I had somewhat high expectations for this novel given how much I liked Agnes Grey and the style of Anne Bronte’s writing overall. I found my expectations were not quite met. In general, this is a good novel and like Grey, it is a very interesting view about Victorian marriage. As a proto-Feminist novel, I can appreciate it as well.
This is an epistolary novel in the sense that the narrator Gilbert Markham is writing the story of how he met the beautiful widowed Mrs. Helen Graham. Epistolary novels are typical of novels from the 17th to 19th century and this one was not invasive. I always suspend my disbelief that someone would retain this much and have enough time to write these many letters. Yes, I know it was a different time, but most of these novels are a bit ridiculous especially in this case that a man would write enough to warrant a novel. In any case, it’s a style choice that I accepted early on.
What got to me was then the story switches to Helen’s diary which is worth about one third of this book. Again, it is very detailed in its dialogue. The reader does get a sense of Helen’s character though and her turmoil through these writings, but really, her diary is meticulously detailed. She remembers word by word conversations between herself and three other people in the same room.
Most oddly and unimaginatively for Anne Bronte is that in one scene, Helen is in a room with three men who all have surnames beginning with H. It was a tad excessive.
I can see why she did use these techniques, but it was a bit clunky having letters within letters or journals within letters.
Aside from these stylistic nitpicks, I enjoyed the novel. It took me about seven weeks to finish it because I was very busy, but really, I read it in three sittings. I usually read my books in under five sittings as I don’t like carrying them on for too long. This book was good, but maybe not good enough for me to desperately get back to it.
The social commentary about the marriage is timeless. Bronte became perceptive in her time as governess and it shows. Maybe while Helen is not the best character, she is a believable one and her predicament probably happened enough in those days if not now. This is a novel about an abused woman who gathers enough courage to run away. Helen does appear cold at times, but believably so from the beginning.
The love story is only alright. I like Gilbert even though he is very rash. As a romantic lead, he is fine, but the story is not precisely about him and Helen so much as it is about Helen. It’s not that he is badly drawn, but he does serve a purpose more as a narrator and as a light for Helen.
All in all, I liked this book, and I think for women interested in Women’s Studies, Feminism, and History, it’s a very good read. Since it’s taken from Bronte’s own first hand experiences, it’s almost nonfiction in how things were in Victorian and Regency marriages. It’s not bleak, but there are definitely dark and sad moments through it.
Read October 17-November 30, 2013.
“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996)
A three part BBC miniseries adaptation that I saw most of a few years ago. Toby Stephens steals the series.
Due to the nature of the novel, this series is rather somber and not exactly light. It is rather typically Victorian. I really liked the peril piece and farm setting details: Gilbert delivering a lamb, all the shots of sheep, Gilbert knitting, and the leeches. Stylistically, it’s alright. The director is obsessed with circling and panning around shots. The visuals are fine, but nothing outstanding given that this was the 90s. Overall, I the series did a good job of getting the plot and character points right.
Often what makes these series is the acting and the chemistry of the actors. I’ve seen Tara Fitzgerald in other things. She is a proficient actress, but I have found her lacking in screen presence. I don’t know who else they could have cast, but I found her portrayal indifferent. I felt very little for Helen even though the story says otherwise.
When reading the novel, I found it easy to picture Toby Stephens as good Gilbert. He is an underrated actor and my favourite version of Mr Rochester from the 2006 BBC miniseries. In this series, he is way too good at being flirtatious with Helen and Eliza. He is quite dreamy in this role.
Rupert Graves as Hungtington is fine, but he didn’t look ill enough. I can’t stand the character so I was no too bothered by the portrayal.
I think this TV serial goes well with the book. I only really recommend if you adore Toby Stephens.
Rewatched Dec 21, 2013.