Book Review//The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

If a reader must choose between Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters then I firmly come down on the side of Austen. Austen's writing style suits me; her wit, her humor, her ability to use the trivialities of life to tell a dramatic story, all are exactly what I look for in a book. The Bronte sisters with their wuthering moors, their insane wives locked in attics, and their tragic lives are interesting but not quite my cup of tea. I read Jane Eyre a few times over the years and enjoyed it but never liked Mr. Rochester. The passion for Wuthering Heights passed me by when I was a teenager. It irritated instead of enthralled me. I read the Bronte sisters because I read everything I came across when I was younger but they are not books I return to again and again.

Recently I read a review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the storyline didn't sound familiar. Maybe I never read it? Anne Bronte seems to be viewed as the less-appreciated of the sisters and I decided I should give her a chance. I still am not sure if I read this years and years ago but I do know that I enjoyed it now.

The book opens with a letter from Gilbert Markham promising to tell the story of some major events in his life. He tells of the arrival of Helen Graham and her son to live in the uninhabited Wildfell Hall. She is a private woman who doesn't talk much of her past and the neighbors spend a lot of time trying to pry out her secrets. Inevitably, Markham falls in love with her; she refuses him and then gives him her diaries to read to explain the reason for her refusal. 

Helen married young and her marriage was not happy. We read of the slow deterioration of her marriage and of the strength with which Helen faced it. Her husband is an alcoholic, unfaithful, and a bad influence on their son. All of this is described with unflinching realism including the scene where Helen locks him out of their bedroom. This must have been a shocking scene for the time in which it was written. Helen finally flees from her husband--also a shocking decision for the time. 

I admired Helen. She was strong and determined to stick to her moral code no matter what those around her might be doing. She did seem to dissolve into tears at the drop of a hat but I can't deny she had reasons for those tears. This was a strong book that packs an emotional punch. 

I did find that the diary and letter format left me wishing for more about some characters and scenes. We only saw things from one viewpoint and sometimes minor characters were introduced that could have been fleshed out a bit more fully. Several of them could have had novels of their own. On the other hand, the diary format gave an immediacy to the events that was compelling. 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was severely criticized when it was published. Sharpe's London Magazine warned women against reading the novel saying that there was a " perverted taste and absence of mental refinement in the writer, together with a total ignorance of the usages of good society." Charlotte Bronte herself suppressed the novel when it became due for a reprint a year after Anne Bronte's death. It is unclear whether that was from jealousy or because of concern for her sister's reputation. Either way, it is only in recent decades that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has become appreciated fully as the excellent book that it is. 

The End of Summer

Summer is starting to wind down and I am not particularly upset about it. We are all feeling a bit like the flower in the photo above; bedraggled and a bit rough around the edges. It has been a hot summer, a humid summer, a bit of a stressful summer. Now the heat has broken for a day or so, the leaves are the dull green that comes before the brilliant colors of autumn and my daughter goes back to school next week. It is time for new outfits, new notebooks, and alarms that go off at 5:45. That last item does not thrill me.

Not only does my daughter go back to school next week but when September first comes I go back to a busier schedule. There will be more days in Boston and fewer days at home reveling in my books--and revel I have. There is nothing quite like the kind of day where you finish one book and promptly turn to your shelves and pick up another. I highly recommend it as a way to escape the stresses of life.

A few weeks ago I read Browsings by Michael Dirda. This is the third book of his I have read and I have enjoyed them all. His reading taste is not always the same as mine, though he has a commendable admiration for Georgette Heyer, but his enthusiasm for books is something that is very familiar and a joy to read about. He describes his taste in books here and I completely agree. mainly interested in books published before I was born, largely by authors who are virtually forgotten. What I like to see on bookcase or steel shelves are lots of pre-World War II fiction, most of it looking just slightly better than shabby. 

My copy of the book is littered with sticky notes marking books I want to read and quotes I like. Here is one more quote. It is how he ends the book and I love it.

So let me stress, one last time, that the world is full of wonderful stories, heartbreakingly beautiful and witty poems, thrilling works of history, biography, and philosophy. They will make you laugh, or hug yourself with pleasure,or deepen your thinking, or move you as profoundly as any experience this side of a serious love affair. 
None of us, of course, will ever read all the books we'd like, but we can still make a stab at it. Why deny yourself all that pleasure? So look around tonight or this weekend, see what catches your fancy on the bookshelf, at the library, or in the bookstore. Maybe try something a little unusual, a little different. And then don't stop. Do it again, with a new book or an old author the following week. Go on--be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly, unashamedly promiscuous.  

 Summer is ending but we all know what that means. Next comes autumn with its cool evenings perfect for snuggling up on the couch with an afghan, a cup of tea, and a good book. So go ahead, "be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly, unashamedly promiscuous."

Little Things

I bought a fountain pen. I realize some of you might not find this fact as absolutely thrilling as I do but I am telling you about it anyway. I have wanted a fountain pen for ages but they seemed fiddly and expensive. Plus, I already have a notebook addiction, do I really need to add a pen addiction to that? Well, it seems I do. I found one online that was downright cheap ($11.00) and got rave reviews. It showed up in the mail the other day and I have never before been so happy to make grocery shopping lists. I have made my entire family admire it and have forced at least one of them to write with it. It came with an ink cartridge, which I am using, but it also included a refillable ink bladder which means I can buy different colors of ink and fill it myself. Just think of it. If that doesn't thrill you then this is probably not the blog you should be reading. The reasonable side of me knows that a fountain pen won't suddenly make my handwriting easy to read or the words I write suddenly more poetic but I am ignoring that side of me in favor of a lovely daydream that includes my fountain pen, a coffee shop, a new notebook, and the start of the next great American novel.

I have only just started A Peculiar Treasure by Edna Ferber. It is her autobiography and, going by the few pages I have read, it will be fascinating. She writes just as if she is sitting in the room talking to you. It covers her life as a child in small-town America and then her career as a journalist in Chicago. It is full of photos which I think no biography should be without. I read most of Ferber's books when I was a teenager and have been slowly re-reading them in recent years. I read Saratoga Trunk last year and it was just as good as I remembered. I think I will have to look for a copy of Show Boat and read that next. I just looked up Ferber's books on Wikipedia and found out that she won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big.  I knew that Show Boat was made into a wildly successful musical but I didn't know that Cimarron won the Academy Award for best picture in 1931. Giant and Ice Palace were also made into movies. There is also the second volume of her autobiography called A Kind of Magic.

I, of course, have bought a few books recently. No, this is not all of them. This is just all I am admitting to at the moment. The Jane Gardam is because I listened to a Backlisted podcast about it. I have read a couple of other books by Gardam and have loved them both. Exposure was purchased because of a review I read somewhere so if you have reviewed it on your blog recently then thank you for the recommendation. It has London, the 1960s, spies, missing files, and lots of adventure and suspicion. It should be a lot of fun. Then there are two books about Jane Austen because I can never have enough books about Austen and her novels. Finally, I bought a volume of the broadcasts of Edward Murrow. I recently read Citizens of London which discusses how America came to build an alliance with Great Britain during WWII. It concentrated on three men, one of whom was Edward Murrow, the head of CBS News in Europe. He became the voice of the war for many Americans and I am very interested in reading the broadcasts that were referenced in Citizens of London.

So, there you have it; a few books and a fountain pen. What else could I need? Well, maybe a full skirt with lovely, deep pockets. I found one of those this week as well--on the clearance rack. If that doesn't make you envious I don't know what will.

For the Love of a Library

We would walk to the library, lugging bags full of books. It wasn't far, under a mile, but when I was small and the books were heavy it felt like forever. It was a walk we took in all kinds of weather because we were a family that believed in regular trips to the library. We were each responsible for carrying the books we checked out and since I always checked out the most that were allowed (eight books which I never thought was enough) it is not surprising that my bag was heavy. We would walk down our street, right on Main Street, past the pizza place, Lift-the-Latch Gift Shop, and Fairway. I'm not sure what you would call Fairway. Maybe it was the equivalent of a five-and-dime though I am not old enough for it to be a true five-and-dime. It was the heady source of many of my childhood purchases. My allowance went far in there; Slinkies, doll's baby bottles filled with fake orange juice, jump ropes, Chinese jump ropes when those were the fad in fifth grade. On we would walk, past the park next to the library, the fountain with the dancing bears, and up the steps into the children's room.

The librarians were kind but very firm. They had the books arranged by grade and if you ventured into the wrong section they would come and question you. I found this very frustrating because I always read way above grade level and yearned after the books in the section for older kids. Finally, I got approval to use that section early and then, and this was a huge concession, to check out books from the adult section before I was in sixth grade. The freedom! The books! All the Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse I wanted!

Library cards still had the little metal tab that slid onto them and the card in the book was stamped by being inserted into a machine. I can still remember the sound it made. If you needed to find a book you looked it up in a card catalogue. I always got sidetracked when I was looking a book up. I would stumble across so many other interesting books and would end up just browsing the card catalogue. I understand the convenience of computers but oh, I miss the card catalogue.

I visited the Mary Cheney Library a week or so ago and I am happy to say that it hasn't changed much. You walk in and it still smells of old books and old building. It is how I think all libraries should smell. The old metal shelves are still there and the banisters are just a little more worn. The reference room is full of computers now which, I suppose, is necessary. But I swear the chairs and tables in the children's room are the same ones I sat at so long ago.

What made me happiest though was to see that so many old books remain on the shelves. There are books that I remember from my childhood. I pulled a copy of Jack and Jill by Louisa May Alcott off the shelf and I think it is the same one I checked out years ago.  And while I saw a lot of new releases I also saw a lot of books from decades gone by. Too many libraries cull the books that aren't taken out often and thus deprive the reading public of amazing discoveries. I am sure there is a reason, probably to do with shelf space and budget, but I think a library should have a huge variety of books. It shouldn't just be mainly books published in the last ten years. The sign on the bookshelf in the photo above encourages library patrons to ask for any book they can't find. The librarians will be happy to check in the thousands of books they have in the basement. "Thousands of books." Those words just gave me a shiver of joy.

These photos aren't the greatest. I snapped them on my phone when I stopped in at the library after an appointment. But they make me happy because that library of my childhood is still there. They may have added some modern touches and changed things around a bit but the essentials are the same. I walked in and took a deep breath of that old book smell and for a moment I was eight-year-old Jenny again ready to cart home a huge bag of books.

I wish this still was my local library but at least I know it is still the way I remember. Maybe there is another eight-year-old Jenny who is convinced she can read anything and who can never have enough books. I like to think so.

Mary Cheney Library
586 Main Street
Manchester, CT 06040