We had our final discussion of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall last night, and it was so fun! You can read the entire thing by looking at the hashtag #TOWH, but the topics covered included:
- Why don’t we get much of Helen’s POV after she leaves Huntingdon? She sends letters to Frederick, but they’re not very psychologically revealing. Is Bronte saying that women’s voices disappear when they fall in love?
- What similarities are there between Hartley and Gilbert? (They both seem confused by no, they both seek to exploit Helen’s vulnerabilities, they even use identical arguments re: her (illegitimate) marriage to make their propositions.) Is the only difference between them that Helen is receptive to Gilbert’s advances?
- Was there chemistry/affection between Helen/Huntingdon (prior to their marriage) and, later, Helen/Gilbert? Cat smartly argued that the book only works if you assume off-the-charts levels of attraction, and I agree.
- Related, do we buy Helen and Gilbert’s happily ever after? Is it a conservative end to Helen’s otherwise proto-feminist story? Is it necessary for her to marry again to provide a father for Arthur?
- Should Toby Stephens star in every Bronte film/television adaptation? (Yes.)
- Why did every damn character have an H in his/her name?
- Why was there so much plot (and out-of-character behavior) in volume 3, when volume 2 had been relatively staid? (Also, I looked it up and Tenant wasn’t serialized first, so I don’t think that explains all the craziness in volume 3.)
- What was up with Lawrence and Esther’s seemingly abrupt marriage? Did Helen attend? Why didn’t Lawrence’s servants know he was getting married? Etc.
We also talked a lot about what if anything to read next. There seems to be enough enthusiasm for me to say yes we should schedule another read along. I was thinking March to give us time to recover.
The general consensus seems to be to do another “classic,” and one that would be of interest to romance readers (though not necessarily one with a happily ever after). Here are a few of the suggestions:
- George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859): the blurb on this sounds insane in the best way. It’s a seduction novel wrapped in a murder plot and includes independent women, women preaching, and out of wedlock birth. The downside? It’s 500 pages. If we’re going to commit to a huge Eliot novel, should we just say screw it and go with Middlemarch (my edition of which is 800 pages)?
- Helen Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797): it’s an early American epistolary seduction novel, and essentially a right suitor/wrong suitor book that touches on what women achieved in the American revolution and what should happen to fallen women. It comes with a bonus (maybe) appearance by Aaron Burr as one of the suitors. The end is definitely a downer, but it’s only 160 pages.
- George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1892): this sounds fascinating. It’s a double romance set in the late Victorian period and includes meditations on independent women and love in the lower classes. It’s 370 pages.
I would happily read any of these books, or whatever else people might be up for. The poll that I set up on Twitter last night ended up as a three-way tie. So let me know in the comments/via email/on Twitter/through a carrier pigeon what you’d like to do.
Thank you so much for joining us, and I’m looking forward to round two!
This week in our discussion of volume 2, we got Helen’s point-of-view and chewed on questions like:
- Huntingdon: a big jerk or the biggest jerk?
- Huntingdon as Branwell stand-in (you’ll have to ask Gen for the details on this).
- How bad/immoral were the other men in this section (e.g., Hattersley, Hargrave, etc.)? Was Huntingdon leading them astray or were they evil on their own? And if they were all bad, is the novel misandrist? Is it saying Helen had no good choices? Is its central wisdom that once a woman saddles herself to a jerk–and particularly has kids with him–she has no good options?
- For as bad as Huntingdon is, he isn’t physically violent toward Helen; his abuse is psychological. Why did Bronte frame him in this way?
- How does volume 2 make you see volume 1 differently (e.g., the town’s meddling in Helen’s parenting)?
- Is Tenant feminist? Can we project a modern term/concept back in time on a mid-19th century book? And does Tenant have anything to offer us as 21st century feminists?
There was also a long side discussion about the novel’s form. Volume 1 is epistolary, though since we never (or at least haven’t so far) met Halford, the conceit is a bit thin. Volume 2 is presented as series of diary entries. There are loads of 18th and 19th century epistolary novels, but there are fewer diary (or at least all diary examples). Go Ask Alice, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and “The Yellow Wall-paper” (ETA: oh, and the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend) were the only ones we could come up with. I’m curious to see what will happen with the narrative in volume 3.
We also talked about whether to do another read-along. I’m a big fan of obscure 18th/19th century American novels, like Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, EDEN Southworth’s The Hidden Hand, or Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, but I’d also be happy to stick with European proto-romances–and I would definitely be on-board for a session on Balzac’s Cousin Bette, which I think is under appreciated. There was also a suggestion to read Edith Wharton (I’m always up for Wharton!) or maybe even some early romances like The Flame and the Flower.
So is there an audience for another read-along? If so, what and when? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter. And join us next week for our final discussion of Tenant volume 3!
We had our Twitter discussion of volume 1 of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall last night. We covered ground like
- the preface (would it be seen as too confrontational in today’s writing environment?),
- similarities to/deviations from Austen (e.g., Reverend Milward),
- the framing device,
- Gilbert (prig or flawed hero? why does he hit Lawrence? does that make G irredeemable?),
- the meddling of the villagers,
- Gilbert as a stand-in for Branwell Bronte,
- the many negative male characters,
- the female characters as different reactions to social limits,
- Helen’s art as metaphor,
- and various literary references in the text.
It was a fast-paced discussion and a lot of fun. But I know that not everyone is on Twitter, the time wasn’t convenient for everyone, and of course the 140-character limit can constrain discussion. So what thought do you have on volume 1? What are you looking forward to in volumes 2 and 3?
For several years, my critique partner/co-writer Genevieve Turner has been trying to get me to read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). “It’s a feminist novel with a kickass heroine,” she’s argued. “You’ll like it.” Every time I’d mention some obscure nineteenth-century American novel with a subversive heroine, she’d say, “But in Tenant of Wildfell Hall, something even more shocking happens.”
And I…have been stubbornly refusing, or–if not refusing–avoiding. I like Jane Erye a lot; you may remember my theory that while Jane Austen gave romance a parcel of plots, the Bronte sisters gave the contemporary genre a style. (I’ve actually written about Austen, see also this.) But I’m a bit lukewarm on the Brontes I’ve read other than Jane Eyre.
However, loving Gen as I do, I’m going to trust her and avoid Tenant no longer. You’re cordially invited to a read-along. Bronte fangirls on their tenth re-read (like Gen) are welcome; so are newbies (like me)! The book is divided into three volumes. Our plan is to discuss Vol. 1 on Twitter on December 21 at 9 PM EST/6 PM PST using the hashtag #TOWH. We’ll tackle Vol. 2 at the same time on December 28 and Vol. 3 on the evening of January 4.
If you want to join us, the free e-book is available at Amazon, iBooks, B&N, Google Play, Kobo, and Project Gutenberg and you can add it to your Goodreads shelves. I hope to see you there!
PS Speaking of things to read, A Midnight Clear is still out, still free, and still adorable. It’s one of the titles in today’s holiday-themed Stuff Your Kindle event; check out the rest here!