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.
[amazon_link asins=’1853264881′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’12e923c2-9f57-11e8-8d62-91c08c161465′]Everyone’s curious about the new tenants, a Mrs. Graham, and her little boy and everyone wants to know more about them. But Mrs. Graham doesn’t like to socialize.  She stays away from parties and turns down so many invitations that many people she’s anti-social. When Mrs. Graham’s in a group, she voices strong-minded opinions on subjects like alcohol and education for girls. Gilbert’s intrigued. Between his mom, his sister and the females of the village, he’s used to flattery and flirtation from women, two things Mrs. Graham won’t give him. The more he learns about her, the more he wants to know and the harder she pushes him away.   Eventually, Gilbert learns his new neighbor is hiding from her charismatic bad-boy of a husband, a man who wants to introduce her and his young son to every degrading vice in the book. It’s a complicated story, told in Victorian Language, but it reads like a modern page-turner.
 
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 Book that Stays: Jane Eyre

Many people read the Bible throughout their lives.  It teaches and comforts them and never becomes tiring.  I like that kind of relationship with a story, where the characters are so developed and the narrative so strong that the book reveals different strengths as you re-read it at different points in your life.   I suppose the book I’ve had the longest relationship with is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

I first tried reading Jane when I was in junior high, too young to understand most of it.  The part I did understand was the child Jane of the first nine chapters.  Here was a fearsome little girl, capable of attacking a bully or standing up to adults when necessary.  Since I didn’t have the nerve to do either, I loved the little hellion and cheered her on.  I didn’t really understand her friendship with the gentle Helen Burns (like Jane, I have too much original sin to identify with the saint-like Helen) but I was sad to see her go, with an exit that still gives me a chill.  Imagine waking up next to a corpse!

Teens and twenties are high times for romance and that’s when I dwelt in the middle section of Jane Eyre.   Mr. Rochester is one of the mysterious, fascinating bad-boys of gothic literature that shy governess types are drawn to (He may be the prototype for that character) and for awhile I imagined every guy I was attracted to was a Mr. Rochester.  Most of them had nothing in common with Mr. R., especially his lethal secret.  But if you are a guy and you want to know why so many girls are fascinated by bad boys, take a look at Jane Eyre.   The reason shows up in Chapter 12 riding a big black horse.

Like all works of this type, the boy isn’t as much bad as misunderstood and the course of true love eventually runs smooth but the mechanism that gets them there is the spiritual side of Jane Eyre, a part I didn’t begin to understand until my 40’s.   I had read the book many times by that point  (“Yeah, here’s the prayer and pleas to Heaven…I’ll just flip past these exhortations”) but Jane’s reliance on her faith wasn’t something I could identify with until I’d developed some of my own.  Jane learns to set boundaries to protect herself, even with those she loves, and she has to accept she can’t control any actions except her own.  The fact that she does that and refuses to pity herself or act like her life is over when she’s alone makes her a hero of mine.  That’s the kind of character I want to emulate.

Jane Eyre’s story ends when she’s around thirty years old and her creator died at 38, two ages I passed a long time ago.  Still this novel comforts me and the heroine helps me every time I re-read it.  Home seeking and home loving Jane appeals to my domestic side.  Self-sustaining, courageous and independent Jane reminds me of the women’s movement.  Accepting, spiritual Jane points the way to redemption.  Either way, the lady is far ahead of me and I always enjoy hearing her story.  Jane Eyre isn’t the Bible but it’s a book worth reading.  It’s a book that stays.