am I taking that too far?!

 

It does seem like Anne was afraid of nothing, could you imagine Jane Austen using vocabulary like 'hussy' and 'slut'?! or men saying 'go to the devil' every other paragraph?! Its refreshing really. Though it did seem to me that everything had to fall within the bounds of respectability with respect to the romance between Helen and Gilbert, the long wait before they can marry, and the fervent kissing of hands only.

 

There was such a long period of suspense towards the end, I couldn't bear it! I was reading it at work as there was nothing else to do, and during the chapters from Gilbert being told Helen is getting married (or is she?!) till the end, I was praying that the phone wouldn't ring and no one would give me anything else to do! There were lots of false endings. I couldn't ever quite trust the signals that there was going to be a happy ending, due to other Bronte novels (isn't it weird that the sisters can be lumped together quite easily)...but i'm glad there was. The religious bits were a bit heavy-going for me.

 

Any thoughts? :)

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It's a long time since I read TOWH, but it's just occurred to me how different the life of a governess was in the mid 19th century, compared to the start of the century, in real life and fiction.

In Emma, Emma's governess marries a (comparitively) wealthy neighbour and becomes her former charge's social equal. In Jane Eyre the governess is part of the furniture.

IIRC, the reviews of TOWH disliked it because they said it dwelt on coarseness, and Anne was annoyed because she said she'd had to tone down real life for the book.

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It's also a long time since I read the novel, but I do remember enjoying it. The suspense I thought was well-handled and the deserted setting where Helen escapes is particularly evocative (you can't read any of the Brontes without a keen sense of setting). However, the heavy moralising did become a bit irritating. I think the same is true of Agnes Grey where men again get a bad press as prone to violence and excessive drinking of alcohol, and I can imagine the disapproving Governess with quivering nose and pinched-in cheeks. Charlotte has moments of this moral viewpoint, but it's never as dominating as Anne's novels - and, of course, Emily goes to the other extreme and trashes conventional morality completely (which makes her, I think, the greater writer). I think the three sisters make an interesting contrast, and Anne is definitely the weaker writer, but fascinating nonetheless. Perhaps this is what you meant by the religious parts, Cathy? If so, I agree.

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The religious bits I meant were Helen moralising to Arthur (though he deserves it and is an idiot for not listening to her!). Though how does that work alongside the portrayal of the interfering vicar at Gilbert's village? Didn't think of that at the time...I guess he's an object of ridicule because he doesn't like people who don't drink!

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Yes, I can see that these parts make the novel harder to digest. And I do think it can be 'prissy' at times, although, unlike Austen, it is admirable that it addresses unsavoury topics (for the Victorians) such as drunkenness. Do you think, though, that it can stand up to what I would consider greater works such as 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wuthering Heights'?

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I thought it lacked pace in places, so couldn't be called as good as those books you mention, on the other hand the ideas were so original and as with the other Brontes, the emotions are so strong and well communicated. What if she'd written more...?

 

I was struck today, thinking back, about all the extra-marital affairs going on in classics, it was definitely about and on people's minds - Wildfell Hall deals with this so directly and I suppose this is what is unique about it, but even in Austen, there's Lydia and Wickham in P+P, Harriet Smith in Emma, Henry Crawford and Maria in Mansfield Park, Mr Willoughby and Colonel Brandon's ward...are there any more?

 

So I take it from your post that you don't put it in the same category as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre?

What do you think about the relationship between the sisters? Can you tell them apart?! I always get them muddled. How did they write this sort of stuff when from the outside their lives seem so protected and innocent?

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I do think the sisters are very different indeed. Emily, I think, stands completely on her own and I find Wuthering Heights a disturbing, dark and violent book - I can only assume that she must have had a very rich inner life to have produced such a work from their isolated setting (or perhaps it was the isolation that produced it). Jane Eyre is also compelling, but not as ferociously dark as Wuthering Heights although I think there are some parallels (Rochester is perhaps a paler version of Heathcliff) and it has a calmer ending. I love the influence of Gothic on both of them and I think this is the main distinguishing point from Anne. Anne uses Gothic less obviously, which perhaps makes her work more like Austen's. And she is, I think, a lesser artist in general terms and attempts to capture a moral message more obviously than her sisters. I don't think Wuthering Heights has any conventional morality and I always feel that Charlotte tries to adopt a moral viewpoint but is always somehow at odds with it. I suppose, for me, that ambiguity and struggle makes Emily and Charlotte the greater writers.

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How did they write this sort of stuff when from the outside their lives seem so protected and innocent?

 

Branwell was often drunk and he took opium, so they saw plenty of this kind of thing at home. He was also dismissed from his position as a tutor after he had an affair with the children's married mother, IIRC.

 

Anne saw the things she put into TOWH when she was a governess. She said she made a faithful record of the things she'd seen and heard, just toned them down.

 

Ade, have you seen the Wuthering Heights thread? Why not post a few thoughts there.

 

It's just occurred to me that maybe the sisters' books were in part a reaction to Branwell and their differing feelings towards him. Charlotte mothered the younger children when their mother died, and Rochester at times behaves like a petulant child. I'm sure that at one point he throws himself on the sofa and she says he was like a child, but I could be misremembering.

 

Anne maybe disapproved, and this came out in her writing, and Emily, the disinterested observer, channelled it in all its wildness into WH. Well, it's a theory, anyway ;)

 

And extra marital affairs in the classics, how about Becky Sharpe and the old general (?) in Vanity Fair.

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I think this reading of the differences between the sisters is very convincing, Amanda. I know that Charlotte and Anne were more able to survive in wider society than Emily - both were governesses for a much longer period than Emily who seems to have been much more closely connected to their Haworth home and her animals. I think this fierce independence is apparent in her work, whereas both Charlotte and Anne are perhaps more socially aware. And relationships in Wuthering Heights tend to be destructive and violent (or those that aren't - like Edgar Linton - are weak and powerless).

 

I'll go and visit the Wuthering Heights thread as I'm talking more about this than The Tenant!

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I finished TOWH for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I have had very Bronteish phases in the past where I devour anything to do with them, books of letters, the Gaskell book, anything. But somehow I have never read this novel until now. I did love it.

 

I'm not sure whether she is a lesser writer than her sisters, she is different, but I wouldn't say lesser, I don't think. It is an eternal shame the Bronte's didn't write a few more novels between them before they died as it is hard to compare writers on the strength of one or two novels each. I loved the way she took a woman trapped by circumstance, albeit partly of her own doing, and drew us along with her in her strength, her different-ness from the rest of society, her efforts to do the right thing, coupled with her knowledge of sometimes doing the 'wrong thing', her duty to her husband, her denial of her own happiness... love, secrecy, intrigue, suspense, a strong female character, it was all there for me. Wonderful book. Intensely evocative of place and time and circumstance.

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Rescued Replies

 

Claire 23rd May 2006 08:09 PM

 

I've just finished this book and I loved it.

Originally Posted by Hilary

I loved the way she took a woman trapped by circumstance, albeit partly of her own doing, and drew us along with her in her strength, her different-ness from the rest of society, her efforts to do the right thing, coupled with her knowledge of sometimes doing the 'wrong thing', her duty to her husband, her denial of her own happiness... love, secrecy, intrigue, suspense, a strong female character, it was all there for me. Wonderful book. Intensely evocative of place and time and circumstance.

 

Absolutely. You really sum up what I enjoyed so much about it as well. I loved the exploration of what she went through as she tried to live according to her principles, in very hard circumstances.

 

It did make me wonder how much we buy into the world of the novel. As I read, I so admired Helen for her strength of character and her determination to stick with her marriage no matter what, and do what she felt to be the right thing....but if we met someone in her situation in modern day Britain, most of us would probably be urging her to get out of such an abusive marriage, and to take her son as far away as possible from a father who was intent on ruining the child - we would think it was madness for her to stay. It does intrigue me that a novel can draw us in so much that it can sway our normal perception of events, because we see them so much through Helen's own eyes.

 

I must get hold of Anne's other novel (title escapes me, temporarily) I'd very much like to read that too.

 

Momo 23rd May 2006 10:25 PM

 

Originally Posted by Claire

I must get hold of Anne's other novel (title escapes me, temporarily) I'd very much like to read that too.

 

Thanks for pointing that out, I thought all the Brontë sisters had written only one book. "shame one me"

Anyway, the title seems to be Agnes Grey. Is that the one you mean?

 

Flingo 23rd May 2006 10:33 PM

 

Originally Posted by Momo

Thanks for pointing that out, I thought all the Brontë sisters had written only one book. "shame on me"

 

Charlotte also wrote more than one - and I believe more than two!

 

Amanda Grange 23rd May 2006 11:13 PM

 

Some of Charlotte's juvenilia, 'The Secret', has just been published.

 

Book Description

 

A rollicking adventure from the Brontës’ imagined kingdom of Verdopolis, The Secret is a novel of intrigue, duplicity, and all-conquering love.

 

Arthur, the Marquis of Douro, his beautiful wife, Marion, and their infant son lead a happy and carefree existence in the city of Verdopolis—until a chance encounter brings the youthful Marchioness’ childhood governess back into their lives. The meeting proves to be the catalyst for an increasingly tortuous series of events involving blackmail, imposture, and shocking revelations regarding the birth of the young Marchioness. Will the Marquis ever forgive his wife her secret?

 

Product Details

Paperback: 128 pages

Publisher: Hesperus Press (April 2006)

ISBN: 1843911256

 

Information courtesy of bronte blog

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For me, the most powerful aspect of the book was the exploration of the ill-advised marriage and the consequences it has for Helen, as well as the study of male society and its perils. One of the most striking parts of the book was when Helen was describing the influence her husband was having on her son; hearing those swears and curses coming from such a small child would even disturb us today. I was very interested in the way each of the men in the circle dealt or didn't deal with his own behaviour: Lowborough and Hattersley were particularly interesting characters, I thought.

 

I think the style of the novel was hard to believe - a really long letter from Gilbert to his brother in law. I think it could have been better written and in that way I think Emily and Charlotte were better writers. I don't think the romance was as exciting as that between Jane and Rochester, or even Cathy and Heathcliff.

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I have just finished this and I loved it.  The language was very much formal compared to the book I had just finished so it took me a while to get into it but once I did, I couldn't put it down. 

 

Recommended.

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