This is the story of a woman's struggle for independence. Helen "Graham" has returned to Wildfell Hall in flight from a disastrous marriage. Exiled to the desolate moorland mansion, she adopts an assumed name and earns her living as a painter.
MY THOUGHTS:This is my 19th Century Classic in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. What a powerful read. The moral is, 'Girls, don't romanticise bad boys.' This book puts Anne Bronte into a class of her own, since her two sisters' novels tend to do that very thing. But I think Anne considered it her mission to show that you can't reform them. She has her heroine Helen say of her new fiance, 'I should think my life well spent in the effort to preserve so noble a nature from destruction.' Then she proves by his later behaviour that it's bollocks!
Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Gilbert Markham is the first narrator. He's a young country farmer who's curious about Helen Graham, a beautiful artist who lives with her small son in a wing of the nearby Wildfell Hall. It's a cold, inhospitable place, and she pays their rent by selling paintings. Gilbert finds Helen prickly, opinionated and over-protective of little Arthur. But as her deep and intelligent nature charms him, he gradually falls in love with her, and suspects she's warming to him too. Village gossips hint that Helen isn't the simple widow she seems, but the truth is a bitter blow to Gilbert. Her husband is still alive and she ran away from him, taking their son with her.
The bulk of the book is Helen's diary; one engrossing flashback. She tells her own tale of how she fell for Arthur Huntingdon, a charming rake who sweeps her off her feet but turns out to be a bad-egg who makes her life a living hell.
I think Anne's reputation of being the weakest Bronte sister is totally undeserved. It's like trying to argue which is most inferior out of apples, oranges and bananas. Perhaps she doesn't have Charlotte's classical scope of reference or Emily's mystical tone, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This story is refreshingly free of Charlotte's frequent waffle in French, which is a plus in my books. Anne has an earnest, candid style and plenty of graceful 19th century dialogue which I love. And that's as good as anything the other two have.
Her characterisation is excellent. We can see exactly why Helen falls for Arthur in the first place, then grows to resent him so fiercely later on, while it's clear to us that he's the same douche all through. Anne Bronte has created a classic case of the initial attraction feature eventually becoming the biggest turn-off. At first Helen loves Arthur's 'joyful, playful spirit', but it takes living together to reveal him as a shallow, restless narcissist with no idea how to fill his spare time if he's not drinking or gambling. And since he's a member of the landed gentry, that's every day.
Arthur expects Helen to drop everything to amuse him. He's a cheat, a liar who never intends to keep his word, and eventually winds up as an alcoholic. His emotional abuse is horrendous, and when he starts pulling similar dirty moves on Arthur Junior, Helen knows enough is enough. Her allegiance has rightfully shifted from her husband to her innocent son. She does what few wives of the era would have done, and leaves him. Anne Bronte was surely among the first to suggest through this story that marriage vows should not be binding when enough lines are crossed.
But then there's the Gilbert factor! My word, far more complex than just the 'better guy', he's super-reactive and life in his head space is just one emotional roller coaster after another. Gilbert is a hot-head and an over-thinker rolled into one, which is not the best combo. But he has empathy for others and a sense of his own shortcomings, which Arthur seemed to have been totally born without. They are Gilbert's saving graces.
Ultimately it's Helen's story. She draws on her courage and rock solid Christian faith to bolster her conviction that the socially unpopular move is her only recourse. And I love her comments that mark her as a clear introvert centuries before the 21st century introvert liberation I've been enjoying. For a start, she finds social chit-chat draining. 'I'm wearied to death with small talk. I cannot imagine how they go on as they do. I hate talking where there is no exchange of ideas or sentiments, and no good given or received.' And many modern introverts surely echo, 'You preach it, sister!'
There's so much more I could share about this book, including its secondary characters? The Preface, written by Anne Bronte herself, is well worth a read. It seems rigid nineteenth century PC standards deemed that drunken louts behaving like morons shouldn't appear in the pages of novels. Authors should entirely block them out, as if they don't exist. I loved reading Anne's own polite justification for causing offence. Basically, she says that she won't use her writing skills simply to give escapist readers some feel-good sighs. She felt she had a responsibility to warn idealistic girls like Helen about handsome, walking stumbling blocks with the potential to ruin their lives. Her own words are beautifully formed, so here's a direct quote.
'Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller or to cover them with branches and flowers?'
If I'd been around back then, I would have written to Anne, congratulated her for a fantastic job and told her that I think the drunken chapters were the most impacting of the whole book. Unlike her sisters, she calls a jerk a jerk. It's so authentically written, I believe Anne probably drew a lot from real life with her brother Branwell. What we're getting are probably creepy echoes from their Haworth Parsonage home two hundred years after Branwell's carrying-on. And it sticks in my mind long after finishing the book.
Finally, I love this cartoon from Hark, a Vagrant, which I won't share straight onto the blog and violate copyright laws, but the link is here.