I, who never wanted an electronic reading device, read all of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on my phone. I recently upgraded to a cellphone that actually works where I live, and it also happens to be a smartphone tempting me with free classics on Google Books. I thought it would be easier to pull out my phone and read a little than trying to carry around the printed copy of Anna Karenina I was currently reading (and which I finally finished!).
Like her sister Charlotte did with Jane Eyre, Anne Bronte captivated me with her story. I read it while waiting for a repair on my car’s exhaust system. I read it while eating breakfast. I even read in the bathtub while praying I didn’t drop my phone in the water, but I had to know what happened next.
Stylistically, what caught my eye was that the bulk of the novel is narrated by the main character Gilbert Markham. I’m trying to think of any other female authors of this time period who wrote a first-person narrative from a man’s perspective, but haven’t so far. If any of my fellow Classics fans think of another, please share it in the comments. I think most women writers at this time were writing with a 3rd person narrative, like Jane Austen, or from the female character’s perspective, like in Jane Eyre.
Though I started reading this before the Classics Club Women’s Literature event, I’m counting this as my first Women’s Classic Lit post. It’s a fitting choice, especially since it contains this quote:
I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read [Tweet It], and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.” ― Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
In keeping with the theme of women and literature, I want to talk about Bronte’s second main character, Helen Graham, whose diary forms the part of the novel Gilbert doesn’t narrate. *beware spoilers ahead* When we first meet Helen she seems aloof, unapproachable, even cold. But she intrigues Gilbert, and us, partly because she’s not at all like the other women in his town. For one thing, she isn’t scared to voice her opinions firmly and competently, but without arguing. There’s none of the pouting, manipulation and gossip that turns us against the other woman vying for Gilbert’s affection.
Once we get Helen’s perspective on things through her diary, I liked her even more. She married a rascal, and yet she stays with him for a long while (and eventually returns to him) because she firmly believes in the sacredness of her marriage vows, even after he breaks them repeatedly. She only leaves when she decides her son is in danger, and in that I admired her courage and resourcefulness in setting herself up a situation where she is both safe from her husband and able to provide for herself and her child.
Her spiritual journey is one of the best parts of this story, and I found myself wondering if some of the more unusual views she voices were shared by her author. I’m specifically thinking of a scene where Helen tells her aunt that she doesn’t believe the wicked will burn in hell forever, then defends her conviction.
‘Not for ever,’ I exclaimed, ‘“only till he has paid the uttermost farthing;” for “if any man’s work abide not the fire, he shall suffer loss, yet himself shall be saved, but so as by fire;” and He that “is able to subdue all things to Himself will have all men to be saved,” and “will, in the fulness of time, gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus, who tasted death for every man, and in whom God will reconcile all things to Himself, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven.”’ …
‘And as for the danger of the belief, I would not publish it abroad if I thought any poor wretch would be likely to presume upon it to his own destruction, but it is a glorious thought to cherish in one’s own heart, and I would not part with it for all the world can give.’
Not quite a theology I can agree with, but one thing is certain — Helen is a woman who thinks deeply and stands by her convictions in action as well as word. She’s a nuanced character with her own personality, her own beliefs, and her own flaws, and she and her writer are well worth taking the time to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.