Monday, 21 November 2011

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

On my first visit to Lerwick Book Group I got myself in a fankle: I thought we were reading 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall', by Anne Brontë, in portions, but arrived to find that everyone else had finished the book. It's a testament to the novel and the discussion that despite the big spoiler, I was still really keen to read it, and spent the following weekend glued to it.

June introduced her choice, describing the two narratives that structure the novel. These are a letter from Gilbert to his brother-in-law Jack Halford in which he introduces the 'Tenant', Helen Graham, and his burgeoning 'regard' for her, which encapsulates the journal extract that forms the heart of the book, in which the Helen Graham describes her abuse at the hands of her dissolute husband. June also summarised the central themes – the independence of women, alcoholism and psychological abuse.

We agreed that Helen was a strong protagonist making the best of her unenviable lot, and noted that, like the heroine of 'Jane Eyre', written by Anne Brontë's sister, Charlotte, she addressed her plight with impressive pragmatism, in contrast to the young men in the novel, who largely seemed unable to entertain themselves if not drinking heavily or hunting.

Many of us were shocked – as was the audience of the time – that the darker side of the social life of the time was described so graphically, in particular disturbing scenes in which Helen's young son is taught to take hard drink with the men, and one in which the alcoholic Lord Lowborough, struggling to reform, is likewise forced to drink by dint of peer pressure and outright violence. Of the male characters, even the more sympathetic individuals, including the 'hero' Gilbert, were shown in an ambivalent light.

Whilst we all found the narrative structure slightly contrived, most of us got swept up in the book, and felt that it was a remarkable achievement for a writer of 28. It's heartbreaking to discover that Brontë succumbed to T.B. the year after it was published. Janet said that, compared to 'The Sea, The Sea', she felt refreshed after reading it. Most of us felt that we'd like to read more work by the Brontë sisters after 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall': their novels, daring for their time, and often suppressed because of it, continue to have relevance to our modern lives.