Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Fields and Forests Bare: A Reader’s Update and Returning to Wildfell

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After a series of reading misadventures I return to old reading habits, revisiting the Brontës like you would old friends. This week I will be rereading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. When I last read it back in 2011 (how time flies!) I loved Anne immediately. I’ve since reread Wuthering Heights and continued to adore it, but have never returned to Anne Brontë until now.

I’ve read the first couple of chapters this afternoon and there has already been a subversive feminist Victorian discussion concerning male and female upbringing:

You affirm that virtue is only elicited by temptation; – and you think that a woman cannot be too little exposed to temptation, or too little acquainted with vice, or anything connected therewith – It must be, either, that you think she is essentially vicious, or feeble-minded that she cannot withstand temptation, – and though she may be pure and innocent as long as she is kept in ignorance and restraint, yet, being destitute of real virtue, to teach her how to sin is at once to make her a sinner, and the greater her knowledge, the wider her liberty, the deeper will be her depravity.

I couldn’t read this without thinking about poor Clarissa Harlowe. I look forward to judging the rogue in this novel, now that I have read Clarissa – the battle for the worst husband in literature begins.

In other reading news, I read The Castle of Otranto over Halloween and hated it. I was really surprised, with my usual love of the gothic novel. I had a particularly badly formatted edition which didn’t help. But if you’ve read it – please tell me what you thought of it. I have managed to find a couple of contemporary novels which I would highly recommend: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (the greatest twist, completely fascinating, best read if you know nothing about it) and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (WWII novel with utterly heartbreakingly beautiful writing).

Finally, the classics spin has come around again, this was my list:
1. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
2. The Monk, Matthew Lewis
3. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
4. The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Bosewell
5. Vilette, Charlotte Brontë
6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
7. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
8. La Regenta, Leopoldo Alas
9. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence
10. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
11. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
12. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
13. The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling, Henry Fielding
14. Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome
15. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
16. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
17. Ivanhoe, Walter Scott
18. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
19. Little Women, Louisa M. Alcott
20. Pamela, Samuel Richardson

So I will be reading The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling by Henry Fielding by January 5th. What did you get in the spin? Does anyone want to read along with me?

Hope you have all had a great weekend, I spent today stomping around in the mud with my friend whilst wearing inappropriate footwear. For now, back to the ragged rocks of Wildfell Hall.

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The Woman in White

I hadn’t planned on reading Wilkie Collins straight after Little Dorrit, because I really really want to read the copy of I Capture the Castle I bought last week. But there is a The Woman in White readalong and seeing as it was on my Classics Club list – why not? I’m self confessedly rubbish at following reading schedules so you shall not be surprised that I didn’t manage to follow this one either. If you want to take part, the readalong is going on until the end of April.

Before I say anything else, I have to start with some gushing. The Woman in White is brilliant! If you haven’t read it, put it on your to read list immediately (and then actually read it). A mightily fine book, but maybe not the one you were expecting. As the readalong graphic proclaims: there are no ghosts. This was a surprise as I had just always assumed this was a gothic kind of ghost story. Instead it is an insanely well crafted thriller told by several different narrators with twists that made me (embarrassingly, actually) gasp out loud. Should you be in the mood for a gothic story, there are plenty of elements to keep you happy; passions running high, doubles, people being locked up and setting churches on fire.

Comparing Dickens and Collins seems quite natural; they were contemporaries and travel buddies. What struck me about both writers was that I thought their writing was quite effeminate.  Both have a reputation of authoritative maleness that made their choice of writing from a woman’s perspective surprising. I was definitely pleasantly surprised when Esther appeared as a narrator of Bleak HouseI suppose the question is whether the female voices are accurate, or just appear to be. With women’s voices so limited in the 19th century their fictional representatives often fall into types: Virtuous or scandalous, wronged and weak or defiant and disobedient. There are hints of both in Collins’ writing.  The male / female divide wasn’t limited to the female characters themselves. Walter Hartright, the overall narrator of The Woman in White reminded me of Gilbert Markman from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Were the Brontës writing in their own voices, or had they mastered writing as men writing as women? A side note: if you like Anne Bronte you’ll like this.

Earlier this year I read The Dead Secret, which was the novel that Collins wrote before The Woman in White. It very nearly put me off Wilkie Collins altogether! I read that it is seen as Collins practicing the themes he mastered later in his writing. To be honest, the effect of this was that it seemed like a very underwhelming version of this novel. There are still secrets, grand old houses and mysterious parentage, but it is nowhere near as successful as The Woman in White.

Wildfell Hall

tenantThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

After living and breathing this for a week, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is definitely in the running for favourite ever Brontë novel. Honestly, this hasn’t turned into a Brontë blog, but I’m just a little bit obsessed at the moment! Anne Brontë is a brilliant writer on her own merit – she isn’t as sentimental as Charlotte in Jane Eyre or as wild as Emily in Wuthering Heights. Instead, she wrote a powerful and moving book on a unique subject.

Rather excitingly, this book contains one of the greatest literary bastards of all time – Arthur Huntingdon. I can’t believe how awful he was and was genuinely angry about the way he treats his wife, Helen. His decline into alcoholism must have been a subject close to Anne’s heart and no doubt inspired by Branwell’s own demise. She writes very movingly about being a person in love with someone’s intent to destroy themselves:

‘If she gives you her heart’, said I, ‘you must take it thankfully, and use it well, and not pull it to pieces, and laugh in her face, because she cannot snatch it away.’

I though Arthur and Helen’s characters and marriage were portrayed in quite a modern light, for a Victorian novel. Whilst most of the men in the book held an expected opinion that they could do whatever they liked, and their wives should love them all the same, there were unexpected examples of a changing attitude that women deserved to be treated like individuals.

I really enjoyed the form of the book. The narrator is Gilbert Markham, writing letters to his friend about his younger days, but the main part of the book is Helen’s diary. I like books that change narrators – this book was particularly clever introducing the reader to Helen through the eyes of a suspicious close-knit northern community. It highlighted how forward and – dare I suggest feminist – Anne made her leading lady: she was so independent and courageous for the time she lived in. Initially I was a fan of Gilbert, but the more I learnt about Helen, the less I thought he was good enough for her. The jury is still out on that one…

Why is Anne Brontë seen as less talented? Her characters are well-rounded and vivid, her story is passionate and intelligent, and her writing is unique. I was completely captivated by this story, with an immediacy I haven’t experienced reading the Brontës before.

I’ve already started on Agnes Grey!

Brontë Country

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The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan

This is an unusually written insight into the lives of the Brontës. Jude Morgan has taken the bare bones of their history, with all the commonly known details, and given them flesh. I didn’t know much about their biographies previously, other than a couple of visits to Haworth so I found this fascinating.

I quite like fictional history, although I appreciate it is a tricky genre to get right. I think what made this book so successful was the unusual writing style. The story is narrated by someone completely omniscient, who mixes description with glimpses into people’s thoughts. If you can imagine doing stream of consciousness whilst also writing in the third person… its like that. It really emphasised the close knit community the Brontë siblings established for themselves. There is a lot of focus on their stories about imaginary lands and early writing games that helped explain their need to write as they grew up.

The beginning of the book focuses on the early years sent away at school. These were some bleak times (!) and provided a lot of material for Jane Eyre. The poor treatment of the children at school resulted in the deaths of the two eldest siblings: Maria and Elizabeth. The effect of this on Charlotte ‘s personality was so believable, she had gone from the middle child to the eldest in just a couple of months and never really adjusted to the idea that she was capable of handling the responsibility this brought.

I loved the descriptions of the Parsonage and yorkshire landscapes. The Taste of Sorrow, like the latest cinematic version of Jane Eyre made me want to stride out across the moors! The harshness and bleakness played a big part in the forming of Emily’s personality: In this story she was strong, content alone and inwardly wild – the only possible author of a book like Wuthering Heights. It isn’t often I have the urge to read poetry (or at all really) but after reading this I would be interested to read some poetry by Emily Brontë.

The Taste of Sorrow didn’t leave out Anne or Branwell, which considering the literary heights of Charlotte and Emily could have been easy to do. In fact, an american version of the book is called Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës. Scandal! What about Anne? Morgan describes Branwell as opressed by the weight of the family’s expectations for him; as the heir, he has to secure means to support his sisters. However, his inability to find an occupation, combined with being unlucky in love, lead him into a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism. The later parts of the book include the writing of The Professor, Wuthering Heights Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Jane Eyre and Vilette.

There were, of course, tragic endings and deaths. The Brontë children died young and many within a few pages of each other. Morgan tried to end the book on a happy note – Charlotte’s marriage – but the general themes of barren landscapes and death at the end of the book was inescapable. In the most basic of summaries Emily was the most interesting, Anne was overlooked and Charlotte was the one who survived. The Taste of Sorrow is a really good introduction and I would be quite happy to read nothing but Brontë novels for a little while.