Thursday, January 30, 2020

Entertainment Focus reviews the Folio Society edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
 I took an interest in Anne Brontë’s literary canon after seeing her grave in Scarborough last year. I hadn’t been looking for it. I just happened to wander past the graveyard of St Mary’s Church. It’s an unassuming plot, though beautiful, and it has more recently been refurbished with a new headstone. Which of her works had I read? I pondered that question as I stood at her grave. None, it later transpired. Selected works of her sisters had been on my school reading list. Anne’s had not.
Now that The Folio Society has issued a new edition of Anne Brontë’s best-known work – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – it has proven the perfect opportunity to turn to the Brontë I had neglected and discover her most famous contribution to literature for myself. Colour paintings by Valentina Catto capture the mid-nineteenth century period, and this exquisite edition will light up any bookcase. [...]
The prose of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a treat to read. Anne Brontë’s style is elegant, though at times visceral. There is a strong sense of place and time. Yet there is something about the epistolary framing device that is unsatisfying. We learn about the unfolding ‘present’ events through a series of letters Gilbert Markham writes to an unseen and unknown friend, up until the insertion of Helen’s diary, after which Markham’s letters resume. It’s hard not to conclude that the story would have more immediacy and urgency if simply told from a third person narration point-of-view. I have a personal preference for stories (regardless of medium) that are told from the point of view of a single protagonist, so my own reluctance to accept a second narrator is showing through. The resolution of the story is a touch cute too – there is a death and an inheritance (the events are unconnected) that conspire to afford a happy ending. It is not entirely unbelievable, but a little reliant on coincidence to bring home the desired conclusion.
The awkward structural issues detract a little from the story. The large hiatus in the middle of the book to learn about Helen’s backstory means that the reader has to get on board with her relationship with Gilbert Markham all over again much later. I said I would judge The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on its merits, but in the end, it’s hard not to conclude that Eyre and Rochester, or Cathy and Heathcliff, are more memorable couples.
After an unfair comparison, it’s worth pointing out what Anne Brontë achieves that her sisters never did. The book is realistic, and a forensic study of a bad and abusive marriage, as well as unstinting on its examination of alcoholism, and the difficulty of living with an alcoholic. It is for these merits that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall lives up to its reputation as a literary classic. Unusually for a nineteenth century novel, there is little excess fat and overly-verbose passages – the book is the right length to tell the story, the two narrators are entirely believable, and the story is a powerful one. Its insights into marriage and the predicament of a woman trapped in a bad union where divorce, dereliction or adultery were outcomes that all brought disgrace, is groundbreaking. Thirty years after The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House would be performed, which scandalised polite society in its depiction of a young woman ultimately choosing to defy her husband and leave him. Such literary efforts soaked into the surrounding culture and laid the groundworks for the much more radical emancipation of women in the early twentieth century.
As for Anne Brontë, she wouldn’t live to hear of Ibsen’s play, dying from tuberculosis in 1849 before even reaching her thirtieth birthday. The early deaths of the Brontë sisters adds to their allure – imbuing them with the tragic nature of some of their heroines. Even if their works didn’t immediately change society, they endure now for future generations. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall will certainly live on. It is best remembered for what makes it stand out against the romantic novels of the other Brontës: Anne ploughed her own furrow. She deserves credit and immortality through her work for that. (Greg Jameson)
On Anne's bicentenary, we seem to have missed Samantha Ellis's article on her for TLS.
The stories about Anne overtook the stories she had told. In 1911, the critic John Malham-Dembleby called her “understudy to Charlotte”. In 1929, W. T. Hale concluded his biographical monograph by writing, “The Gods were not kind to her: no men except her father’s curates ever had a chance to look at her. But the gods must have loved her, after all, for they did not prolong her agony. They let her die young”. Not a word about her writing; only her failure to marry a curate. As late as 1992, despite the efforts of feminist critics, Muriel Spark was calling Anne “the literary equivalent of a decent water-colourist, as so many maidens were in those days”.
Chronology can be cruel. It couldn’t be otherwise, but it seems a pity that Anne Brontë’s bicentenary comes last, as if she is plodding patiently behind her bolder, flashier sisters, the way she is so often portrayed by biographers and critics. But perhaps 2020 will turn out to be the best year to celebrate her work, as the #MeToo movement inspires searching, complicated literature, and gives us new ways of reading the Victorians. There is a passage in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that feels almost painfully current. Anne’s heroine Helen is painting alone when Mr Hargrave bursts in. Like any #MeToo monster, he trades on her vulnerability, telling her that her husband, an unfaithful, violent alcoholic no longer wants her, and that she cannot escape with her son, because, he says, “no one will believe you go alone … you will have no credit for your virtue”. If ever a literary heroine needed the hashtag #IBelieveHer, it is Helen. Hargrave assaults her, and, when one of their drunken friends sees them, he gloats, “Your fair fame is gone”. She is already a fallen woman in the world’s eyes, so why not succumb? Instead, she threatens him with her palette-knife.
Anne’s detractors find her novels excessively moralizing but when she insists on Helen’s virtue she is insisting on Helen’s story, her truth. Helen has to hold fast to that story when it is constantly undermined. Her husband reads her diary and is thrilled that he has discovered her plan to leave him: “ha, ha!” he taunts her. “It’s well these women must be blabbing”. When Helen finally does get away, she finds a better man to read her diary, in the form of the young gentleman farmer Gilbert Markham, but even then her husband tells “so many lies, and with such unblushing coolness” that her relatives are nearly ready to tell him where she is – a clear example of gaslighting avant la lettre. This is just what abusers do. [...]
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was also driven by Anne’s anger at the fact that while her sisters also knew what it was like to live with a self-destructive man, when they put Branwell on the page, they made him heroic. Both Heathcliff (whose crimes include tricking Isabella into marriage and then beating her and hanging her dog, terrorizing his weak son until he dies, and kidnapping the younger Catherine) and Rochester (who locks up his mentally ill wife, goes on a sex tour of Europe and tries to con his teenage employee into bigamy) are cast not just as heroes, but as romantic heroes. In 1939, the film of Wuthering Heights was trailed as “THE GREATEST LOVE STORY OF OUR TIME … OR ANY TIME!” In the 1996 television adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as if to underline that it is definitely not a love story, Helen is raped by her husband.
Many viewers claimed there was no textual basis for this, but I am not so sure. Helen describes one terrible night where her husband and his friends drink, swear and fight. One beats his wife, with no shame, in front of everyone else. And later, much later, her husband roars up the stairs, “sick and stupid”, and Helen writes “I will write no more about that”. She is usually so honest that this gap seems jarring, but I think Anne was leaving space for her readers to imagine what a man like that might do once he was alone with his wife. If she wanted to imply marital rape, she also simply did not have the words. Even twenty years later, the hyper-articulate John Stuart Mill was left stumbling and floundering as he described a wife “being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations”. Marital rape would not become a crime in the UK until 1991. It was literally unspeakable. Yet underpinning every line of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Anne’s knowledge that marriage made Helen her husband’s property, and that if he did get her back, he would have the legal right to rape her, just as he could deny her access to their son, seize her clothes, jewellery and even paintings she had painted with paints she had bought with money she had made herself. Anne knew how men could misuse power. [...]
Only five of Anne’s letters survive, and four “diary papers” she wrote with Emily. But she did speak out in her own words in one of her last sustained pieces of writing, the preface she wrote to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She insisted on her right to tell the stories she felt she had to tell, and to be believed, writing, “Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant overcolouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration”. Charlotte would later tell Elizabeth Gaskell that Anne really had killed those birds. “I wished to tell the truth”, wrote Anne, “for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.” Maybe now, at Anne’s bicentenary, we are finally able to receive her truth. As Helen’s husband said, “It’s well these women must be blabbing”.
Northern Soul reviews Anne Brontë Reimagined by Adelle Hay.
Hay investigates the ‘real’ Anne Brontë and asks questions about how and why her reputation was damaged and, as a result, her extraordinary catalogue of work was so overlooked. What follows is an in-depth exploration into her childhood, family, interests, career and experiences that goes some way towards figuring out why such a literary talent has been omitted from the canon of classic English writers.
Anne Brontë Reimagined is an interesting text for several reasons but, most notably, Hay reminds us that, for a long time, writing about women’s experiences wasn’t seen as pioneering or even interesting (after all, the Brontës wrote under the male pseudonyms of Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell). By exploring subject matter such as religion, the domestic sphere and family matters faced by women, Anne was often considered as ‘moralising’ and ‘preachy’. Sounds familiar, right?
Anne managed to capture the female experience, such as the plight of the married woman in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and often discussed real issues that women faced including domestic violence and addiction. Her sheer honesty was considered dull and moralistic, but it is precisely her refusal to romanticise violence and litter her narratives with brooding men and complicated relationships that makes Anne Brontë such a ground-breaking author.
My copy of Anne Brontë Reimagined arrived with a note suggesting that 2020 is the year to “be more Anne” and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, she’s exactly the kind of woman you need to channel when navigating the modern world of dating. As I’m a single 30-something woman, Anne Brontë is something of my feminist icon. She placed merit in men who expressed their love by words and actions rather than sweeping gestures and ferocious feelings. While my younger self might have fancied Heathcliff and Rochester, my older (wiser) self knows the importance of a decent, kind man and the significance of being autonomous.
So, if you consider yourself a Brontë fan-girl, you’ll find this latest investigation into the life and work of the youngest – and hugely misunderstood – Brontë sister a thoroughly interesting read. (Emma Yates-Badley)
The Guildford Dragon reviews Blackeyed Theatre's Jane Eyre.
Kelsey Short, in the title role, portrays Jane as hunched and cowed when she is young; forthright, often angry, as she grows up. Somewhere between the two, perhaps, lies the essence of Bronte’s heroine, though the pace of this retelling can make her hard to glimpse.
Ben Warwick, physically at least, makes an unconventional Rochester: not the dark, brooding figure we may imagine, but lithe and long-limbed, his fair hair tousled.
The balance of power between these two lies at the story’s heart. Rochester – anguished and controlling – has a terrible secret. Jane – alone and poor – acts from love alone.
With so much to cram in, their unfolding relationship at times lacks depth. Only when they touch – in two highly sensual handshakes – is their mutual attraction truly seen.
The scenes that come most alive involve St John Rivers (Oliver Hamilton) and his sisters Mary (Camilla Simson) and Diana (Eleanor Toms, again). There is real tenderness and humour as Jane blossoms beneath their care, and the sisters tease their pompous clergyman brother. We can all urge Jane on as she rejects what must surely be one of literature’s least appealing marriage proposals. [...]
On Tuesday the Arnaud audience was full of teenagers: taking the chance, no doubt, to see a set text brought to life. For anyone studying Jane Eyre, or keen to revisit a much-loved classic, this is a fine night out. (Alice Fowler)
Rather unusually, Georgia Tech News Centre recommends reading Minae Mizumura's A True Novel (a retelling of Wuthering Heights) for Valentine's Day.
A True Novel
By Minae Mizumura, Other Press (2002); originally published in Japanese, English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter in 2013
A True Novel, an adaption of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan, deals with the themes of love, desire, change, and loss. Set at a time when Japan was in the midst of an incredible transformation, the novel follows two lovers, Taro and Yoko, whose relationship is doomed by class difference and social change. Mizumura’s description of the resort town of Karuizawa is particularly evocative. Just as the moorland of Wuthering Heights represents the vast and rocky terrain of Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship, the elite yet declining Karuizawa becomes a symbol of the social and economic strata that continue to separate the lovers even as Japanese society globalized.”
—Amanda Weiss, assistant professor, School of Modern Languages
The Epoch Times discusses Greta Gerwig's Little Women and its reception.
While Alcott did vote, she never did marry, and few women gained financial independence then, especially through writing, save for the prolific and profound Bronte sisters. (Nicole Russell)
Which is funny as the Brontës were neither particularly prolific (think of Emily's one novel) nor financially independent through writing as Emily and Anne never saw a penny of what their publisher Thomas Newby promised them.


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