Victorian Tale/Modern Mind

I’ll admit I’ve been on a Brontë kick this summer; heat tends to drive me toward stories about simmering characters in cooler climes, a sure recipe for a Brontë book.  But, for all of my repeated readings of Charlotte Brontë‘s prose and my disaffection for sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, I never bothered to read the work of Anne Brontë.  Now, I want to bang on the front doors of all my English teachers and yell, “Why didn’t you assign her books to your courses?  What were you thinking?” Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may be the surprise sensation of my summer reading.
 
It seems the book has always defied expectations. Published when English Women had no right to vote, own property or even have custody of their children, it’s a challenge to that “civilized” society.  It dealt with issues like addiction and adultery so realistically it was a literary sensation when it was first published. It was so controversial, that sister Charlotte tried at one point to suppress the book’s being reprinted.
The story’s subtitle could be “the mysterious new girl in town, ” and it’s told by Gilbert Markham, a young, rather satisfied, gentleman farmer whose family has “always” been part of the community.  He sees the same old friends all the time and visits the same old places with them. His mom doesn’t like his girlfriend, but that’s nothing new. Life, for Gilbert, is just a bit boring. Then strangers move into Wildfell Hall.
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There’s something in the urgent voice of Mrs. Graham that compels you through most of the story. You can see why she married the wrong man and how initially she tried to make the marriage work.  You understand how hard and necessary it was for her to shut the door against him and how frail is her hope of freedom.  Even when she stops speaking and Gilbert again takes up the story, Mrs. Graham’s voice is the one you remember.

About the Author-

 

Anne Bronte

It’s astounding to realize this is only Anne Brontë’s second book and her last one at that.  She died at 29, the year after  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published. More strident than Charlotte and less moody than Emily, she is the realist of that intense family: Wildfell Hall is no romantic spot like Thornfield or Wuthering Heights, it’s a big old house that sorely needs maintenance.  And, instead of vengeance or spiritual transcendence, Anne’s characters want and demand justice, a call that resonates today.  Perhaps that’s why, after almost 200 years, Anne seems the most “relevant” Brontë.  She wasn’t just the youngest Brontë sister.  She was the most modern female in the bunch.

The Obsessive Story of the Obsessed Bronte

My obsessions don’t make me a better person.  They eat up too much time and energy and can turn me into an absolute bore but, they are part of me.  I find an interesting subject and suddenly I have to know everything about it.  That’s the mark of an obsessive and, as I say, it has its downfalls.  But sometimes that drive yields obscure treasures.
Obsession is one reason I love Daphne Du Maurier’s stories. Two of her most famous works, (Rebecca and My Cousin, Rachel) are about the mania of being haunted by a subject.  And, according to at least one biography, the Du Maurier had a literary obsession that I share: the Bronte family. Trust me, this makes sense.
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The Unforgettable Bronte Siblings

The Bronte sisters are a fascinating subject, whether you are studying literature or history. Three adult sisters, with minimal resources, strove to support themselves as writers, when the publishing world of publishing was pretty much closed to women. The sisters created poems and novels that often dealt with obsession. The novels become best-sellers and then literary classics, studied and loved ever since.  The Bronte girls all attained incredible literary success but Ms. Du Maurier didn’t want to write about them.  Instead, she chose to write about the great failure of this talented family: their brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte.  Story-wise, this makes sense too.
The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is a look at the then-forgotten brother of three literary geniuses (genii?) and figure out why he failed. By all accounts, it should have been the other way around. Young Branwell, with his imagination and brains, led his sisters in games of imaginary world-building,  He should have been the Bronte writer the world remembers.  With his superior education and opportunities, he should have, at least, been able to support himself. Instead, Branwell ruined every chance that he got and lived off his father or his sisters.  In the end, Branwell’s talent and gifts were outweighed by his flaws: an overwhelming ego, little self-discipline, and a destructive addiction to alcohol. Still, he’s an interesting failure and a brilliant psychological study, perfect for Du Maurier’s mind.
Perhaps Branwell’s disastrous luck was contagious because The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte did not sell well, even though it was written by a popular author. After publication, it was rarely read.  But, like Branwell, if his biography is a failure, it’s an interesting one.  It’s the story of a man who had a gifted but uncontrollable mind.  In other words, it’s one obsessive writing about another.