Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Annë Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)

Doomed to be forever known as The Other Brontë, I think we should give her her due nonetheless, don't you?  

The idea is that A mysterious young widow, Helen Graham, comes to live a secluded life in a small farming community with her young son, where a gentleman farmer, Gilbert Markham--our narrator (for inexplicable reasons, it's an epistolary novel--Markham is writing all of this to an apparently quite indulgent friend)--comes to fall in love with her.  Does she love him back?  Maybe, but troubles and misunderstandings are a-brewin.'  Eventually, she lets him read her journal so he can understand her history and her strange behavior; said journal takes up the better part of the novel.

Spoilers to follow…

It turns out that Mrs. Graham--not her real name--actually isn't a widow; some years ago, she made an ill-advised marriage to an initially charming but ultimately dissipated and cruel man, Mr. Huntingdon.  The narrative chronicles their marriage starting out okay but getting worse and worse until finally, to protect her son from following in his father's footsteps, she runs away to live by herself under an assumed name, which is where we stand at novel's beginning.

I was really enjoying this: in the first section, I was really feeling Markham's tempestuous emotions, and I thought the minor characters--particularly his sardonic younger brother Fergus--were well-drawn.  And I continued enjoying it as Helen told her story.  This is all somewhat didactic in tone--the purpose being to warn people not to precipitously marry and, uh, that drunken whoring around is bad bad bad (apparently, the characterizations of Huntingdon and his cohort were based largely on the behavior of the Brontë brother, Branwell); Helen and her husband are painted in absolutely black and white terms--but that didn't bother me so much.

What did kinda bother me as things progressed was that--as I slowly came to realize--The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a really, really intensely moralistic, puritanical novel, and both of our young lovers come across as just insufferably priggish.  Seriously, woman, don't have an affair with Walter Hargrave because you don't like him and he's kind of a douchebag; don't not have an affair with him because--in spite of your husband openly carrying on with another woman and treating the marriage entirely as a travesty, you still feel that you are married to him in the eyes of God and you must be faithful &c.  But, you know, okay, if you've gotta do that, fine; you still hope the marriage can be saved, naive as the idea may be.  Whatever.  But then, after Marham has read the journal, we really have to have this whole WE LOVE EACH OTHER!  BUT WE CAN'T!  WE CAN NEVER SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN!  WE WILL MEET IN HEAVEN! business, complete with a pretty darned risible conversation about how being united in Heaven compares to being united on Earth.  And then when they embrace because of their GREAT LOVE, but they can NEVER SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN, you have to think--damn, people.  You are suffering from a serious mental disease here.  To very near the end, I still held up hope that the novel was ultimately going to criticize this worldview, but no--it plays everything absolutely straight.  Markham actually seems more or less sane at the beginning of the novel, but he very quickly picks up this intense, meaningless self-abnegation from Helen.  This is a novel that the Christian right could love, and now that I've made you think of Kirk Cameron as Markham, you can't unthink it; not that that invalidates it, but BOY are the characters tough to be around at the end, with their self-congratulatory self-sacrificing business, and there is a decidedly vindictive feel to the way Brontë informs us of the fates of her various Bad characters that reminds one unpleasantly of the likes of the Left Behind books.

I mean, hell, I still liked it, kind of.  I was still eager to know what would happen, even though I really already knew what would happen--and doesn't the necessity of what anyone would recognize as a happy ending kind of contradict the whole HEAVENLY LOVE IS THE BEST LOVE business?  'Cause really, why should we even CARE what happens on Earth?  I think Brontë was confused, and I think her book is confused and not as good as I wanted it to be.


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