What Is Classic Remarks?
Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.
How Can I Participate?
Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!
(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)
This Week’s Prompt:
Which of the Brontë sisters’ works is your favorite?
In 1848, the publication of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shocked Victorian society. The plot follows young Helen Grahan as she marries Arthur Huntingdon, a rake she imagines she can reform through her love. As Arthur descends into increased debauchery, however, publicly cheating on his wife and teaching their young son to drink, Helen realizes she has to make a bid for independence in order to save her son from following in his father’s footsteps.
Anne’s depictions of alcoholism and adultery were more than critics could stomach. After Anne’s early death, Charlotte prevented The Tenant of Wildfell Hall from being republished, saying that the themes did not reflect her gentle sister’s true nature–though Anne surely knew the dark side of human nature well, as Arthur Huntingdon’s arc is probably based upon Branwell Brontë’s own struggle with addiction. Charlotte’s suppression of her sister’s work is a move some now see as a major reason Anne’s literary reputation fell even as Emily and Charlotte’s rose.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is arguably, however, more radical and more visionary than either of Emily or Charlotte’s work. Both Emily and Charlotte have a tendency to make “bad boys” attractive. Anne, however, shows what a marriage to a bad man could really look like. But she also argues that, when one’s life or soul is in danger, a woman has the right to leave. In this sense, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can be read as a feminist work that was truly ahead of its time.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, however, has some ambiguity about it that makes the story more fascinating than even an outright manifest of female independence. For example, Helen’s story of her life, told through her diary entries, is framed by the letters of Gilbert Markham, a would-be suitor. Why did Anne chose to Helen’s voice by a man’s? And is the ending really a happily-ever-after, or is Helen still constrained by social mores and the patriarchy? These questions do not have clear-cut answers.
I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because it is a more daring work than anything her sisters wrote. Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Villette all make controlling, domineering, and even violent men look attractive. They are romances tinged with a hint of the fantastical–the idea that men who are good at hurting women might be good lovers. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has the courage to shout that women deserve better, and that they have the right to control their own destinies. It dares to question society, and the laws that keep women trapped in unhealthy or even dangerous marriages. Anne has been depicted by history as a meek, spiritual lamb, but her book shows her to be a lion.