Poss other title: Brontes Sisters: Frigid bitches and the men that are driven crazy by them.
And I thought Anne would be the safe bet. You know, Anne Bronte: the youngest sister of the Yorkshire sensations Emily and Charlotte Bronte, the forgotten one, the quiet, nice girl that just loves God oh so much? I read Agnes Grey, the book she published with her sister’s Wuthering Heights, and man, it was booring. It’s a tiny, straightforward account of guess what, how much being a governess sucks. It was like a Jane Eyre 0.5, missing the all that wonderful gothic intrigue and the long-winded yet passionate Rochester. With all the warnings beforehand that Anne was the "gentle Bronte," I can’t say that I was surprised at how poorly the book turned out, but I can say that I was a little disappointed.
There was one thing that intrigued me about Agnes Grey, however. It was really blunt about the poor conditions of governessing, and in its bluntness, really horrifying. She tells stories point-blank of monster charges, and loveless marriages with evil men. Then you are reminded that she was a governess herself, so how much of this is really true?
The final verdict on her first novel is: Ehh. But I just wasn’t convinced that someone related to two women that just burst with angst and passion, actually can’t make a passionate book. So I tried her next one: Tenant of Wildfell Hall. And man, what a book.
The story is about a rich, nieve yet religious woman that falls in love with a cad, hopes to change him by marrying him, and then learns to regret her mistake through the next five years of her marriage until she decides finally to leave him. Watching her degeneration is amazing: the guy isn’t just a jerk; he is evil, and the wife has to day to day come to terms with that fact. Her supporting characters are equally intriguing: the husband Huntingdon seems to have made a pact to get all of his worthless friends married to every one of Helen’s nieve girlfriends. It is bad marriage pandemonium: someone is always tortured by the bad deeds of their partner.
This is not where the story begins, however. It begins with Gilbert, a gentleman farmer who is blissfully unaware of the whole situation until Helen Graham shows up at Wildfell Hall and captures his heart with her mystery and frigidity. Unlike Helen, who seems to only be involved with the higher emotions related to serving God, Gilbert seems to live a life of petty feelings and actions. He’s surrounded at first with the merciless gossip about Helen Graham, shows jealousy, pride, and often changes his convictions on a whim. At some moments, he’s downright childish: he walks something like 15 miles to stop Helen’s wedding, but then stops from even saying hello when he finds out she’s rich. But this is the man that eventually worms his way into the heart of the standoffish and jaded Helen. It is done mainly by being nice to her son, I really don’t think he would’ve had a chance if the son wasn’t there.
The novel is organized through letters from Gilbert to his sister’s husband, and we only get to the good part— the part about Helen’s life with her rakish husband–when Helen gives Gilbert her diary from that time. We’re supposed to believe that Gilbert transcribed the extensive diary all to his pen pal. Once the diary started, however, I soon forgot that there even was a first part. A lot goes on, and it takes up a good chunk of the novel. It is a surprising way to take a novel, but at least it’s symmetrical.
About Helen: We all know that the women heroines from Bronte novels are intense, and maybe a little too bitchy to be well-liked, but Helen. Man. Jane Eyre is downright approachable compared to Helen, and at least Catherine can put up a front. Helen is just all about the God thing. When she arrives in Gilbert’s town, people just don’t know what to do with her. Helen is not friendly, she doesn’t try to please, she doesn’t give an inch, and she lectures you about God and the right way to raise your children. It’s horrible. Even though Huntingdon’s point that she looks down on him because he is worldly seems a little too much like out of the handbook for wifebeaters, I kind of agree. It’s not her fault, but she kind of drives every man that is in love with her crazy. And there’s a lot. Lets do a tally.
Huntingdon: First husband. Kind of takes her for a ride. Sees that she loves him and therefore uses it to fulfill selfish need of always being loved and always being watched. Teases her into jealousy and despair just to get a reaction (I can kind of understand that). Hates baby because steals spotlight.
Gilbert: Gentleman farmer. Intrigued by her mystery, fools himself into thinking that they can just be friends. She asks to be friends to the last, while he is just burning for some kind of message somehow. Eventually cracks open a guy’s skull with a horse whip and leaves him in the moors to wander home in the rain alone because he thought he was an adversary.
Hargrave: bachelor friend of husband Huntingdon. Mystefied by Helen’s piety and therefore wants to make her his mistress. This guy is interesting because though he spouts love and devotion at time when she is being completely misused by her husband, Helen knows that he only wants one thing, and therefore always coldly refuses him. Is slowly driven crazy with rejection. Becomes quite a beast about it, actually. There’s this ridiculous chess=rape scene, where he plays a game telling her "you may put up a good fight, but I am smarter and stronger, and I will eventually win." YEESH.
Not to mention other men married to other women that drive them crazy, like Hattersly, who is a cad, and hits his wife because she does nothing but love and support him cad though he is, or Lowborough, who married a woman to save him from loneliness and dissipation, and happened to marry a selfish bitch that only wanted his title.
After all this, after all these loveless marriages, you have to ask CAN ANYONE EVER BE HAPPY THE FIRST TIME AROUND? Not even that: can anyone get married and not be trapped into a loveless marriage filled with ridicule and despair?
Despite, or perhaps because of this, this book is intense. It makes me wonder who REALLY is the hardass in the Bronte family. At one moment, Helen gives Hargrave a fullout smackdown, telling him "I WILL NEVER LOVE YOU." It also raises a lot of questions. Branwell, the Bronte brother, pissed away his life high on laudenum because a rich woman he fell in love with while he was a tutor told him she wouldn’t marry him even if her wicked husband was dead. It makes you wonder: influenced by real life? And if so, who is Branwell? The suave Hargrave that gets a beatdown for trying to lead Helen into sin, or the dolt of a man Gilbert who actually succeeds in the end?
There are some silly moments in the book, however. Besides the chessrape, and the hitting over the head part, there is an uncommon amount of people hiding in shrubbery, finding out about their lovers’ lovers. One moment is even as melodramatic as Helen confronting her husband’s mistress, the mistress gasping with a "how did you know?" and helen saying, quite cheekily, "you should take a closer look in the shrubbery!" So really, "I was in the shrubbery all along!"