Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Report: The Other Bronte

Our heat wave is supposed to break this evening when a front comes through, so temperatures the rest of the week and on into the long-range forecast will be at least 10 degrees cooler than they have been. It's not so much the highs that are a problem -- 95 is cooler than 105, but it's still not really comfortable -- but it's the lows that make a big difference. If the morning low is 82, there's never a truly comfortable part of the day. If the morning low is 72, then at least much of the morning is bearable for doing stuff outdoors. Would it look entirely insane if I stood outside with a sign saying "Welcome, Cold Front!"?

I've been doing a lot of work-related reading lately, so I haven't been talking about books as much as I usually do. I did read one that's worthy of discussion. I'd read books by Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte, but I'd missed Anne Bronte, so I decided to rectify that by reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I don't think Anne had nearly the writing skill of Charlotte (it's been too long since I read Wuthering Heights to compare her to Emily, and I have no desire to re-read it). This isn't a book I could imagine getting published today without a lot of editing. But the content is pretty revolutionary. The book is essentially about what happens when a woman marries a rake and what a woman in the 19th century would have to resort to if she found her marriage unbearable. This woman flees her husband with her child and goes into hiding, making enough money to make ends meet by selling her paintings (since her husband controls all her money) in order to keep her son from being corrupted by his alcoholic father.

This book must have been seen as totally radical for its time. For one thing, it seems as though she recognizes alcoholism for what it is and how it works, which I believe was pretty forward-thinking for that time. The drinkers really do have a driving need, and the book shows that the one who decides to give it up must give it up entirely because even trying to have a little ends up leading to more. For another thing, it dares to point out how wrong it is that a wife has no rights. She's the property of her husband, as are her children. Even though living with a father who's keeping other women under the same roof, drinking to excess and encouraging a small child to drink can't be good for a child, the father has absolute custody. The woman is breaking the law by taking her son away from his father, but the book portrays this as the right thing to do. That seems obvious to us now, but at that time, that would have been shocking.

Meanwhile, the subject matter is a subversion of a literary trope that's still popular today. It completely blows up the idea of a woman being able to reform a rake or save him with her love. This is what it would have really been like to be married to a Heathcliff. Odds are, he's not going to suddenly change his ways. I've heard that particular romance trope referred to as the "magical hoo-ha" -- apparently, there's something magical about this particular woman that means sex with her changes his personality entirely. The spoiler-laden introduction to the book (grrr -- but I read it after reading the book) also lumps Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre into this group, but I don't think he fits. He'd already changed most of his ways before he met Jane. The one-two punch of his nightmare marriage and getting stuck with the child of his former lover seemed to have cured him of wild living. He still had some rough edges, as we saw in his willingness to marry Jane in spite of him still being married and his desire to run off and live with Jane as his wife when the marriage can't happen legally. But Jane didn't reform him by loving him and being with him. She left him, holding onto her own values and refusing to stay with him under those circumstances. He changed on his own in her absence. I think that's totally different than a woman reforming a rake by being with him.

And then the structure of the book inverts the structure of the Gothic romance. Typically, it's the naive young woman who becomes fascinated with the reclusive, mysterious stranger who lives in the remote, spooky house. In this book, in the framing story, our naive, idealistic young person is a man, and the mysterious, reclusive stranger is a woman. Although I love that idea, it doesn't entirely work because it's handled in a clunky way. The framing story is told through letters to some character we never meet, twenty years after the events of the story, and for no apparent reason, which makes it very "telling" instead of "showing," and I can't find any reason for the letter format. It's like this guy just decides to write very long letters to a friend about what happened to him twenty years ago. Then the bulk of the story is the woman's journals from her marriage, which she gives to the young man in the framing story to explain why she's living reclusively in the old manor and why they can't be together. Although the narrator of the framing story is clearly a better person than her husband, he's not the sort of hero who can transcend time. We in the 21st century would see him as violent and controlling, while for that time it seems he's merely considered passionate and romantic. At least he's only violent to other men, but there's a very fine line between a romantic and a rake. The big difference is that the romantic is focused on one woman and that his "intoxication" comes from her.

This isn't as engrossing a read as Jane Eyre. The writing is a lot less fluid and vivid. It's also a little frustrating to read about the mistakes this woman makes in insisting on marrying this man in spite of a whole field of red flags and the advice of everyone she knows as she insists that she can save him with her love. She's so willfully blind that it's hard to be too sympathetic for her plight. The husband is a bit over the top -- he even complains that she looks too pious and intent in church because that tells him that she's not thinking about him at that time. Yes, the man is jealous of God, but he has no qualms about cheating on her. If he had a mustache, he'd be twirling it.

I've never been a fan of the reforming a rake plot, but after reading this, I'll have even more trouble with it. I'll have way too vivid a mental image of what's more likely to happen.

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