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.