Isn’t this Folio Society edition of the Brontë novels beautiful? If you could choose just one to read, which would it be?
I guess that most people are more likely to select either Charlotte’s passionate and dramatic Jane Eyre or the black romance of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, given that these two novels have been incredibly popular for a very long time. I’ve read and studied both these novels and have come to value and appreciate them for what they are, but the writers’ voices don’t speak to me personally – they’re not really novels I enjoy.
Anne Brontë is much more to my taste and I’m currently re-reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Academic opinion is that this was one of the first sustained feminist novels and grounded in realism – neither of which you could really accuse Charlotte or Emily’s works of being, even though many real life ‘things’ happen in them and they are concerned with the lives of women. I also find a gentle humour in Anne’s writerly voice that is absent in those of her sisters’, whether she’s exposing the less attractive side of her characters’ personalities, or holding up her candle to illuminate the gritty details of everyday life, which some critics of the day considered to be ‘coarse’.
After Anne’s death, Charlotte prevented the republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall saying that it “hardly seems to me desirable to preserve … the choice of subject in that work is a mistake.” and I can’t help wondering if that was genuinely her reason, or if her successful author’s vanity was threatened by Anne. Was Anne more modern, less self-obsessed, more realistic and worldly than her more famous sisters? These were qualities that were becoming ever more popular with the reading public and I wonder if her work would have ultimately been more critically successful if Charlotte hadn’t stopped republication when she did? I also wonder what Emily would have been capable of, had she lived to learn more of life, and her craft. I suspect that her immense imagination could have produced something quite incredible that would have been more accomplished in an authorly sense than is Wuthering Heights.
There is one passage at the beginning of Chapter 5 that also made me think about just how much we modern female makers and artists have in common with our Victorian counterparts like the novel’s heroine, Mrs Helen Graham. The hero, Mr Markham, has come to the hall to visit Mrs Graham and her son and is looking over some of her paintings in her studio when they have this exchange:
‘You have almost completed your painting,’ said I, approaching to observe it more closely, and surveying it with a greater degree of admiration and delight than I cared to express. ‘A few more touches in the foreground will finish it, I should think. But why have you called it Fernley Manor, Cumberland, instead of Wildfell Hall, —shire?’ I asked, alluding to the name she had traced in small characters at the bottom of the canvas.
But immediately I was sensible of having committed an act of impertinence in so doing; for she coloured and hesitated; but after a moment’s pause, with a kind of desperate frankness, she replied:—
‘Because I have friends—acquaintances at least—in the world, from whom I desire my present abode to be concealed; and as they might see the picture, and might possibly recognise the style in spite of the false initials I have put in the corner, I take the precaution to give a false name to the place also, in order to put them on a wrong scent, if they should attempt to trace me out by it.’
‘Then you don’t intend to keep the picture?’ said I, anxious to say anything to change the subject.
‘No; I cannot afford to paint for my own amusement.’
‘Mamma sends all her pictures to London,’ said Arthur; ‘and somebody sells them for her there, and sends us the money.’
Of course, makers today have a much more convenient time of things selling online, whether from their own web sites, Facebook, Etsy or other marketplaces. But like many makers who are home raising their families, Mrs Graham doesn’t allow the restrictions on her mobility in the physical world hold her back from using her creative abilities to support herself and her son. As you read the novel, you discover that she also clearly finds a solid sense of independence from this self-sufficiency: she draws upon it to strengthen herself, to recover from her ordeals during her marriage, to overcome the loneliness of her current circumstances, and the disapproval of her neighbours who know nothing of her troubled past.
Whether or not you’re already a Brontë fan, if you’ve never read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I’d urge you to give it a try – you can read it for free in various formats via Project Gutenberg here. There’s also a very good 1996 BBC dramatisation of the novel staring Tara FitzGerald, Rupert Graves and Toby Stephens, if you’re the kind of reader who enjoys seeing a novel’s story before reading.
If you don’t know much about the often tragic and sad lives of all the Brontë family you couldn’t do better than to read Juliet Barker’s biography, The Brontës A Life in Letters, which I found very absorbing as a biography of the family, as well as a well researched and detailed look at life in the mid 19th century.