There are three Bronte sisters. I’m not sure if you know that–most people don’t–but I have a degree in English and had no idea until about a month ago.
There are three Bronte sisters and they all wrote novels and poetry. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. (There were two others, but they died in childhood, and a brother who lived, Branwell, which is such a cool name.) Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre, and once I had exhausted those two (and Jane Eyre was so very exhausting to me), I looked no further.
I adore Wuthering Heights. It’s an epic love story that spans generations, a twisted and Gothic love which ruins families. Oh, Heathcliff! In one dramatic scene, he throws himself (SPOILER ALERT) on his lover’s grave and asks the earth to swallow him up (END SPOILER). Emily’s novel pulled me into Gothic romance, where I found Rebecca, and the works of Mary Stewart. Wuthering Heights was the first time I felt like literature really spoke to me. (As a fifteen year old girl, yes, I suppose it really did speak to me.)
But a few weeks ago, I downloaded an app on my phone called Serial Reader. It provides you with a free subscription to a book in the public domain. Pretty much just the classics. But I was desperate. I had agreed to read Anna Karenina for one of the books on my 2016 Book Challenge and I struggled so much last year with Moby Dick that I bemoaned my fate with this year’s challenge. But this app sends me a fifteen minute chunk of text to read from the novel–and no more. That’s it. It’s going to take me 159 issues (which means 159 days of reading), but I know that I can carve out fifteen minutes of my day.
But while subscribing to Anna, I noticed a book by a Bronte called The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I had never heard of it, and when I touched on the screen to read a summary, I realized I had never heard of the author either! When I did a quick blitz of research, I discovered this claim:
“Today, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered by most of the critics to be one of the first sustained feminist novels.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
Well. Sign me up.
I literally did sign up. And when the first serial arrived on my phone, I began the novel without much more than that to go on.
And it completely sucked me in. In fact, I bought the upgraded version of the app just so I could read ahead, go on to the next serial, and not have to stop. I know I could have read it online for free, but there was something about it like that on my phone that had my heart beating hard.
The story is framed as a series of letters written by Gilbert Markham explaining how he met and married his wife–a widow named Mrs Graham. The man is a landowner and country farmer, while the widowed Mrs Graham has a small boy in tow. The two are first at odds but soon grow close, finding many things in common and having quality conversation.
Of course, it’s a novel written in the 1800s, and the ‘love affair’ is more like an effusive praise of moral dignity and upright character, and mixed into these demands for God’s salvation of their souls is a quite subtle romance. But the story isn’t really about the young man falling in love with Mrs Graham. The novel is about how she’s actually NOT A WIDOW. It’s a story about how she’s run away from her alcoholic husband, a story about where Helen Graham has come from and what she’s endured and risked to do what’s right for herself and her son.
Midway through Gilbert’s letters, he reproduces faithfully those pages of a diary that Helen has entrusted to him. And in that diary, a true feminist spirit emerges.
A woman who won’t be bowed by the customs of her country, a young girl who falls in love only to rue her haste–but unwilling to give way, refusing to compromise either her integrity or her brain.
A girl who thinks!
Written in the 1800s!
The funny thing is? Anne Bronte’s novel (published, as they all were, under a man’s name) far outsold her sister’s Wuthering Heights. But when Anne died, Charlotte prevented the novel from being published, shocked by its subject matter–a woman running away from her husband. Anne was ahead of her time, and while her novel faded into obscurity for a while, it has regained popularity and now is hailed by critics as being one of the very first feminist novels that does not compromise. Most other ‘feminist’ novels of the time recanted or relented their stance on feminine agency (by killing off their heroines usually), but not Anne.
I still adore Wuthering Heights. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has taken up residence in my heart as a story of strength and feminine power, a story about using your brain–and not giving way to the detractors who would put you in your place.