Monday, February 10, 2014

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anyone who knows me well is probably familiar with my love/hate relationship with the works of the Bronte sisters. I abhorred Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (worst heroine, worst ending…I could go on forever), but I loved Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which, I felt, had a much more compelling plot than Jane Eyre, and it had a supernatural element, which was an added plus for me. So, when I found out that I had to read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for my class on Victorian sensation novels, I was feeling apprehensive, to say the least. Anne Bronte is the least-known of her sisters, and I hadn’t read any of her works yet. What if I hated it just as much as Jane Eyre? How could I write a paper on a book that I might end up hating? The thought alone sounded like pure, utter torture.

Thankfully, Tenant turned out to be far more enjoyable than I imagined. In this novel, Anne Bronte chronicles the story of Helen Graham, a mysterious woman who moves into a wing of an old, abandoned mansion called Wildfell Hall with her young son, her servant, and her meager possessions. There, she sets herself up as a professional artist. As though her single status, her choice to work, and her independent nature weren’t enough to incite the suspicions of her new neighbors, Helen refuses to speak about her past, comes up with excuses to avoid returning calls, and becomes the prey of vicious town gossip. However, Gilbert Markham, her neighbor and our narrator and guide through the story, falls in love with her, and finds out that Helen was the victim of a disastrous, abusive marriage, from which she has run away. Will Helen’s blackguard husband find out about her hiding place? Will Helen eventually choose to return to her husband? Will she ever end up with Gilbert Markham?

One of the many reasons why I’ve enjoyed reading Tenant is because its plot is like that of a very good soap opera, but with substance. It packed a ton of drama and contained a colorful cast of characters, some of which I loved to love and some of which I loved to hate. I applauded Helen for the independence and self-sufficiency she showed during many moments in the novel—she was never afraid to tell a man when his affection wasn’t wanted, she wasn’t afraid to stand up to her husband, she wasn’t afraid to run away and find a better place for herself and her son, and she wasn’t afraid to work for a living. It’s hard to believe now, but these were all activities that were deemed “scandalous” for a woman to do in the 1820s, which is when the action of the novel takes place. Helen can be seen as a feminist figure for her time. However, her feminism isn’t vocal or loudly proclaimed. Helen was what I call a “quiet feminist.” She lets her actions speak for her, and she solves most of her problems through silence and secrecy. On the outside, Helen seems like what the proper Victorian woman should be, but on the inside, she is not afraid to break the rules. However, there were some moments in which I was not happy with Helen’s actions, but I can’t talk about them without spoiling the book! And of course, I lost count of all the times I just wanted to straight-up slap the life out of Helen’s husband, Arthur Huntingdon.

Another reason why I loved Tenant so much is that it stills holds its power to shock, and continues to remain relevant today. The debauchery, cruelty, and sadism that Bronte chronicles still create strong emotions within us. As a reader, it’s easy for us to deplore Helen’s decision in marrying Arthur, but the idea of the “dangerous lover” still continues to lure many people today. The image of the “bad boy” or the “bad girl” continues to be romanticized and sexualized in our society. It’s easy for people to enter into a relationship with someone thinking they can somehow change them for the better, but Bronte’s novel shows us that realistically, it’s something easier said than done. Even though romantic relationships today are a far cry from what they were like in the early 19th century, there are some things that, unfortunately, never changed.

          -Sarah Allam

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