The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Information

Goodreads: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1884

Summary

When Wildfell Hall is let to a new tenant, Helen Graham, the neighbors wonder at her eccentricities, until one man gains her trust and the story of the painful past that led her to flee to this remote location.

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Review

When people discuss their favorite novels by the Brontë sisters, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall rarely comes up (unless you’re my co-blogger, who explains why The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is her favorite Brontë novel here), and perhaps that is because the novel is not as romantic as Jane Eyre and, yes, even Wuthering Heights are considered. It’s not a love story, after all, but rather a story about a woman caught in a loveless and abusive marriage that she never imagined. The remarkable insight that Anne Brontë offers into protagonist Helen Graham’s psyche, however, as well as the unflinching portrayals of men giving into different temptations and debaucheries to the suffering of the women around them make The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a masterpiece I am sorry I did not read soon.

The novel does have a frame narrative, which is always something I’m conflicted about because so often I get absorbed in the frame only to be broken away to hear a story from the past, and it was no different for me here. Readers are introduced to Helen Graham, the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall, who is clearly trying to walk a line between being private but not so reclusive that neighbors think she’s weird…and failing, based on the mystery and gossip that begin to surround her. I was caught up in the mystery myself, even though the footnotes gave me more hints than I cared for about why Helen was at Wildfell Hall; I would have liked to know if I would have figured out her story based on the foreshadowing if the editor hadn’t kept telling me the plot.

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However, the main story, the story of Helen’s courting and then marriage and its subsequent decline is incredibly compelling, more so than the frame narrative I had become so invested in. It’s a penetrating look into abusive marriages–how a young Helen, idealistic and certain she had found true love–fell into an ultimately loveless marriage with a man addicted to drinking and other women. It also gives a harsh reality check to those who think they might be able to reform bad men if they just do/say the right things or are good enough themselves. And, finally, it’s a compassionate look at why women in abusive relationships so often stay. (Yes, Helen had fewer options for leaving her husband due to the time period than she would today, but the psychological aspects of why she stays for so long seem timeless.)

I also enjoyed (if that’s the right word), the portrayals of Helen’s husbands friends–all of whom are heavy drinkers and generally terrible people, just in different ways. That is, Brontë doesn’t have a cardboard cutout “type” of a man who abuses his wife or just the people around him; she shows a whole range. Some drink more. Some drink less. Some get angry. Some lay hands on their wives, while some do not. One even tries his best to abstain from addictions like drinking and gambling but never has the strength to separate himself from his bad friends. Each is characterized with care, but the overall picture is not bleak because, rest assured, there are actually good men in the book, as well.

If you want a story about a strong woman or a story concerned with the inner lives of women and how they deal with bad relationships, check this out.

Briana
5 stars

Why The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Is My Favorite Work by the Brontë Sisters

Classic Remarks

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!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(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.

Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës by Isabel Greenberg

Glass Town

Information

Goodreads: Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

After the deaths of their two older sisters, Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë escaped into the imaginary world of Glass Town. But what happens when an imaginary world seems better than the real one? Will the Brontës be able to escape their own creation?

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Review

Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg is powerful account of the lives of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë, with a particular emphasis on Charlotte after the deaths of all her siblings. Beginning with a distressed Charlotte on the moors, the story moves back in time to describe how the four created the imaginary world of Glass Town to cope with the deaths of their two older sisters. Episodes from imagined Glass Town adventures intersperse the work, showing how fantasy twines with reality. Ultimately, the lure of the imaginary threatens to make the siblings, and Charlotte in particular, lose their grasp on reality.

Charlotte’s almost-obsession with her writing and her imaginary worlds seems well-documented. Many books recount how she began to lose the sense of what was around her when she was supposed to be teaching. Her life often seemed bleak and dull, and her imagination offered her an outlet that sometimes seems to have bordered on some sort of eroticism. Charlotte was intense. And Glass Town captures that–her passion, her desire, and her ultimate danger.

Emily, Anne, and Branwell also, of course, helped create Glass Town and its stories, but, in this book at least, Charlotte seems the most obsessed, the most unable to leave. There is some indication (biographically) that Anne, at least, moved on from their juvenile creations more easily than Emily or Charlotte, so this can make sense for the story. It also just makes sense to focus on Charlotte since she lived the longest and left us the most papers. Readers should just be aware that, though Glass Town appears to be a book about the Brontë siblings, it is really Charlotte’s book, the story of how she interacted with her siblings, was inspired them, and was devastated by her loss. In the end, she must decide if she has the willpower to move on without them.

Readers who love the Brontës and their writings will, of course, want to pick up a copy of Glass Town. Fans of graphic novels, however, will also enjoy the work, as will those who appreciate character-driven stories mixed with fantasy. A five-star read.

5 stars

The World of the Brontës: The Lives, Times, and Works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë by Jane O’Neill


The World of the Brontes

Information

Goodreads: The World of the Brontës: The Lives, Times, and Works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2002

Summary

An overview of the Brontë family, their works, the political climate of the day, and the landscapes they would have known.

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The World of the Brontës by Jane O’Neill is a comprehensive overview to the lives and times of the Brontë siblings. Each topic receives two pages–with photographs–to cover such topics as the biographies of each of the sisters, their brother, and even their domestics; the politics of the day and how the siblings might have been influenced by them; and the geographic landscapes they would have known–they knew more than Haworth, despite romanticized depictions of their social isolation on the moors. The book serves as a pleasant introduction to the Brontës and their work, giving information in bite-sized pieces to make it more agreeable to those not accustomed to reading non-fiction.

The World of the Brontës really does seem best suited to readers relatively new to the Brontës since it not only gives a brief overview of their lives but also describes the plots of each of their novels. The assumption seems to be that readers of O’Neill’s book have not actually read the books the Brontës wrote. (Though why someone who is not a fan of the Brontës’ work would read O’Neill’s book, I cannot really say.) At any rate, even if readers are familiar with the books written by the Brontës, O’Neill’s work is brief enough that readers who know a good deal about the Brontës might not find much new material in it. It really is a nice, quick overview of all things Brontë just to get one situated in the time period and in their lives.

The large size of the book (height, not depth) also makes The World of the Brontës a nice introduction particularly because it allows for larger-size photos. These are a highlight of the work, bringing to life the people and places O’Neill describes. It is one thing to know, for instance, that Anne loved Scarborough and the sea. It is another to see a picture of Scarborough.

The World of the Brontës is a short, accessible introduction, suitable for juvenile and teen readers, as well as for those looking for a quick read that will give them pertinent background information. It is not a definitive guide, but it is an excellent jumping off point.

3 Stars

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

“All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shriveled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.”

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Information

Goodreads: Agnes Grey
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1847

Summary

When her father’s investments cause her family to fall upon hard times, young Agnes Grey determines to help by becoming a governess. She imagines that it will be “charming” to win the trust and affection of her charges and, in so doing, lead them to find instruction and virtues both pleasant and commendable. Alas, Agnes soon finds that the upper classes as well as lower have their share of faults and vices. Worked against at every turn by parents’ indulgence and her charges’ belief that they are socially superior to–and thus able to boss about or ignore–their governess, Agnes struggles to find acceptance, friendship, and happiness.

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Review

Agnes Grey is a quietly powerful tale. The emotionally even Agnes narrates the story of her time as a governess, carefully filtering her experiences to teach a moral about how various vices turn boys into violently oppressive men and girls into unhappy women. To do so, Agnes presents herself as the opposite of her employers. They are indulgent, cruel, careless, vain, and greedy. She is peaceful, humble, and pious. On the face of it, the story might seem like a lesson, a boring work of Victorian morals. However, Agnes’s barely acknowledged indignation, her wounded pride, and her somewhat snobbish sense of her own moral superiority give Agnes Grey an emotional bite as it reveals the hardships faced by governesses when they went to live among those whose social rank was equal to their own, but whose greater wealth made it easy for them to treat their governesses poorly.

The first person narration of Agnes Grey can understandably lull readers into thinking that the book is merely a cautionary tale. Agnes spends much time describing how her work as a governess turns out to be nothing like she imagined. She sets forth dreaming that her kindness and care will make her charges love her. They then will grow to love learning and virtue. Instead, Agnes finds that she is treated as socially inferior to the young people of whom she is in charge. She is given no power to punish, and the parents indulge the children’s every whim.

Fully aware that Agnes can do nothing to stop them, her charges give in to every wicked impulse they possess. A young boy delights in torturing animals. A young woman gratifies her vanity by flirting shamelessly with every man she sees. Agnes shows how the boy will grow up believing violence against inferior creatures makes him manly–he will learn to be violent against the weak (women and the lower classes) when he is a man. And the young lady who is so heartless will throw her life away on a morally debased lover because she desires his title and property. She will soon learn that money cannot make one happy. The upper classes see themselves as superior, but they are no better than anyone else.

But, even though Anne Brontë clearly wishes to instruct her readers to love the good and to hate the bad, Agnes Grey is much more than a lesson on how to raise children. Agnes’s first person narration allows readers to see the emotional toll her work takes on her. Even though she is from a “good” family, her relative impoverishment means that her employers see her as an inferior. But, she is not the equal of the servants, either. She occupies a nebulous space, where the servants ignore her and her employers and their upper class acquaintances talk over her, refuse to look at her, and often forget her. She has no friends, no one in whom to confide, no one who cares. Her loneliness and the bitterness it engenders sometimes come to the surface of her story, despite her efforts to illustrate herself as a calm individual who submits to the will of God. Agnes wants happiness–and she is mad God has denied it to her.

Agnes Grey shocked society when it was first published, because reviewers could not believe that the upper classes could be as morally depraved as Brontë depicted them, nor that they could treat their governesses so poorly. But Agnes Grey is based on Anne Brontë’s own experiences. As such, the story gains even more power as it voices Agnes’s despair over finding her place in the world, a place where she is known, appreciated, and loved. The story seems calm on the surface. But, just underneath, Agnes–and Anne–are shouting against the system. The system that raises and celebrates violent men, traps women in unhappy marriages, and treats governesses more like automatons than like humans. Agnes Grey may read to some contemporary readers as the musings of an overly religious writer. But Brontë’s religion calls into question the values of her society and, in doing so, makes Agnes Grey a rather radical novel.

4 stars

The Brontës: Children of the Moors by Mick Manning and Brita Granström

My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
     And carried aloft on the winds of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
     Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.

” Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day ” by Anne Brontë

Information

Goodreads: The Brontes: Children of the Moors
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

This picture book biography tells the story of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë’s lives from the perspective of Charlotte.

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Review

Like many works focused on the Brontë siblings, this one is told from the perspective of Charlotte, who lived longest and thus not only published more, but was also able to influence her sisters’ reputations after their deaths. Additionally, she left behind a wealth of letters and diaries, allowing biographers to quote her directly. Attempts to uncover Anne’s interior life necessitate more conjecture. Even so, the work is a beautiful introduction to the lives and work of the Brontës, combining quotes, images, and biography to tell their story in an engrossing manner.

The format of The Brontës: Children of the Moors may aptly be described as busy. Each spread typically includes a two-page illustration (drawn on site, according to the end notes), along with a quote by Charlotte in one corner and more text expanding on Charlotte’s words in another. The result is that sometimes the text can seem repetitive; readers read again what Charlotte just said, but in more detail. Or it can seem hard to follow. Should one begin with Charlotte’s words, with the picture, perhaps with a side panel showcasing the flora or fauna of the moors? However, I think young readers will delight in the busyness, in always finding something new to find on the page, in having to work to put together text, quote, and image. It makes the reading experience feel, somehow, more active, more participatory.

Being written for children, the text does smoothly gloss over moments like Branwell’s adulterous relationship with his employer’s wife and his descent into addiction, as well as Charlotte’s unrequited love for her Belgian professor. Sometimes the moments are made to sound more tame (ex. Branwell “flirted”). Sometimes they are mentioned, but not really elaborated upon. Ultimately, the biography comes across as truthful, but age-appropriate.

The Brontës: Children of the Moors is a wonderful introduction to the life and work of the Brontë siblings. It packs a lot of information into a small amount of space, resulting in that rare picture book biography that feels complete, but also supremely readable. Definitely worth a look for any Brontë fans.

4 stars

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis


Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life

Information

Goodreads: Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Official Summary

Anne Brontë is the forgotten Brontë sister, overshadowed by her older siblings — virtuous, successful Charlotte, free-spirited Emily and dissolute Branwell. Tragic, virginal, sweet, stoic, selfless, Anne. The less talented Brontë, the other Brontë.

Or that’s what Samantha Ellis, a life-long Emily and Wuthering Heights devotee, had always thought. Until, that is, she started questioning that devotion and, in looking more closely at Emily and Charlotte, found herself confronted by Anne instead.

Take Courage is Samantha’s personal, poignant and surprising journey into the life and work of a woman sidelined by history. A brave, strongly feminist writer well ahead of her time — and her more celebrated siblings — and who has much to teach us today about how to find our way in the world.

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Review

In Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life, Samantha Ellis explores the people, landscapes, and experiences that shaped Anne’s convictions and found expression in her work. From Anne’s social concerns to her religious doubts, the book covers the parts of Anne’s personality that make her stand out from her sisters. Too long forgotten by history, the book argues, Anne is ready to take her place as the most revolutionary and progressive of the Brontës–an author truly for our time. Intertwined with Anne’s story is that of Ellis, who reflects on Anne’s life and work and how they resonate in her own life. The result is a wonderfully witty and personal celebration of an author whose literary legacy needs to be reclaimed.

The lack of personal papers left by Anne has lead in part to her erasure from history; it also means that Ellis is left to piece together what she can of Anne’s biography from the people she knew. The book is organized into chapters based on people like Anne’s mother, her father, her aunt, her brother, with each one discussing what Anne might have learned from them. Concern for the oppressed from her father. An understanding of the effects of addiction from her brother. Ellis’s account carefully delineates what we know for certain, and what can only be speculated. Anne’s secret love for a local curate? Yes, it happened, Ellis thinks–but she does acknowledge that no written record can confirm it.

Perhaps the most amusing part of Ellis’s work is how poorly Charlotte comes off. Charlotte tends to be a focal point for literature lovers, both because she wrote Jane Eyre and because she left a large number of letters behind her when she died. But Ellis paints a portrait of a woman who tended to follow her own inclinations, despite her sister’s wishes. Anne, for instance, wanted to open their school at Scarborough; Charlotte decreed it would be at Haworth. Anne wanted to visit Scarborough when she was dying from tuberculosis, thinking the sea air might do her good. Charlotte refused to go with her, and instructed her friend Ellen to refuse to go with Anne, as well. Did Charlotte also destroy Anne’s personal papers when she died? Or did Anne do it herself? The world may never know. But we do know that Charlotte’s refusal to republish The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and her attempts to control Anne’s reputation after her death, were no doubt factors in Anne’s disappearance from literary history.

Readers should be advised that Ellis’s work is not strict biography. Her account of Anne’s life intertwines with her own; Ellis seems to find herself in Anne. She considers her romantic relationship in light of Anne’s life. She considers Anne’s guiding philosophies. She finds strength and inspiration in Anne. And, ultimately, her story ends up becoming a part of Anne’s story–because it shows that Anne is still alive, that her life and her works still speak to us, that she does not deserve to be forgotten.

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life is a lively introduction to Anne’s life and legacy, an easy-to-read biography that will appeal even to those who are intimidated by nonfiction. Ellis’s personable writing style reads like the confessions of a friend, drawing readers in to the forgotten world of Anne Brontë .

4 stars

Celebrating Anne Brontë’s 200th Birthday at Pages Unbound

But he that dares not grasp the thorn/ Should never crave the rose.”

“The Narrow Way” by Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë was born on January 17, 1820, in Thornton in the United Kingdom. Although less celebrated than her sisters Charlotte and Emily, her reputation is today being reevaluated by scholars. Anne wrote a number of poems as well as two novels before her death at the age of 29–Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall–which draw upon her experiences as a governess and at watching her brother Branwell succumb to drink and addiction.

Anne is known for writing more realistic stories than her sisters and for her progressive views on women, which today are read as perhaps even more feminist than Charlotte and Emily’s. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for example, Anne writes about the laws that allow men to abuse their wives, suggesting that marriage can become a form of imprisonment, and celebrates the strength of a woman who had to courage to leave her husband. Her story shocked Victorian society.

Anne’s passionate, somewhat unorthodox views, lead Charlotte to try to tame her sister’s memory after her death. She refused to republish The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because she claimed its scenes of debauchery did not reflect Anne’s true, gentle character. Some scholars believe it is in part Charlotte’s intervention that lead to Anne’s literary reputation falling. Charlotte may or may not also have destroyed Anne’s letters and juvenilia. The fact that Charlotte has left far more written material than either Emily or Anne has lead biographers many to focus on Charlotte, simply because there is more to focus on.

This January 17 marks the 200th anniversary of Anne Brontë’s birth. We will be celebrating at Pages Unbound with a number of reviews and posts focusing on Anne’s life and works. Join us and help us remember the most neglected Brontë sister!

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.

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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

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Information

Goodreads: Agnes Grey
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1847

Summary

Feeling that her family treats her like a child, Agnes Grey determines to make her own way in the world by becoming a governess.  However, her idealistic vision of molding the characters of children is quickly shattered.  In her positions, she is often denied authority and thwarted in her efforts to teach her charges virtue.  Additionally, she finds herself increasingly isolated as her position raises her above the servants but keeps her inferior to the families for whom she works.  Still, Agnes quietly perseveres in doing right.

Review

Anne Brontë tends to be overlooked when the works of her sisters are discussed.  In recent years, however, there have been attempts to revive her reputation, especially in reference to her work The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which shocked contemporary audiences with its depiction of a woman who leaves her alcoholic husband.  As critics begin to reexamine the feminist undertones of Anne’s works, undertones so far ahead of their time that even Charlotte refused to have Tenant republished, it seems fitting to return to Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey.

In many ways, Agnes Grey seems a quiet and unassuming novel–and yet it made audiences uncomfortable in its own day.  The titular character begins work as a governess in two different wealthy households.  In the first, she is prevented from punishing the children and so cannot prevent their misbehavior.  In the second, she is instructed never to cross the wills of her charges, leading the eldest to become a shameless flirt  who delights in hurting men to cater to her vanity and the second to curse and run about in the stables with the male servants.  Rendered ineffective by the directions of her morally decadent social superiors, Anne becomes increasingly unhappy and struggles to remain patient, humble, and cheerful.

The novel does not only critique the morals of the wealthy families but also examines the unfeeling treatment of women who occupy a nebulous space in society.  As a governess, Agnes can neither become friends with the servants nor enter into intimate conversation with her families or their guests.  She becomes all but invisible and  mute, her small pleasures denied to her by those who have her at their mercy and her attempts to instill virtue in her charges silenced.  At night, she has only dreams of a certain upright Mr. Weston to console her–but Agnes can scarcely believe he would ever glance her way.

There is an undeniable sense that Anne Brontë writes of her own experiences in these pages, making the isolation, the heartbreak, and the impotency all feel keenly personal.  Well might her contemporaries have felt shamed, for she does not hold back in describing the callous carelessness of the upper classes in their pursuit of their own pleasures and vanities.  Women and social inferiors are simply casualties of the whims of their “betters.”  Brontë ‘s perceptiveness, her deft characterization, and her fearless social commentary all make Agnes Grey a remarkable read–one that should not be overshadowed by her sisters’ works.

5 stars