Monday, December 17, 2012


Well, it has been a hectic and crazy week, but it's DONE.

The exams and office hours are finished.  The grading is finished.  The letters of recommendation are finished.

The yard is raked, the wood is stacked.  The house is cleaned, the laundry is done, the windows are winterized.

It's raining in RI and I am DONE.

What will I do now?  Get ready for the holidays of course.  Got cooking and presents to do.  But my time is officially my own, and in typical thinker-fashion, I have a stack of books, both real and e-form, about Soviet gulags. 

I can't wait.  Don't worry, I'm sure I'll be blogging about them.  Just in time for the holidays.

In the midst of all of the finishing-up activities, I also finished Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which was on my Classics Club List.  FYI, the Classics Club will be hosting its very own, very first Readathon on January 5, 2013.  

Of course I'll participate. 

Tenant was actually a re-read for me.  I read this novel for the first time years and years ago, when I was about 15.  I remember that I thought it was wonderful, romantic, deep, a real page-turner.

I was 15.

Oh, the times, they have a-chang-ed.  On one level, I draw deep, abiding comfort from the realization that my romantic ideals are no longer those of a 15-year-old girl growing up in a working-class town with a population of 4000. 

In the eighties, there was a popular self-help book for women called Smart Women/Foolish Choices: Finding the Right Men, Avoiding the Wrong Ones.  

There was also one called Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He'll Change.

Helen Huntingdon, the protagonist of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, could really have benefited from having either one--or both--of these books loaded into her e-reader.

Prior to hitting the dating scene, Helen gets a straight-up, no-holds-barred bit of advice from her wealthy aunt: "Don't marry a douchebag."  Helen responds to this bit of homespun advice with great condescension, asserting that her overwhelming powers of rationality will ensure that she is no easy mark for airy dreams of white knights and castles.  (Or nights at White Castle, for that matter.) 

She promptly marries the biggest douchebag the world has ever known.  The guy has "I'm a pig and an idiot" metaphorically stamped all over him: the red flags fly up all over the place whenever he strolls into the room.  In the course of about two pages, Helen falls madly in love, and wouldn't you know it, within a month, she realizes, "I'm married to a pig and an idiot who is also the biggest douchebag the world has ever known."

Despite its painful plot, Brontë's novel is interesting for the very fact that it confronts the idea of bad marriages and the men and women who make them.  Helen is officially, legally trapped: in 19th-century Britain, divorce is unheard of, and a woman suing for divorce from her husband?  Well, it just didn't happen.

Women in the early 19th century lost all legal right to own, buy or sell property.  Whatever had been theirs, was theirs no more.  They officially possessed no legal identity: they were "covered" by the law of coverture, which meant that, upon marriage, the husband's legal identity became the wife's as well.  His interests were, by definition, hers.  

In any child-custody dispute, the children "belonged" to their father.  And if a woman went so far as to dispute this idea, it would only serve as further proof that she was an unfit mother.  

What wife can't keep her husband in line?  What wife can't morally reform her significant other through the very example of her chaste, devoted, loving, patient self?   Booze and opium and gambling and hookers are no match for such a vision of domestic perfection--everyone knows that.

This makes all of those lovely romance plots of Jane Austen's novels look a bit different, doesn't it?  No wonder you wanted to marry nice and rich and find a guy who thought you were smarter than he was and who would love and defer to you in all things at all times.

It was not until the Married Women's Property Act in 1882 that a married woman's legal identity was restored and considered (potentially) separate from that of her spouse.

So Anne Brontë's novel is, not surprisingly, about what can happen when you let your heart rule your head. Strolling the beautiful grounds of Pemberley may not be all that great after all, if it turns out that your Mr. Darcy was just a guy playing a role to get himself a smart, good-looking wife.  

He may not even own Pemberley.  In fact, it may be mortgaged to the hilt.  He may be up to his ears in debt.  He may like booze and prostitutes and he may have simply taken a shine to you because he heard about your credit score.

It's hard for a 21st-century female reader to connect to a character like Helen Huntingdon.  She relies on her faith and her sense of Christian duty to enable her to take the high road and put up with her asshole of a husband.  Her life revolves around ensuring that their young son doesn't fall prey to her husband's influence  (Daddy likes to teach Junior to cuss like a sailor and drink gin)  and praying for her reward in the hereafter.

No, I'm not kidding.

Brontë's novel employs a really interesting narrative structure, however.  We don't find out Helen's story until well into the novel, because it's framed by another narrative, a series of letters written by Gilbert Markham to his friend, designed to tell him about his encounters with the mysterious tenant of Wildfell Hall--a young widow who has moved into the mansion next door.

Although the plot of Wildfell Hall had me rolling my middle-aged eyes quite a bit and wondering aloud, "GIRRRLLL, what were you THINKING?!!", the fact is, the novel addresses themes and issues that were by no means openly talked about in mid-19th-century England.  Like Wuthering Heights, it addresses issues of alcoholism and domestic abuse; unlike Wuthering Heights, it dares to envision what might happen when a woman decides enough is enough.

In short, what happens when she realizes she's DONE. 

1 comment:

  1. I shared your reactions to "Tenant." I was mentally shouting "Don't do it! Listen to Auntie!" before she married him, and struggling to understand her extreme forbearance with his outrages. Shuddering at the thought of living in a society where I literally would have no freedom of action. I believe Bronte had to make Helen saintly to the nth degree to get readers to take her plight seriously, and to see that she had no choice but to take the action she did. It's a device, but probably an effective one for the time and place. Great review!


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