This week I’ve been reading… The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

 

In a nutshell: Men: treating women like shit since 1821.

Favourite quote: When you have once extinguished my love you will find it no easy matter to kindle it again.

How long: Just over a week

Would I recommend it: I’m going to be waving copies under the noses of everyone I know until they read it just to make me stop.

My mum has been nagging me to read this book for years whilst at the same time telling me that it’s not an easy read and there’s way too much stuff about religion in it, which instead of making me want to read it had just completely put me off. But I got a desperate urge to read a full on classic last week and so instead of picking one of the many many many books clogging up my own bookshelves waiting to be read I borrowed this.

I think I’d forgotten just how much I enjoy classics. It’s easy when you haven’t read one in a while to assume that it’ll be a much tougher read than a contemporary novel. But I just don’t find that. And this one had me hooked very early on. I’d say the style of writing is more Charlotte than Emily Bronte, which suits me as I much prefer Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights, but the book in general is far less gothic than the other Bronte novels. In the whole 535 pages there is only one reference to a moor.

So what is the plot? A mysterious woman and her young son move into a new village and try to settle into a new life there. They attract the attention of Gilbert Markham who soon finds himself falling in love with Helen. But rumours about the morality of the woman are spread throughout the village and Helen hands over her diary to Gilbert for him to read to understand her circumstances.

I think this book acts as a harsh reminder that life in the 1800s was tough for women. It’s easy to forget this when you’ve got Jane Austen telling you that life was peachy and everyone ended up with their fairytale happily ever after. But most men aren’t Mr Darcy, as sad as that is to admit. The situations these women ended up in had me angry, like I had to put it down and breath deeply for a few minutes angry.

People can go on and on about Jane Eyre being a feminist – ‘I am no bird and no net ensnares me’ and all that – but she had nothing, nothing, on Helen Graham. This book reads as a feminist manifesto. A seriously brave choose of story to chronicle in the 1800s.

But I get the impression that Anne Bronte was a bit of an early feminist from the preface at the beginning. She wrote under the pseudonym ‘Acton Bell’ which was specifically chosen to convey no clear sex of the author and here addresses the critics who she suspects are overly severe because they assume it to be a woman. I’d quite like to walk into my local bookstore which chooses to separate women’s fiction from ‘modern literary fiction’ and recite to them:

‘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, 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 censored for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.’

Whoops just slipped my feminist hat on there for a moment. I’m back on message again.

I have only one criticism and that is something that is in no way Anne Brontes fault. Why, oh why, would you put a quote on the back which acts as a massive spoiler?!? As a rule of thumb I would suggest that the quote above the blurb should be taken from no more than a quarter of the way through the book. In this case it came from well over half way and ruins any suspense about Helen’s backstory. And it’s not as though this book is well known enough that the plot goes without saying – it’s no Jane Eyre with the inevitable mad wife in the attic. A bit of uncertainty about the plot would have only made this book more enjoyable – so if you do decide to read this then avoid the Penguin Classics edition at all costs! Or at the very least the blurb.

I really recommend this book. It is by far one of the best I’ve read this year and deserves so much more fame than it has. And despite what my mum says the religion in it is purely secondary to, and in no way detracts from, the story of one woman’s struggle to have some power over her own life.

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