Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Frenchman’s Creek

I couldn't choose between these two books for the Back to the Classics Challenged so I read them both.😀

I was pretty curious to try the Anne Bronte title. I’d only read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte previously. One can’t help but compare the sisters’ novels when reading them, though whether that is fair or not is debatable. I can see where readers might not like Anne aka Helen in this novel. She can be a little strident at times. But I did like this book and particularly (despite its absurdity of a man writing an impossibly long letter to a friend, quoting verbatim huge chunks of dialog and in the very center, inserting the lady’s diary entries) its nutshell like structure. Enormous chunks of conversation “remembered” verbatim in letters and diaries is a pretty common narrative technique in Victorian novels in my (albeit limited) experience. Sometimes, I don't mind an info-dump.

The novel is narrated by Gilbert Markham, a young gentleman farmer in 1827, who at first makes light of his mother and sister’s obsession with their reclusive new neighbor, Helen Graham, who is the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall. But when Gilbert observes the young widow himself at church the following Sunday, he too finds himself mysteriously drawn to her, much to the chagrin of the vicar’s flirtatious daughter who has set her cap at Gilbert. As the book progresses, Mrs. Graham’s reputation suffers due to local gossip and she fears she may need to leave the neighborhood.  But before she goes, she provides Gilbert with parts of her diary which explain just why she is so reserved and mysterious and also why she must flee. The middle of the book is then almost entirely Helen’s diary recounting her youth and the years leading up to her move to Wildfell Hall.

I liked the story quite a bit. Anne Bronte’s depiction of alcoholism, Victorian machismo, and manipulative men was very realistic…uncomfortably so at times. It many respects, the kind of psychological manipulation that Helen endures in her marriage is completely common and still happens today. Only now, at least in the West, it is usually somewhat easier for the wife to legally extricate herself from a marriage…and yet modern advice columns are full of letters from women (and men) who stay and stay and stay…

My only real complaint is that I didn't like Gilbert as a character. It is perhaps unfair to compare him to Rochester or Heathcliff and yet, there are some (negative) qualities in all three of these (anti-)heroes which maybe speak more to the idea of the Victorian man or maybe more to the Bronte sisters' idea of men. That said, as a romantic foil, he just can’t stand next to those other two awful, yet compelling men. Gilbert was a spoiled boy grown into a spoiled man. He had none of Heathcliff’s or Rochester’s cunning or intelligence. I understood Helen’s passion for Huntington, even though he was clearly a manipulative jerk, but I found Gilbert Markham simply boorish. Dunno, maybe that says more about me and my bad taste in men! I will have to ponder that one a bit. LOL.

Frenchman’s Creek was fun but more a romance novel (albeit with an un-traditional ending I think) which just isn’t my cup of tea. I much prefer du Maurier’s psychological suspense novels like Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel. But I have long been interested in reading it ever since I read the delightful he said/she said debate between Simon Thomas and his mother waaaay back in 2012 on the blog Stuck in a Book.  I am afraid I fall down on the side of Simon: I found the heroine, Dona St. Columb, often selfish and insufferable and the pirate no real Robin Hood. But I will say, on the plus side, the dialogue is usually pretty snappy and well done...funny and sexy. 

I also understand that women in the Restoration Era didn’t have a lot of options, even the wealthy ones, but I kind of felt that du Maurier was mostly paying lip service to the historical aspects of the book. It did not work for me as a historical novel at all.  Frenchman’s Creek I feel is pure escapist romantic fantasy with a heroine who feels fettered by conventions of her class and era so she runs away and falls in love with a pirate.  Even though I’ve not read it or seen the T.V. show, I was strongly reminded of Outlander while reading it. I think it was the idea of escaping one’s responsibilities and commitments via adventure and romance that made my mind go there. Only Clare in Outlander does so by stepping through a time-travel portal and Dona does so by hanging out with pirates who are camping out in the back yard of her husband's ancestral home.  Definitely a great book for the right reader, I am just not that reader.


I read both books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 Classic with a Place in the Title category.


28 comments:

  1. :) I need to read Frenchman's Creek again. As an adolescent (oh, so many years ago), I loved it. It was more fun than My Cousin Rachel and Rebecca, but less memorable. I've never read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--or anything by Anne--but your comparisons of Gilbert to Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester make me curious.

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    1. Thanks for the comment jenclair! I think Frenchman's Creek is - hands down - more fun than either My Cousin Rachel and Rebecca. Very romantic, but also bittersweet. I would say Jamaica Inn is probably more of a "standard" romance in that respect.

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    2. Guess I need to re-read Frenchman's Creek. It's been only 40-45 years since my last reading. Sounds good.

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  2. I enjoyed Frenchman's Creek but it is not one I would rush to reread (unlike Jamaica Inn or Rebecca). I have read Outlander (even before it was published) and I don't think Clare is running away from her responsibilities. She feels very torn between her 20th century and 18th century lives, while trying to adapt, whereas Dona is unhappy in her current life. Clare doesn't like the constraints of the 18th century but when possible ignores them. But you should definitely try it!

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    1. Thanks for setting me straight on Outlander CLM! As wrote, I've never read the series or seen the T.V. show. So my comparison is off, for sure. Rebecca is the only du Maurier title that I have, thus far, read twice. I would read it again too, for sure. I think it is her masterpiece.

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  3. I haven't read Frenchman's Creek (yet), but I did really like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall when I read it years ago. It's the book that made me realize how underappreciated Anne Bronte has been all these years. And I must have been in the right mood when I read it because Gilbert didn't bother me at all. Although, he might now if I read the book again. :)

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    1. Thanks for the comment Lark! I think you would like Frenchman's Creek. I agree that Anne is underappreciated and in her forthright views on women and marriage, quite forward thinking. It is such a pity that both she and Emily died so young. What other fabulous novels might they have written?

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    2. Right? I would love to be able to read more from both of them.

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  4. Hi Ruthiella, I read The Tenants of Wildfell Hall last year and though its not considered as great a novel as Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre I was suprised and pleased to find out how very good it was. It's sad too because Anne Bronte clearly had the talent to come up with future novels that would have placed her indisputably in the same rank as her sisters but she died so young. It would have been interesting too if Branwell had written a novel but if he had been well and stable enough to do so it would have changed the entire psychology of the Bronte household and possibly we would never have gotten very different books from his sisters.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Kathy! Yes, if Branwell had also published a novel, how fascinating it would be to read it...but would it be enough to stifle the creativity of his sisters? Or if he had financially been able to support them, would they have published? Fascinating questions. I think, once I have a couple more Bronte titles under my belt, I will tackle a good biography of the family. They would be very interesting to read about.

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    2. A good biography on the family is The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors by Juliet Barker. It's considered the definitive biography on the family and I am planning to reread it this year.

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    3. Cool! I will add that title to my list and I look forward to your review if you blog about it Kathy! :D

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  5. I really liked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as well as Anne Bronte's first novel, Agnes Grey, which I've always felt readers and critics (and men) have dismissed too readily. In the past six years or so, it seems that the literary establishment is viewing Anne differently, recognizing her dogged independence, being the only sister who left home to earn her own living, for example. That's good to see.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Judith! I will for sure read Agnes Grey at some point. It is interesting to know how books we consider classics fall in and out of favor. This does control what is more readily available to and circulated among readers for sure. Like I mentioned above in my reply to Kathy, I would someday like to read a good biography of the Bronte family and learn more about Anne and her sisters.

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  6. I haven't read either of these, though both are on my list of things to read (a very long list, of course). I'm more a Charlotte fan than an Emily fan--do you think Anne is closer to one or the other?

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    1. If I had to choose, Jane Eyre would be my favorite from the three I have read. But I have yet to sample any of Charlotte's other books. According to the introduction in the Penguin edition I read (by Stevie Davies) Anne and Emily were the closer siblings. But in terms of the moral backbone of the heroine, Helen is much closer to Jane than to Cathy.

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    2. It is kind of Cathy's waywardness that puts me off, so maybe that makes Helen more interesting to me.

      I thought Villette was very good.

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    3. I will keep this in mind when I read Anne's second and the rest of Charlotte's novels but Jane, Helen and Cathy are all very headstrong and determined and ultimately get what they want through perseverance and not acquiescing to what others demand...just some of them have to wait until they die to get it.

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  7. Good for you for knocking off two! I did like Tenant even though I agree with your analysis. It's not fabulous literature but solid and entertaining. And I did like it more than Wuthering Heights.

    I first read Rebecca and that ruined me for reading any more by du Maurier. I can't even. But perhaps in a long time I just might try another one.

    Thanks once again for the stellar reviews!

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    1. Thanks for the comment Cleo. You are too kind! I read Rebecca first as well and I don't think any other du Maurier will live up to it. You know, another reason for liking Tenant over Wuthering is NO DIALECT. It was so hard to read the transcribed interpretation of a Yorkshire dialect in Wuthering Heights. :D

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  8. An interesting pair of books, both of which I don't rank among my favorites. That said, I, like you, read Tenant of Wildfell Hall to see how Anne would fare compared to Charlotte and Emily. I found the book about twice as long as it needed to be--I got the point Anne was making and thought she belabored it. Glad I read it but not planning a reread.

    Frenchman's Creek is the only du Maurier story that let me done - I thought DMM did lip service to the historical novel genre and I found myself rolling my eyes on multiple occasions. I agree that her best work are the the psychological thrillers.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Jane! I knew going in that Anne Bronte was not your favorite writer! I think more easily forgive Victorian era novelists that extra-length...more easily than I would a modern writer, at least.

      Yes, totally agree Daphne only cursorily paid any attention to the time and place for Frenchman's Creek, her focus was the illicit romantic relationship. Still, kudos for not making Dona likable.

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  9. Hi Ruthiella, It’s been quite a while since I read the Bronte book but I remember liking it. I also enjoyed Agnes Grey, which from memory was semi-autobiographical. I agree that du Maurier’s best book is Rebecca & everything else falls a bit flat compared to it.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Carol! I will for sure read Agnes Grey at some point. I'll bet there are du Maurier fans who prefer her romantic side. And Rebecca fans can always re-read it.:) I've read it twice and will probably pick it up again some day.

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  10. Hi Ruthiella.

    First, thanks for your generous comments at my blog.

    These two books are showing up a lot in the blogs I follow, as I can see in the comments as well.

    If Cleo says she loves Tenant even more than Wuthering, I may give it a try. And I don’t think I will like the other book. If it leans too much on the romance (as Jamaica Inn and The King’s General), I read those, but they are not that super great. I am too of the opinion that Rebeca (and probably My Cousin Rachel, though I haven’t read that one), are the two best titles by her.

    I appreciate your reviews.

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    1. Hi Silvia! Thank you for your kind comment! I'd not noticed many other reviews of Frenchman's Creek but yes, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does seem to be popular this year. I wasn't the biggest fan of Jamaica Inn either, though I can understand its appeal to other readers.

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  11. Hi Ruthiella: your blog, as always, is a delight to read! Unfortunately, I have major internet problems in reading/commenting/following (took several tries this time). I read Tenant many years ago and, much to my surprise (I'm not a Bronte fan) really loved it, probably because I found its treatment of women's issues so very interesting (we HAVE come a long way, baby, although it doesn't always seem so). As for du Maurier, like most readers I love Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel; I'm also very fond of her short stories. So far, however, I've avoided the romance/historical titles and, based on your assessment, may continue to do so! I plan on reading du Maurier's The Parasites, a semi-autobiographical dealie, later on in the year, so I'll be interested to see how I react to it.

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    1. Hi Janakay! Sorry for the late reply. I've been working from home and this means when I turn of my work laptop, I really don't want to turn on my personal PC sitting in the exact same place where I've been sitting for eight hours.

      Going to an office every day helped me draw a line and now...

      I can't say I am a Bronte fan either. I don't dislike anything I've read from any of the three, but they don't touch my heart the way Trollope or Dickens do. Trollope also has a lot to say, though less directly than Anne Bronte, about the treatment of women's issues in the Victorian Era.

      I have a couple more du Mauriers to try...her short stories and The Scapegoat (because I already own copies) and the The House on the Strand because it sounds interesting.

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