Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 1 of 7)

Persuasion – Jane Austen

I’d decided that Persuasion was going to be my next Austen read even before that trailer dropped, but it was a helpful reminder to hurry up. Before it was a Dakota Johnson rom-com, it was Austen’s last completed novel, written “in a race against her failing health in 1815-16”.

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So, apparently, Persuasion was at least partly inspired by Austen’s own brother, Charles, who bore a lot of similarities to the leading man Captain Wentworth. According to scholar Sheila Johnson Kindred: “both began their careers in command of sloops in the North America station at about the same age; both were popular with their crews; both progressed to the command of frigates; both were keen to share their prize money with their crews, though Captain Wentworth ended up considerably richer as a result of his prize money than did Captain Austen”.

Another fun fact: Persuasion was the first Austen novel to feature an older woman in the lead. (Well, she’s twenty-seven, but by Regency standards that’s practically ancient.) Some Austen academics have drawn the conclusion that this shift, towards older protagonists, was a reflection of Austen’s own age (see above: careening towards death) and her desire to challenge the notion that a woman’s life was over if she didn’t marry before her wisdom teeth came in. One of her biographers, Claire Tomalin, called Persuasion Austen’s “present to herself, to Miss Sharp, to [her sister] Cassandra, to Martha Lloyd…to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring”.

So, we’ve got an “elderly” leading lady in Anne Elliot, and the charismatic captain Frederick Wentworth, who has successfully climbed the career ladder. Now that we’ve met the players, lets see what it’s all about.

Persuasion is basically the O.G. second-chance romance. Anne and Fred were engaged to be married back in the day, but she was pressured into dumping him by her snooty family and friends – and she stayed sad about it for ten years. Now, her family and friends are considerably less snooty (in bank balance, if not in attitude) and facing a significant reduction in circumstances when Fred comes back to town. It would seem he’s been living his best life without Anne, and she is MORTIFIED.

It hardly constitutes a spoiler to say they end up together (fight me), but we take many a long and winding road to get there. Fred spends a lot of time ignoring Anne and flirting with her in-laws, Anne’s cousin comes out of the woodwork and sets his sights on her, there’s a near-fatal head injury and plenty of dinner parties.

Persuasion is much darker than Pride And Prejudice or Emma. Austen was so scathing, such a savage, that at times I literally covered my mouth as I was reading. There’s not as much of the sparkling dialogue; it’s far more introspective, and I suppose that’s why it seems meaner (even today, in the age of Twitter, we all think things we wouldn’t dare say out loud). I found it harder, too, to keep track of all the characters and their relationships to one another – perhaps as a result of their minimal on-page interaction.

I think, like much of Austen’s work, Persuasion has a slow-burn effect. I can’t say it blew me away at my first reading – but nor did any of her others. Over time, though, I’ll find myself thinking about it more and more, and referring back to it more and more, and before I know it I’ll be a convert. (Hopefully not before the new adaptation comes out – I want to be able to enjoy it without poking holes.)

Persuasion is really one for the true fans, often too severe to be funny (and occasionally fat-shamey, by the by) and subtle in its treatment of quite dramatic turns. I wouldn’t recommend starting out with this one, if you’re new to Austen, but if you’ve already read her others, you’re well placed to give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Persuasion:

  • “I find her writing dry, humorless, dull, and always the same themes. It’s the constant talk about class, and who is good enough for whom, and the woman and man who just can’t seem to get together until the very end when they admit their mutual love. It’s all very tedious.” – LINDA LEVEN
  • “Chinese water torture? Sounds like a welcome diversion from this boring redundant work of “art” to me. I feel for the trees that were wasted in the process of creating this horrendously boring soap opera in paperback. It is possible that I missed something while reading this work because I spent most of the time trying to stay awake. However, in the future if I want to read something of this caliber I would write NBC and ask for the script of their least watched daytime “soap”. In conclusion, not only do I NOT recommend this novel, but I pledge to do my best to begin an anti-Persuasion League, to prevent the widespread development of narcolepsy in high school students who are forced to read worthlessly painful novels.” – James Gibbs

The Importance Of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

I am dipping, once again, into my Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde collection. The first time, I read and reviewed The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and this time I’m taking a stab at one of his plays: The Importance Of Being Earnest. I didn’t realise until after I’d read it that it is subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People – though, as a rather unserious person, I can tell you that didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of this ridiculous romp at all.

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At the time of writing The Importance Of Being Earnest, Wilde was coming off the back of wild success (pun definitely intended) of his plays An Ideal Husband, and A Woman Of No Importance. He was stuck with his family on a summer holiday in 1894 when he began work on this new venture, borrowing names and places from people and places he knew in real life. The play was finished in time for its first performance at St James’s Theatre in London, on 14 February 1895.

The play is set in “The Present” (i.e., 1895), and revolves around two young men who create fictional excuses to escape tedious social obligations (relatable content!). Act I opens with Algernon receiving Jack (whom he calls “Ernest”) at his home. Jack is planning to propose to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but Algernon discovers his secret – that his name isn’t Ernest at all (spoiler, it’s Jack), and Ernest is a rapscallion “brother” that Jack has invented as a reason to visit the city and a cover for his own bad behaviour.

But, plot twist, Algernon has a similar deception of his own. Whenever he needs an excuse to get out of something, he says that his friend Bunbury is very unwell and he must attend to the invalid’s bedside. He calls this Bunburying, the old-timey equivalent of “my mum says no”.

When Gwendolen shows up – with her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, in tow – Jack forges ahead with the proposal, and to his delight she accepts… because his name is Ernest (as far as she knows). She says she had always planned to marry a man by that name, and Jack resolves to have himself re-christened immediately, so that she never need know he’s deceived her.

In Act II, Algernon heads to Jack’s home in the country to meet his ward, an attractive young lady called Cecily. The devious rake presents himself as Ernest, Jack’s troubled brother, and in that guise himself proposes to Cecily. She, too, is particularly fond of the name Ernest, so Algernon also arranges to have himself christened accordingly.

Naturally, their deceptions are exposed and it takes some fancy footwork for Algernon and Jack to dance their way out of trouble. This collection has the full four-act version of The Importance Of Being Earnest, which includes the solicitor who comes to arrest “Ernest” for unpaid bills back in London. Apparently, the manager of the first production asked Wilde to cut it down, and some critics argue that “the three-act structure is more effective and theatrically resonant”… but I disagree.

Wilde’s wit and insight shines at full strength throughout The Importance Of Being Earnest. Take, for instance, this surprisingly timely gem:

ALGERNON: Oh! It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and one shouldn’t. One should read everything. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

The Importance Of Being Earnest (Page 360)

That’s something that U.S. governing bodies and school boards would do well to remember, eh?

And while the plot satires and skewers the social conventions of the time and Victorian propriety (the name Earnest might have been an in-joke, suggesting that a man might be gay in the same way that being “musical” did at the time), Wilde steers away from the more serious political matters and sinful behaviour in his earlier plays. The most sinful scene of The Importance Of Being Earnest involved Algernon gluttonously gobbling a platter of cucumber sandwiches intended for his guest.

The farcical premise and witty dialogue have made The Importance Of Being Earnest Wilde’s most enduringly popular play. It’s still beloved by critics, readers, and theatre-goers alike, and I’m happy to join them in singing its praises. It’s a quick read, remarkably clever, and delightfully ridiculous.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Importance Of Being Earnest:

  • ” The book is good and the movie with Colin Firth is about as good but cant be used in class as reference.” – Mads Stokes
  • “Got it but never wanted to read it” – chelsey
  • “The cover’s gross. In England they break their necks and hang em. That’s against constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. That’s nutty.” J. Kim
  • “Terrible play. Pretentious characters. Predictable plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I got 5 pages into this before I gave up.
    I dislike plays at the best of times; with shakespeare you can’t understand it, with this you’re bored to death!
    Cumber sandwiches and tea? “Oh how dreadfully spiffing!” This just fuels the negative snooty-tooty stereotype of us Brits!
    Tell me what is funny about some cagey weirdo with two names and a secret relationship/aunt having his cigarette box stolen and then somehow not knowing what is inscribed on his own property?” – Girlie

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is a 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, who described it herself in a letter to her publisher as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower… psychological and rather macabre”. I went in knowing the “twist” ending, but still excited to read it, as I’d heard nothing but glowing recommendations from other readers whose tastes don’t deviate much from mine. So, I won’t be hiding any spoilers in this review (don’t @ me).

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The opening chapter frames the story to follow: an unnamed narrator living abroad, reflecting on the strange circumstances that led her to that point in her life. It begins with the immortal opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Aside from that, the most important thing you need to know at the outset is that the narrator is never named, not even in dialogue.

When the flashback starts, the narrator is a naïve young woman working as a paid companion, holidaying with her employer in sunny Monte Carlo. She’s so passionately extra, I couldn’t help but laugh at her – a mild scene of social awkwardness over coffee becomes a test of her ability “to endure the frequent agonies of youth”. She is the antithesis of a Cool Girl, she has no chill at all. She constantly imagines the worst – whole scenarios and conversations – and reacts emotionally as though it’s actually happened.

It’s masterful psychological profiling by du Maurier (and annoyingly relatable), but it also gets a bit tiring to read without respite. Consider this your heads-up that Rebecca is not a book to be read in a single sitting; space it out a bit in order to enjoy it properly.

When your girl meets the handsome and enigmatic English widower holidaying in the same hotel, Mr de Winter, she freaks out so hard I desperately wanted her to have a Valium and a lie down. He’s wealthy and wife-less and, against all odds, romantically interested in this nervous little creature who’s paid to fold another woman’s underpants. After a fortnight of courting her, he all but demands that she marry him, and – of course – she agrees.

Now, I get that Maxim de Winter is meant to be the bad guy (that much is abundantly obvious, even in the earliest chapters), but like Mr Rochester before him, I’m hot for it. He’s charming and funny (when it suits him), and there’s something undeniably charismatic about him (despite his tendency to bump off wives when they annoy him – told you there’d be spoilers!).

Anyway, after the wedding and honeymoon, the de Winters return to their grand estate in Cornwall, Manderley (the one from the dream, remember?). There, the narrator meets Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper who remains steadfastly devoted to the first Mrs de Winter (that’d be the titular character, Rebecca), despite her untimely death in a boating accident the year before. Mrs Danvers is a truly chilling villain, capable of gaslighting even the reader – the whole way through Rebecca, she retains just enough plausible deniability to make you really wonder whether her constant attempts to psychologically undermine the narrator are all in the girl’s silly head.

So, the narrator is thrown into the lavish world of Manderley that doesn’t seem ready to accept her, and she hates it, despite loving Maxim. That’s a very strong start to a novel. Unfortunately, the plot then drags a little. The narrator obsesses over Rebecca, her new friends and household staff are cagey when she asks them questions, on and on it goes for a hundred pages or so. You might be tempted to write Rebecca off at this point – but don’t! It’s worth it in the end, I promise.

Things heat back up again when the narrator convinces herself, finally, that Maxim is still in love with his dead wife and there’s nothing she can do to ever truly win his heart. Mrs Danvers catches her at this (in)opportune moment, and tries to convince the narrator to commit suicide (yikes). Just as the narrator is making up her mind to jump, the shout goes up: a ship has wrecked just off the shore!

Not just that, but the divers who went down to try and free the ship’s hull from the reef found something disturbing: Rebecca’s capsized boat, with a body inside. That means that Maxim “identified” the wrong body that washed ashore after Rebecca’s disappearance. Oops!

And then it all really comes crashing down. Maxim is backed into a corner, forcing him to confess to his lovely new wife that he actually killed Rebecca. According to him, she was a cruel and unfaithful wife who managed to charm everyone but him with her beautiful facade (yeah, but mate, you would say that, wouldn’t you?). When she intimated to him that she was pregnant with another man’s child, he shot her – as you do…?

Almost unbelievably, the narrator accepts all of this without question. The prevailing opinion in the room is “Yeah! Rebecca! What a bitch!”. She doesn’t show a moment’s hesitation in helping Maxim cover up his crime. I can only surmise she was so willing to accept her murderous husband’s version of events because it conveniently and completely allayed every fear she’d had about his true allegiance and affections.

An inquest into the discovery of Rebecca’s (actual) body ends with a verdict of suicide. That’s when Jack Favell shows up and starts making trouble. He was Rebecca’s first cousin and lover, and he tries to blackmail Maxim, claiming to have “proof” that Rebecca would not have taken her own life – in the form of a note she sent to him the night that she died, asking him to come meet her.

NOW, this is where I will poke one important hole in an otherwise-fantastic story climax: why did no one consider Favell a suspect in Rebecca’s murder? Here’s this bloke who’s constantly drunk and highly emotional, who was having an affair with a married woman. He shows up with a note from her that shows they were to meet on the evening she died, a note that he failed to turn over to authorities for over a year… I mean, obviously he didn’t do it, but I kept waiting for SOMEONE to say “Mate, you look suspicious AF!”. No one did, though.

Anyway, I’ll try to speed through to the end here: it turns out that Rebecca wasn’t pregnant, but she was terminally ill, and Maxim manages to blame that on her too (“oh, she must have WANTED me to kill her, to save her a painful death, what a bitch!”). He escapes any trouble with the law, BUT the de Winters still have a karmic price to pay for his crime. Mrs Danvers burns the whole damn house down, and effectively forces them into exile.

Seriously, that final scene, that final page with the flames blazing on the horizon, it’s like a bomb going off. It stops abruptly, and leaves your ears ringing and your knees shaking. A chef’s-kiss A+ ending to Rebecca.

My edition includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, written in 2002. According to Beauman: “The plot of Rebecca may be as unlikely as the plot of a fairytale, but that does not alter the novel’s mythic resonance and psychological truth,” (page 437). No one really saw that at the time of publication. Reviewers called Rebecca “nothing beyond the novelette”, a book that “would be here today and gone tomorrow” – a far cry from the dissection of power and gender roles that du Maurier was getting at.

But, time told, after all; Rebecca has never been out of print. It is perennially popular, and has been adapted a bunch of times for both stage and screen (most recently, the 2020 remake for Netflix). I think it’s enduring appeal is due to the fact that it’s a deeply multi-layered literary novel, disguised as romantic fiction. You come for the spooky Gothic love story, but you stay for the evergreen interrogation of women’s subservience to (and subversion of) the rule of men. I’m pleased to report that, one or two quibbles aside, Rebecca lived up to all of its recommendations – and then some.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Rebecca:

  • “I forced myself to slog through this “classic” of gothic fiction and what a waste of time it was. 300 of the overwrought (and very DATED) 400 pages are mind-numbingly boring descriptions of Downton Abbey style tea parties, and the “story,” such as it was, all transpired in the last 80 pages, which themselves could have been edited down to 30.” – White Rabbit
  • “It was a slow and mildly interesting book.” – MRS M SWART
  • “Hated this story..too gloomy” – Sheryl Walsh
  • ” One of the most boring books I have ever read. This frequently makes ‘scariest books’ lists and the only thing scary about it is the narrator’s mother.” – K. P. Klima
  • “This book is, without question, the most boring peace of literature ever written. It makes the technical manual to my VCR look like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In fact, it’s so boring that I recommend a new synonym for boring, “Rebecca”. The book is about people who have disgustingly unbelievable personalities, who do really boring things, and make up mysteries about killing people that aren’t even in the story, then insist on telling you about it. The main character/narrator is the most overly emotional and sappy person in all of fiction, and could never ever be a real person, even in the 1920s when this book takes place. She insists on telling you about all of her problems, and how she can never “feel right” at Manderly, even though no sane person could EVER care. It’s enough to make you sick. The story really wasn’t that bad but it could have easily been told in about 1/10 of the amount of time. It’s like Dickens description without everything that makes Dickens good. Even after the thousands of atrocities committed by Hitler, I still consider him to be a great man, for burning THIS book. It’s that bad.” – person

Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey occupies a strange place in the Austen oeuvre. It was the first of her major works to be completed in full (1803), but it wasn’t published until after her death (1817). The first half of the story is a comedy of manners, the second is a satirical spin on the Gothic novel. Her heroine is plain and annoying, but still wins the love of the hero in the end. If the Austen novels were a family, Northanger Abbey would be the weird cousin who never says anything in the group chat.

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It would seem that, in writing Northanger Abbey, Austen took her frustration with the tropes of Gothic novels (the shrinking violet heroines, the spooky haunted houses, etc.) and turned it into a story of her own. The Introduction to my edition cites “Austen’s deep-seated dislike of pretension… [and] the absurdities of contemporary literature” as sources of inspiration as well. Basically, Austen wanted to send-up the schlocky novels of her day – something like My Best Friend’s Exorcism would be today’s equivalent.

So, instead of a beautiful young woman who faints at a whiff of excitement, Austen chose for her heroine Catherine Morland, a particularly-naive and over-eager bookworm. She’s a middle-class middle child (of ten!), undistinguished and generally unremarkable. If I had to summarise the central thesis of Northanger Abbey‘s opening chapter, it would be: “This bitch! I mean, she tries, but damn.”

The narrator tells us directly that Catherine is “not really” a heroine. That’s another thing: the narrator’s position in Northanger Abbey is unlike any of the others I’ve read so far of Austen. It’s third-person in the sense that the story is told from an outside perspective, not by one of the characters involved, but at the same time it’s not an omniscient or fly-on-the-wall viewpoint, either. The narrator – slash Austen herself – makes little asides to the reader throughout, offering her own commentary and insights into what’s going on and what the reader should make of it all.

The “inciting incident” is Catherine’s invitation to join some family friends on a sojourn to Bath. Of course, she accepts, and while she’s staying with them, she befriends the world’s most Extra supporting character, Isabella. She’s all “oh, you simply MUST come for a walk with me, or I will DIE, I will be DECEASED, for you are my BEST FRIEND IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD and without YOU I would meet an UNTIMELY DEATH!”, on every damn page. Still, Catherine doesn’t seem to find her as exhausting as I did; she joins Isabella at balls, at the theater, at the baths, and so on.

Shortly thereafter, Catherine also meets Henry Tilney – our leading man. He’s not as dashing or charismatic as other Austen heroes, but he’s got his own kind of charm. The blurb for Northanger Abbey described him as “irresistible but unsentimental”, which is bang on. Catherine immediately falls head-over-heels in love with him – even goes so far as to befriend his sister Eleanor, in an effort to get closer to him – but he seems just mildly entertained by her (well, until the happily-ever-after).

You know who’s more-than-mildly entertained by Catherine? John Thorpe, Isabella’s brother. He’s crude and gross and would definitely have sent Catherine dick pics if he’d had the technology. He never shuts up, either. Catherine doesn’t want a bar of him, but ends up kind-of accidentally stringing him along, in an effort not to hurt his or Isabella’s feelings. Whoops.

Catherine’s own brother, James, joins them in Bath for a bit, and decides he’s in love with Isabella. She’s keen on him too, and accepts his proposal of marriage… only to come down with a ghastly case of cold feet, coincidentally around the same time as she finds out he’s not rich. She starts trying to flirt her way into a more fruitful marriage, but by the end of Northanger Abbey she gets her comeuppance and James gets away scot-free.

Once the party’s over in Bath, Eleanor invites her new friend Catherine to come and stay with her and her brother (Henry, the hottie, remember?) at their place, the titular Northanger Abbey. Catherine, having read a lot of Gothic novels, expects a spooky haunted house filled with ghosts of long-ago traumas and whatnot. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. She stays there safe and happy as a welcome and beloved houseguest, until Eleanor and Henry’s father boots her.

That’s very bad news for Catherine, given her plan to seduce Henry and marry him and love him forevermore. Turns out, his father had had the same idea, which is why she was invited to the abbey in the first place, only Daddy thought his future daughter-in-law was wealthy. When a (scorned) John Thorpe told him she was practically a pauper, he quickly tried to pull up the seeds he had sown.

Henry’s not having a bar of that. He flips Daddy the bird, and rides like the wind to Catherine’s side, to tell her that he does love her after all (rich or no) and they’ll be married (with Daddy’s approval or no). Oh, and Eleanor manages to marry rich, too, which goes quite some way to assuaging Daddy’s concerns. Badabing, badaboom, there’s your happy ending!

So, as far as Austen novels go, Northanger Abbey is more bold and bawdy than some of her more-renowned offerings. While it hits a lot of the same notes as your Emmas and your Pride And Prejudices, it hits them a lot harder, and holds the pedal down for good measure. Take, for instance, the very obvious moral position with regards to literacy: all of the “good” characters of Northanger Abbey love books and talk about them at length, while all of the “bad” characters turn their noses up at them. I wonder what Austen was getting at with that, hmm?

(I feel I should also mention – though it was hard to work out where, so this will have to do! – that there are a couple of instances of blatant anti-Semitism, which I found really jarring, having not encountered that particular type of antiquated nastiness in Austen’s work previously. Just a heads up!)

I think I preferred the subtlety of Austen’s later work, but there’s something to be said for the explicit humour of Northanger Abbey – her other works made me nod appreciatively, while this one made me literally lol. I suppose it depends what you’re in the mood for as to which side you come down on. Still, I found this a cracking good read, and any Austen fan worth their salt should give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Northanger Abbey:

  • “I think she’s just freaking herself out.” – Molly Koeneman (she / her)
  • “Jane Austen is a very proficient writer indeed.” – revrich333
  • “This book was like purposefully watching a terrible documentary to help you fall asleep. Every time I picked this book up I fell asleep. This is not a book I would recommend unless you need sleep.” – Andrea
  • “Not really a book about a heroine. No heroine here just a girl that lucks up marrying the man she liked. Boring.” – KTWeed
  • “it was okay I guess, I liked the wishbone version better” – toyherb

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is not my first foray into the ouveur of the Brontës. Way back in the archives, I read and reviewed Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (loved it!), and Emily’s Wuthering Heights (so-so). Being the dirty completionist that I am, though, I couldn’t stop there: I gotta catch ’em all! So, that’s why I finally picked up Anne’s longest and best-known novel, to complete the set.

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The blurb made the story sound surprisingly contemporary – a mysterious and beautiful young widow moves in to Wildfell Hall, and Gilbert Markham finds himself irresistibly drawn to her despite the rumours that swell around town – but don’t be fooled. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall has all the 19th century manners and customs that you’d expect, albeit with some unexpected progressive overtones.

A bit of background: Anne was the youngest of the Brontë sisters. She published only two novels (this one, and Agnes Grey, which is also wedged into my to-be-read shelf somewhere…) before she died in 1849, shortly before her 30th birthday. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall was first published the year before her death, in 1848, under the now-famous gender-neutral pseudonym of Acton Bell. It was an instant success, but… well, big sis Charlotte got her Mean Girl on. More on that below.

To the story: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is an epistolary novel, styled as the letters from Gilbert Markham to a friend of his, including a rather large section drawn from Helen Graham’s diaries (Helen being the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall). Yes, it’s the ol’ Brontë switcheroo: the narrator is not always the “narrator”, and despite a supposed single narrative perspective, others’ points-of-view are substantial to the plot. That makes the timeline a little wonky, beginning in 1847 but telling a version of events from 1821 through 1830. Don’t worry, it all irons out nice and smooth.

Gilbert’s letters begin by describing the arrival of a mysterious widow, one Mrs Helen Graham, who has taken up a tenancy in the nearby abandoned mansion called Wildfell Hall. Although he says the woman is “too hard, too sharp, too bitter for my taste” (page 42), and he has his eye on the local vicar’s daughter, their occasional social interactions pique his interest. Eventually, he gets to know the widow and her son quite well (he and the boy bond over their mutual love of dogs, #relatable). Still, Mrs Helen Graham refuses to divulge much about her past or origins, even though doing so would put an end to some of the particularly nasty rumours that have started swirling around the small town.

This all unfolds in Part One of the novel, chapters 1-15. That section ends with Gilbert mistakenly believing that local man Lawrence has secretly entered into an illicit courtship with Mrs Graham. Gilbert has a real shit-fit (kind of inexplicably, seeing as it’s basically no business of his whatsoever), but Mrs Graham concedes that he has a right to know the truth of who she is and her relationship to Lawrence, so she hands over her diaries to Gilbert in the hope that they will speak her truth for her.

All of this might sound very Austen-y, a social comedy with the central romance pot-holed by misunderstandings. However, in Part Two – chapters 16 to 44 – The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall takes a sharp turn. The introduction of Helen’s perspective, through her letters, reveals an entirely different plot and purpose altogether.

It turns out Helen isn’t a widow at all; rather, she is on the lam, hiding from her alcoholic fuckwit of a husband, Arthur Huntingdon. They married young, back when Helen thought he was super-hot and had the naive notion that she could coax him out of his bad behaviour (with the drinking and the dames and what-not).

Sidebar: The prevailing view in analysis nowadays is that Arthur is a stand in for Anne Brontë’s real-life brother, Branwell, who himself was susceptible to the lures of drink and drugs, despite the efforts of his sisters to keep him on the straight and narrow. That’s some quality 19th century tea, right there!

Helen’s story is surprisingly gripping. it’s not like there are a lot of cliffhangers or anything, but I still found myself just-one-more-chaptering as I read my way through, crossing my fingers that the next chapter would be the one where she would leave the sorry sack of shit and be done with it. She’s all about dismantling toxic masculinity, it’s her life-long hobby and obsession, and over the course of the novel she realises and affirms that it shouldn’t be the job of women to reform bad boys. They should reform themselves, or shut the fuck up and leave the rest of us alone. See? Progressive!

Oh, and Mr Lawrence? The one Gilbert thought she was having an affair with? Actually her brother. Whoops!

The story seemed to be wrapping up around the 470-page mark, near the end of Helen’s diary, and I wondered what on earth could be left in the remaining 120 pages… but I stuck with it and, as it turned out, there was indeed more to come.

Part Three – chapters 45 to 53 – begins when Gilbert finishes reading Helen’s epic diary. She puts it to him that he should not pursue any romance with her, as she is not actually a widow and as such is not free to marry him. He’s all “yeah, okay”, but keeps the flame burning for her all the same. His hopes pick up when Helen’s estranged husband falls deathly ill, figuring that his path will be free and clear… only Helen does the “right thing” and zooms right back to her husband’s side to nurse him. Damn.

Still, her ministrations only keep him alive long enough to make him feel good and guilty before he shuffles off this mortal coil (good riddance). Gilbert keeps a respectful distance – also, he doesn’t know where she is or how to get a hold of her – until he gets word that she’s getting married to someone else. He hustles over to her town to do his “I object!” bit, but finds out when he gets there that it was actually Helen’s brother getting married (we’re back on the poor-communication-kills rom-com plot now) and Helen is overjoyed to welcome him back into her life. She makes him wait a bit, naturally, but in the end they live happily ever after.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall falls smack-bang in the middle of the Venn diagram of the other Brontë sisters: all the angst of Wuthering Heights, with all the introspection and proto-feminism of Jane Eyre. The defining difference in Anne’s work is that she didn’t gloss over the gritty stuff the way her Romantic sisters did, and she didn’t play up spooky Gothic elements either (Wildfell Hall isn’t a “haunted mansion”, it’s just old and empty). All the darkness in her novel – the alcoholism, infidelity, violence – was real, and graphic for the time.

And that’s why Charlotte, her elder sister, removed The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall from circulation after Anne’s untimely death. It had been a great success on publication, but in Charlotte’s view it disgraced her younger sister’s memory. She wanted Anne to be remembered as a sweet, saintly girl who didn’t write about such horrid things. Never mind the fact that Anne did write about horrid things, and well: Charlotte knew best (and was probably quite jealous of her younger sister’s success, besides). And that’s why Anne basically fell from memory for decades, why the names we most commonly associate with the Brontë brand are those of her sisters.

Still, over the last century, Anne has finally garnered the kind of popular and critical attention she deserves. This might sound ridiculous, but I find it hard not to take it personally that Charlotte screwed Anne over like that. “I was rooting for you!” etc. I keep trying to imagine whether my attitude and preference would be different if I had read The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall before Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but it’s difficult. I guess I’ll just have to let bygones be bygones (even though none of them were actually mine to begin with), and judge the works on their own merit. In that spirit, I reckon The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is a winner. A bit convoluted, maybe, but a breath of fresh air in 19th century English literature.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall:

  • “Story was a sort of a downer even with the happy ending.” – Ericka Grant
  • “Anne cannot write up to her famous sisters. What a bore!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Too long, too wordy, too predictable and the heroine is insipid.” – ann v menche
  • “Interesting story. I never think of people in that era being so messed up. Why do they have so much free time on their hands?” – M Roberts
  • “This book is WAY too long. 100,000 words could’ve been deleted and we, as readers, would be none the wiser. The writing style is superb. I don’t think anyone in publishing today could emulate the style in which all three Bronte sisters wrote. The story itself is interesting, but Helen’s “abuse” did not really strike me as abuse, but rather “neglect.” When I first heard about this novel, I thought a woman was going to get repeatedly beaten and raped. But sadly, that is not the case. I guess beaten and raped was “too intense” for the time period. Leave it to Viktor Wolfe to write a good “beaten and raped” story!” – Viktor Wolfe
  • “All her angst was a bit tiresome.” – pamie65
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