The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Information

Goodreads: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1848

Summary

The publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848 shocked Victorian society with its unflinching depiction of the effects of alcoholism and adultery.  Charlotte, however, refused permission for its republication after her sister’s death, maintaining that the scenes of debauchery it contains did not reflect her sisters character.  Now, however, critics are reassessing Anne’s merits and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is lauded by many as a masterpiece and as a feminist novel–one in which a woman leaves her husband and supports herself as an artist in order to preserve her son from corruption.

Star Divider

Review

“You may think it all very fine, Mr. Huntingdon, to amuse yourself with rousing my jealousy; but take care you don’t rouse my hate instead. And when you have once extinguished my love, you will find it no easy matter to kindle it again.”–Helen Huntingdon

It seems almost common knowledge that Emily and Charlotte Brontë are the talented siblings and Anne only famous due to her kinship with them.  (Indeed, the introduction to my copy of the book impressed readers with this very sentiment.  Its insulting evaluation of Anne’s work was so strong that one wonders if the writer meant to prevent readers from reading the story at all.)  However, upon finishing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I cannot help but suspect that Anne surpasses her sisters, at least in her boldness of vision.  Her story presents readers with a heroine who flees her alcoholic husband to save their son from his corrupting influence.   She is strong, she is independent, and she is outspoken.  She is hardly a model of Victorian femininity and propriety.

Although the story is framed by the letters of Gilbert Markham, Helen receives the opportunity to tell her own version of her marriage and its disintegration through her diary entries.  She begins as a naive young girl who dreams of marrying for love and imagines that her feminine influence can change her husband for the better.  Slowly, however, she comes to the realization that she has no hold over her husband at all.  She describes truly shocking scenes of his debasement, from the violence he and his friends inflict on guests at their home, to the adulterous affairs he carries on without feeling any scruples to hide his depravity from his friends or even his wife.  Through it all, Helen repeatedly tries to save him until, at last, she informs her husband that she is his housekeeper only.  And then, for her son’s sake, she finds the means to run away.

Anne is very much a realist here.  She does not shy away from depicting immorality and its effects, nor does she pretend that a woman’s love can change a man or save her from his abuse.  When Helen finds her life intolerable and her son’s soul in danger, Anne argues that Helen has the right to leave her husband behind.  And then she depicts a woman striving towards self-sufficiency as she sells her artwork to pay her debts and her rent.  Though Emily and Charlotte certainly wrote shocking works with independently-minded women, it is difficult to imagine them writing with quite the same audacity.

But, of course, there is still a moral lesson here.  There is the lesson that a woman cannot be too careful whom she marries: marrying for love is only a recipe for happiness if a man’s character and financial stability are also considered.  And there is the lesson for men that alcohol and other vices must be avoided if they are to maintain health, propriety, and domestic bliss.  The villains of the piece are suitably rewarded with death, degeneration, poverty, and loneliness.  The virtuous, even the reformed virtuous, are, in contrast, rewarded with happy homes.  Anne thus carries her argument that she does not depict vice for its shock value, but because she wishes readers to understand its true ugliness, and so avoid it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a truly masterful work, one that gripped me with its suspense and drama, but one that also impressed me with the author’s daring.  I can imagine few other writers at the time daring to depict something such as an openly adulterous husband and present it to serious readers.  Yet Anne did.  And, when criticized for it, she replied with a spirited defense that impresses one immediately with her keen intellect, her self-assurance, and her courage.  Her early death is truly a great loss for English literature.

5 stars

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The Masterpiece “Little Women” Modernizes Alcott’s Classic Story–And It Doesn’t Quite Work

In an earlier post about the continuing appeal of Little Women, I argued that critics who found the new Masterpiece adaptation objectionable because of its morality were missing the point.  The story centers around the transformation of four sisters who work to overcome their besetting weaknesses and become virtuous women.  Meg fights envy, Jo her temper, Amy her pride and vanity, and Beth her shyness (depicted as something to be overcome, though not a moral flaw).  Although this sounds deeply moral, readers still connect with the characters and the story remains a beloved classic.  After watching all three hours of the adaptation, however, I admit myself confused.  The PBS Masterpiece Little Women is a thoroughly modern take on the film with a majority of the morality stripped away.  The result is a story without a point.

To demonstrate how integral the morality of the book is to the meaning of the story, I will focus on three key scenes depicted in the film.  Each scene, stripped of moral sentiments offensive to modern audiences, becomes nothing more than a passing moment, rather than a defining moment, in one of the sister’s lives.  As a result, these scenes seem out of place in the film and even unnecessary.  Viewers are treated to, not a tale of transformation, but instead a slice of life film, one without any overarching point.

Scene One: “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair”

In this chapter, Meg at first resolves to content herself with dressing as a poor man’s daughter when she goes to the Moffat ball.  However, she overhears criticism from the other girls about her looks.  So, for the second night of the ball, she lies that she has torn her only good dress, leading to the other girls to put her in a low-cut gown and make up her face.  She spends the night flirting and drinking champagne until Laurie arrives and looks troubled at her behavior.  The end result is that Meg learns that happiness does not come from material possessions and that one can enjoy being admired without behaving in an immodest fashion (modesty here referring to both dress and behavior).

Modesty, however, is an outdated virtue and modern audiences presumably were not expected to connect with a scene in which Meg feels uncomfortable being “half-dressed” and is chastised for flirting.  The Masterpiece interpretation, therefore, has Jo give a passing comment about how she is worried about Meg being surrounded by things she cannot afford.  However, this thread is not picked up again.  Instead, the bulk of the scene is spent with Meg worrying over the gossip that Marmee has “plans” for her to marry Laurie.  She never discusses this with Marmee to receive the speech about how a mother’s plans are for her daughters to be “beautiful, accomplished, and good” as well as “to lead useful, pleasant lives.”  So again the scene does little to forward any character development.

Indeed, this scene goes so far as to exonerate Meg, who only asks Laurie to “not tell” at home, not because she is ashamed of her behavior, but because Jo does not  like anything to do with romance.  A sad Laurie, obviously in love with Jo, agrees and hopes that one day she will change her mind.  The end result: we have a scene in which Meg dresses and acts immodestly, but asserts her right to do so.  Her envy of others’ wealth is mentioned in passing by Jo, but not acknowledged by Meg, so audiences never get to see her transform into the woman who can be happy with John Brooke in a cottage.

Scene Two: “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation”

In this scene, Amy arrives at school with contraband pickled limes to share with her classmates.  She is proud she can share with her friends because she is “in debt” from having eaten others’ limes, but did not have the money to repay the favor until she wheedled Meg out of her pocket money.  The book clearly depicts Amy as in the wrong because she broke the rules by bringing limes to school.  Even though her mother pulls her out of Mr. Davis’ school because he administers corporal punishment for the crime, Amy is dismayed to learn that her mother still believes she deserved some punishment for “disobedience.”

Obedience to authority figures is, however, not a modern virtue, so the film changes this scene into a commendation of Amy’s behavior.  When Jo arrives at the school to collect Amy’s items, Mr. Davis regretfully informs her that he would have withheld punishment if Amy had begged.  Jo informs him that she applauds her sister for not begging.  A chapter in which Amy learned to let go of her pride and to let her accomplishments speak for themselves turns into a scene in which her pride is turned into a virtue.

Scene Three: “A Friend”

In Louisa May Alcott’s version of the story, Jo is just getting to know and respect Prof. Bhaer and to hope for his friendship and respect in return when he discovers that she writes sensational stories for the newspapers.  Prof. Bhaer indicates that he finds the story “trash” and believes they are harmful to children.  When Jo protests that people make a living from such stories, he suggests they had better “sweep mud in the street before they do this thing.”  Jo subsequently realizes that she has been harming herself and others by “living in bad society” and “brushing the innocent bloom from her nature” so she stops writing for awhile until she can do something better.

Modern audiences, however, do not see anything wrong with sensational stories, so the creators of the Masterpiece adaptation gloss over Jo’s shame.  When Prof. Bhaer criticizes sensational stories, she declares that she writes them, that she does it to take her ill sister to the sea, and that he has no right to judge her.  There may be implied judgment here by the film since Jo does not claim that the stories are harmless or worth writing–she merely attempts to make the professor feel bad for criticizing her actions.  However, the end result is that Prof. Bhaer offers a volume of Shakespeare as an example of someone who wrote for a living but wrote well–and then apologizes for daring to suggest that Jo might be doing something wrong.  The real virtue celebrated here is the modern virtue of never judging others’ actions.

Conclusion

In the book, these three scenes serve as defining moments for the girls’ character development.  However, shorn of their moral significance, they end up on equal footing with the scenes where the girls curl their hair, Amy’s bow is pecked by a parrot, and they all go for an unmemorable picnic.  In other words, there is no longer any story here.  The girls do not develop into virtuous little women, but end much as they began.  Viewers who appreciate a slice of life film might enjoy it.  Viewers looking for a point will have to look elsewhere.

Mini Reviews (5)

Jack and Jill by Louisa may Alcott

It’s always a bit uncomfortable when you realized a book that was a childhood favorite has imperialistic undertones.  However, if you can get past that, Jack and Jill is in fine Alcott style.  It features a host of boys and girls busy pursuing their dreams, getting up (to us) old-fashioned entertainment, and even beginning to feel the first whispers of love.  I enjoy that, though the title focuses on two characters, their friends receive chapters of their own, making everyone feel chummy and sociable.  (I always thought it odd the March sisters didn’t really seem to have friends, aside from Annie Moffat.)  There’s no real plot here, just a year in the life of characters trying to do better and become better people.  It feels refreshingly wholesome and fans of Little Women will want to check out this story, as well.  (Source: Purchased) Four stars.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

For about half of the book, I could not get into the story because the authors so clearly think they and protagonist Doreen Green are funny–but I was not laughing.  Doreen just comes across as weird and awkward, and not always in an endearing sort of way.  The worst parts are the end notes, written (strangely) in first person, while the rest of the story is written in third person.  Doreen tries to be funny, but just isn’t.

The book is clearly meant to be fun and silly, so even the not-humorous parts are bizarre, with Squirrel Girl fighting a boy-villain and saving babies with the aid of squirrels.  Weird stuff happens like squirrels being held as ransom and zucchinis masquerading as the victims of villains.  I didn’t mind the weirdness–I assume that’s part of Squirrel Girl’s appeal for most people–but I disliked the forced jokes.  The best parts were the texts between Squirrel Girl and other Marvel heroes–these are actually amusing as they poke fun at the characters.  The rest of the story was not particularly memorable for me, except that I was pleasantly surprised that Doreen’s parents are present and actually care about her–a rarity in children’s literature.  The first in a series.  (Source: Library) Three Stars.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

I went into this volume believing it was another anthology of short stories featuring the intelligent Jeeves rescuing his employer’s friends from various awkward situations.  In fact, this is a novel dedicated to a series of difficulties: Bertie’s aunt needs money, his cousin broke off her engagement, and his friend is too shy to speak to the girl he loves.  Bertie is convinced he, and not Jeeves, will solve these crises and so ensues a series of mishaps only Bertie can create.  Readers will find themselves greatly entertained by the convoluted schemes and the mishaps they create.  This is Bertie and Jeeves in fine style.  If you’re looking for a light, comical story, look no farther.  (Source: Library) Four Stars.

Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

I enjoyed the humor of the first book in the series, Dealing with Dragons, and the ways in which Wrede plays with fairy tale tropes.  Unfortunately, the sequel lacks the magic of the first book.  King Mendenbar comes across as whiny, Cimorene as rude, and the magician Telemain as annoying.  This is odd as I think they are supposed to come across as delightfully unconventional, spunky, and funny, respectively.  The plot is dull and consists mainly of Mendenbar and Cimorene never getting where they want to go and running into random characters who are meant to be amusing but failed to amuse me.  I miss the charm and wit of the first book.  (Source: Library) Three Stars.

Krysta 64

The Light Princess by George MacDonald

Information

Goodreads: The Light Princess
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1919

Summary

Cursed at birth to have no gravity, the princess is light both physically and spiritually.  She laughs at sorrow, chortles at anger, and remains unmoved by death.  Can one such as she ever fall in love?

Star Divider

Review

“One day [the prince] lost sight of his retinue in a great forest. These forests are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a sieve that keeps back the bran. Then the princes get away to follow their fortunes. In this they have the advantage of the princesses, who are forced to marry before they have had a bit of fun. I wish our princesses got lost in a forest sometimes.”

The Light Princess is a short and deceptively simple tale.  It tells the story of a princess cursed at birth by an evil aunt.  Without gravity, she must take care not to get caught by the wind and float away.  However, even more alarming, she cannot cry.  Anger, sorrow, and suffering fail to move her.  Indeed, she laughs at others’ pain!  The wise men of the city believe she must learn to cry if she is to be healed.  But even great sacrifice seems to leave her untouched.

Though the summary may appear to make this a boringly moral tale, The Light Princess is actually quite witty.  It delights in puns and in the absurdities of a princess who might float away at any moment.  It pokes gentle fun at the love-struck prince, who, as many love struck individuals do, sometimes acts a little silly.  It is, in short, a wonderful read, one that avid lovers of fairy tales will not want to miss out on.

But I would argue that the premise of the story adds depth.  Fairy tales are not usually romances told only for entertainment.  Instead, they often contain a kernel of truth.  As is usual in fairy tales, this one condemns selfishness, pettiness, and jealousy.  And it rewards perseverance and self-sacrifice.  The beauty of the story seems enough to move any reader.

Whether you delight in fantasy or fairy tales, love a story about princesses, or are a fan of George MacDonald’s work (or of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, whom he inspired), The Light Princess is just the book for you.

4 stars

Poets Who Might Surprise You–Even if You Don’t Like Poetry

Did you forget that April is National Poetry Month?  Here are few reading suggestions for you to celebrate–before it’s too late!  Even the non-poetry reading readers may find something to enjoy here, from Stephan Crane’s short (and easy to read) selection to Noyes’ celebrated romantic ballad “The Highway Man.”

Stephen Crane

Although best known as a novelist in the naturalist tradition, Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, also released two volumes of poetry: The Black Riders and Other Lines and War Is Kind and Other Lines.  His poems run the gamut from reflecting on life, the relationship of God and man, the nature of war, love, and more.  I particularly like his poems because they are often questioning and even contradictory.  In some, Crane seems to reaching for an idea of a just God–but may be conflicted about whether this justice is something people should be consoled by.  In others, Crane wonders whether there is a God at all.  Or if God is just making sport of humans.

Most of Crane’s poems are short and free form, so it’s easy to pick a few to read even if you are short on time.  They’re currently in the public domain, so available with a quick online search.  Here’s one from The Black Riders and Other Lines to get you started.

If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
Echoless, ignorant-
What then?

John Donne

One of England’s most famous metaphysical poets, John Donne’s work ranges from the erotic poem “The Flea”  (in which he compares sex to being bitten by a flea to seduce his lover) to his Holy Sonnets.  His work often deals with religion, but in unexpected ways, such as in “Holy Sonnet 14,” which begins, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”  From there, the poet implores God to attack and overthrow him as if he were a fortress; only by capture, he says, can he be free.  His unconventional imagery may shock and disturb some readers. However, it is also one of his great strengths as poet, causing readers to think about topics in new ways.

Alfred Noyes

Noyes’ best-known work may be “The Highway Man,” a romantic ballad that tells of how the titular highwayman and his lover were betrayed by a jealous ostler.  The repetition and cadence make it wonderful for recitation.  Indeed, readers are probably most familiar with the poem as one recited by L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley.  This is the perfect poem for readers who unabashedly love the dramatic and the romantic.

Who are some of your favorite poets?

My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

Information

Goodreads: My Man Jeeves
Series: Jeeves #1
Source: Library
Published: 1919

Summary

A series of short stories featuring a bumbling aristocrat who tries to help his friends (especially in the romance department), but who ultimately finds his plans go awry.

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Review

“As I stood in my lonely bedroom at the hotel, trying to tie my white tie myself, it struck me for the first time that there must be whole squads of chappies in the world who had to get along without a man to look after them. I’d always thought of Jeeves as a kind of natural phenomenon; but, by Jove! of course, when you come to think of it, there must be quite a lot of fellows who have to press their own clothes themselves and haven’t got anybody to bring them tea in the morning, and so on. It was rather a solemn thought, don’t you know. I mean to say, ever since then I’ve been able to appreciate the frightful privations the poor have to stick.”

P. G. Wodehouse’s collection of short stories partly tells of the escapades of Bertie Wooster and his friends, and the ways in which his valet Jeeves cleverly gets them out of scrapes.  Several of the stories, however, focus on the adventures of Reggie Pepper, a good-hearted but not-to-bright aristocratic fellow whose plans never turn out the way he thinks they will.  Pepper is evidently an early version of Wooster–and it shows.  Though Pepper’s stories are amusing, it is the relationship between Wooster and Jeeves and that really makes their stories shine.

Bertie narrates his stories and readily admits that Jeeves is the brains of the operation.  Whenever a friend appears on the doorstep with a tale of woe, he insists that Jeeves hear the story and formulate a plan.  Their friendship is truly delightful.  Wooster is careless, lazy, and a bit of a fop, but Jeeves keeps him steady.  Never remarking on the foibles or oddities of his social betters, Jeeves still manages to keep them all in line.  The contrast between the two is a steady undercurrent of humor throughout the story.

However, Wodehouse also manages a few digs at the aristocracy.  Bertie’s easy life and his ignorance of the hardships of others is always good for a laugh.  So too are the pretensions of the upper class; Wodehouse loves to have aristocrats fall in love with stage girls.  It’s all in good fun, though, never mean.  And it’s hard not to cheer for the protagonists, even when they seem their silliest.

My Man Jeeves is only the start of a series of collections of Jeeves and Wooster stories.  The humor, the characters, and the unexpected turns of the stories all have me wanting the next book now.

5 stars

Mini Reviews (3)

I Am Pusheen the Cat by Claire Belton

This collection contains a fair number of the popular Pusheen comics.  It has jokes about the weird habits of cats, holiday illustrations, and even a section devoted to Pusheen’s fluffy sister Stormy.  It is equally humorous and delightful.  And, of course, utterly cute.  Cat lovers everywhere will appreciate it, but others may find themselves falling in love with Pusheen, as well. (Source: Gift) Four stars.

The Club of Queer Trades by G. K. Chesterton

This short story collection contains mysteries that feature the men who comprise the titular Club of Queer Trades and make their livings in a manner which they themselves invented.  Narrated by a man called Swinburne, who repeatedly finds himself caught up in adventures he cannot understand, the stories really star Basil Grant, a judge who left the bench after “going mad.”  It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Basil may be the one sane man in a world gone mad around him.  He believes in morality and solves mysteries by eschewing the cold logic of Sherlock Holmes and instead opening himself up to the possibilities that cannot be contained by logic.  The resulting stories are equally fun and fantastic, reminding readers to open themselves up to the romance around them. (Source: Library) Four stars.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

Not having read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I was not sure what to expect from a short story collection of Susanna Clarke’s.  However, I was immediately disarmed, for I found myself immersed in a delightful collection of fairy stories in the finest tradition.  Some are retellings of familiar tales such as “Rumpelstiltskin.”  Others are set in the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  One story is even set in Neil Gaiman’s world of Stardust.  Each, however, has that air of coming from a long line of folklorists, told at night by the fireplace or passed down through the generations.  They feel like the real thing.

Oddly enough, however, the cover bears two blurbs comparing the work to Jane Austen.  I can only imagine that people see a story set in the 18th century or read a story with “old timey” language and immediately think to themselves, “But, of course, it’s Austen!”  It really isn’t.  The work bears no resemblance, in my opinion, to Austen’s witty social critiques or romances.  There is humor here, but it’s more in the counterfeiting of language associated with old-fashioned scholars.  The rest feels like traditional fairy tales, just set in a later age than perhaps we are used to seeing.  (Source: Gift)  Five stars.

The Man with Two Left Feet by P. G. Wodehouse

Humorist P. G. Wodehouse presents a short story collection full of surprises.  From the tale of an ugly policeman who falls in love to the story of a mediocre detective who dreams of going on the stage, each work is delightfully unexpected, full of witty one-liners, and peopled by characters who can’t help but grab the readers’ interest.  Bertie Wooster also makes his first appearance here, making the story of special interest to fans of Jeeves and Wooster.  This is just the type of work to lift your spirits and make you hunt for more Wodehouse immediately.  (Source: Library)  Five stars.