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BOOK REVIEW: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Friday, March 10, 2017



The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte


I first read The Tenant of Wildfall Hall when I was in my late teens and discovering the lives and work of the Bronte sisters. It came third in my esteem, after Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. For some reason I have never re-read it, even though I’ve re-visited the work of her sisters many times. It might have been because I remembered it as being rather gloomy, with a pious self-righteous heroine and an unlikeable hero.

Talking the book over with a friend last year, she said that she thought it was one of the earliest examples of feminist fiction. I decided I had to read it again and I’m very glad I did. 

Basically, the story begins with Gilbert Markham, an affable but rather shallow and impetuous young man, taking an interest in a beautiful but secretive widow who comes to live in Wildfell Hall with her young son. Helen supports herself with her painting and has very decided views on alcohol and other social problems. Gilbert talks with her and finds himself admiring her steadfastness and intelligence, in stark contrast to Eliza, the pretty but silly girl he had been courting previously. As his fascination with Helen grows, so does his curiosity about her past. But Helen guards her secrets closely. He asks her to marry him, and she refuses – but gives him her diaries to read.


The narrative then switches to Helen’s point-of-view. Headstrong and passionate, she falls in love with a handsome, charming young man and marries him, despite her family’s reservations. He rushes headlong into dissolution, however, spending long months drinking and carousing in London, then bringing his debauched friends back to spend months at their estate. He embarks on an affair with one of his friends’ wives, and mocks Helen’s sense of betrayal and pain. After he begins to teach his young son to drink and smoke and swear, Helen finds the strength and courage to leave him. She takes refuge at Wildfell Hall and lives in dread of her vindictive husband finding her. 

The third section returns to Gilbert’s point-of-view. He is no longer the shallow, pleasure-loving character of the first part of the book. He has been transformed by his love for Helen into someone much deeper and more thoughtful. He agrees that he and Helen must not see each other again, as she is not free to marry and does not wish to be tempted into being unfaithful to her wedding vows. Helen returns to nurse her dying husband, and Gilbert is filled with anguish and grief. After her husband dies, he stands by his vow not to contact her but then hears rumours that she is to be married again. So he rushes to the church to try and stop the wedding. In the end, the two are reunited again and find happiness.


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an astonishingly brave novel for a young woman to write in the early part of the 19th century. It’s a story about marital abuse, and Helen’s courageous action in leaving her husband would have been thought utterly shocking at the time. One of the biographers of the Brontës, May Sinclair, wrote “the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated through Victorian England.”

It is also a story about a woman who stood up for what she believed in, and who supported herself with her art. This was surely the unspoken dream of many young women bound within their society’s narrow view of a woman’s role in the world.



Finally, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does not flinch away from depicting alcoholism, adultery, domestic violence, or attempted rape. It is clear-eyed and unflinching in its depiction of the realities of 19th century English life. 


Most interestingly, for me, is the transformation of the character of Gilbert. In the first half of the book, he is confident to the point of cocky, and thinks nothing of toying with Eliza’s feelings, or of pressing his unwanted attentions upon Helen. He calls on her uninvited, he seizes her hand and tries to kiss it, he tries to pry into her past. His behaviour foreshadows the actions of Helen’s husband Arthur, who treats her with rough passion that escalates to violence, and his friend Walter, who tries to first seduce, then rape, Helen.  

However, Gilbert changes once he has heard Helen’s story and understands how she has been abused in the past. He becomes more grave and gentler. Most interestingly, he swears to leave her be until she is ready for anything else. He does not write to her or hound her; he gives her the time she needs. 

By the time they are at last united, he too has suffered from his long enforced separation from Helen and is far more worthy of her love. And the final scenes – when Gilbert races to stop her marriage to another – are compelling, page-turning drama.



I do have one small caveat about my new-found love and admiration of Anne Brontë – I’m afraid I skim-read most of the long speeches about piety and morality. I suspect they are why so many contemporary readers dislike the book!

But if you can forgive Anne for her Victorian moralising, I think - if you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - you must agree with me that's it's just as worthy of fame and veneration as the work of her two more famous sisters ... if not more so.

I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall again as part of my challenge to read more feminist fiction this year. I would love your suggestions as to what other books about women that I should be reading.

Please leave your suggestions & comments below!


SPOTLIGHT: My List of Best Feminist Reads

Friday, March 10, 2017



I recently asked what people would like to see me blogging about on Facebook, and among some great suggestions was one asking me to list my favourite feminist literature.


So I spent some time quietly thinking about this and slowly began to put together a list of books which I felt had helped shape me as a feminist. 

After I posted my list, Stephanie Dowrick suggested that I should add a definition of what I mean by 'feminist literature' - and also quite rightly pointed out how many gaps there are in my reading. I agreed most humbly. My aim for this list was always that it would be an ongoing project, with me adding books as I read or remember them, and taking suggestions to widen my knowledge. I have already got compiled a long list of books I must read, and am hoping to add a new book or two every month. So please feel free to leave a suggestion for me in the comments section below. 

So what do I mean by 'feminist fiction'?

I was brought up by my mother - a brilliant, strong-willed and wise woman - to believe that women are entitled to the same rights and liberties as men, and have the same potential for intellectual and moral strength. I have always passionately believed in fighting to ensure the political, social, and economic quality of all humans, regardless of gender, race, spiritual beliefs or sexual orientation.   

I am proud that my books have been identified by many readers as being feminist. Most recently, Jack Zipes - the world's foremost fairy tale scholar - wrote of my work: "Kate Forsyth is one of the leading feminist writers of fairy tales in Australia. In recent years she has published a notable series of historical fairy-tale novels based on ‘Rapunzel’, ‘All-Fur’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. They include Bitter Greens (2012), The Wild Girl (2013), and The Beast’s Garden (2015). All of them are complex feminist adaptations that shed light on intrepid women in historical events that test their compassion and fortitude."

I love this endorsement so much because I feel it recognises something of what I am trying to do in my fiction. That is to celebrate and illuminate the lives of women, both in the past and today, to help my readers understand some of the costs and consequences of gender inequality, and to inspire them to strive harder for such basic rights as creative freedom, economic independence, political power, and universal respect. 



So - for me - this is a list of books which I feel have been important to me in my personal struggle for women's rights and liberties; and which I hope will help and inspire others. My intention is for the list to be - with your help - an ever-growing and evolving thing of beauty.

Most of these books are fiction, simply because that is my own great love, but I have decided to widen the scope of my list to include essays, poems, and non-fiction works as well. So please, help me! What should I be reading?


Five Go to Treasure Island – Enid Blyton
When I was a kid growing up, my sister and I wanted to be just like George – strong, fearless, truthful and just as good as a boy. There were not that many heroines like George all the way back then.



Emily of New Moon – L.M. Montgomery
My favourite L.M. Montgomery book, I loved it because the heroine wanted to be a writer. She was clever and determined and did not want to marry if it was going to stand in the way of her ambition.

I also love Anne of Green Gables, of course, and one of her lesser-known books, The Blue Castle, also has to be included on my list


Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
I loved the character of Jo so much. She seemed just like me – untidy, dreamy, and always scribbling away at a story. I also love Eight Cousins!




The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
This was the first fantasy book I ever read where it was the woman’s tale that was the focus. A touchstone book for me. 



The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
A powerful novel about domestic abuse in 19th century England, with a heartbreaking denouement. 


Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 
Still one of my all-time favourite books – I try and re-read it every few years. 


The Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
The story of ‘Jane Eyre’ retold from the point of view of the mad wife in the attic. So clever! 


Persuasion – Jane Austen
My favourite Jane Austen novel – the story of a young woman learning to speak out for herself. I would also include all of Jane Austen's other books, including - of course - Pride & Prejudice.




The Awakening - Kate Chopin
I read this in my first degree, and have never forgotten the effect it had on me. A landmark work of early feminism (published in 1899).

The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A 6,000 word short story published in 1892 that describes a woman's slow descent into madness after being confined to a room on a 'rest cure',  a common prescription for women in the 19th century. Unsettling and powerful. 

Precious Bane - Mary Webb
This is one of my all-time favourite books & am always pressing it upon my friends, insisting they read it. 

A Room of Her Own – Virginia Woolf
I carry this book in my heart. It had a profound influence on me and my determination to shape my own life.




The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
The only novel written by the American poet, and published under a pseudonym in 1963. Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after its UK publication. I also love her poetry, particularly Ariel.

Transformations - Anne Sexton
A dark and powerful collection of poems inspired by fairy tales. I also really love 'Her Kind':




The Color Purple - Alice Walker 
Another all-time favourite book! It never fails to dazzle and move me.




I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
A heart-rending memoir of the poet’s life.



Stravinsky’s Lunch – Drusilla Modjeska

A fascinating book on the lives of women’s artists. 



Women Who Run with the Wolves - Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Myths and Stories of the Archetypal Woman - a book I have dipped into again many times. 


The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century Literary Imagination - Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar  
Hugely influential book of feminist re-readings of writers such as Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. Fuelled my fascination with the Victorian era.  


Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood
My favourite book by Margaret Atwood, this tells the story of a young woman accused of murder.


Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver
Such a beautiful and wise book.




Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier

The story of Mary Anning, the young woman who discovered dinosaur fossils at Lyme Regis.


Possession – A.S. Byatt
The story of a love affair between Victorian poets.




Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

The contrasting lives of two young women in Victorian Britain - a tour-de-force!


The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

A tour de force! Tells the story of a brilliant, unconventional woman in the 19th century who studies lichen in order to understand the world.



There are, of course, many thousands more ... and as I read them or remember them, I will add them to my list!

Please feel free to make suggestions below!


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