Beautiful Books: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1847)

January 17, 2020 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anne Brontë, bringing the attention of the world to the youngest and least celebrated of the three literary sisters from Yorkshire. The Folio Society has marked the occasion by releasing a new edition of Anne’s second and most substantial novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Now Anne-partisans (the number of which seems to have been quietly growing over the last couple of centuries) can feel vindicated, with this splendid volume in series with the most recent Folio incarnations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. With their somber binding designs touched with gold, compelling illustrations, pleasantly hefty size that is still not too cumbersome for reading, wide margins, and clear, carefully set type, they provide a fitting setting for the words of three groundbreaking women who changed our reading world forever.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

If Anne has not always been fully included in this company, it’s not really her fault. All three writers attracted disapproval from moral arbiters of the day, but Anne was the only one to be censored and suppressed by her own sister. When Anne died just a year after the publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which had already gone into a second edition), Charlotte withdrew the novel from circulation, fearing that it cast a negative shadow on her sister’s character. It was only reissued in 1854 with major editorial omissions that have persisted to this day.

Why was the book so frightening to conventional minds? While the other Brontë books have plenty of men behaving badly — bigamy, attempted murder, and psychological and physical abuse are perfectly in order for them — Tenant is the only one that has a woman challenging the bonds of marriage with fully rational moral conviction.

At the time, no matter how bad the man, a woman once married could not escape from him without being judged and blamed. Sadly today, though outer societal structures may have changed, these dark and confining assumptions are still at work. We still need writers who are willing to challenge such strictures, and Anne Brontë is their foremother. In this edition, the illustrations by Valentina Catto  incorporate a subtle, almost ghostly photographic element that complements the nineteenth-century text with a touch of modernity.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Tenant suffers from a long opening section that is a poorly-conceived framing device, narrated by an uninteresting and unconvincing male character. (Charlotte might with justification have given some criticism on artistic grounds, rather than objecting as she did to the subject matter.) Some skimming is not inadvisable here.

Fortunately, once we reach the main part of the book, Helen Huntington’s journal, the narrative becomes much more compelling. Her tale of marital deception and disillusionment is heartbreaking but surely not unusual. What is unusual is her decision to reject abuse and exploitation, to risk everything to protect her child, and to stand firm in her own sense of herself.

Helen’s moralizing at times comes too much to the fore, like an object lesson from a teetotaler’s tract; I find her to lack the psychological depth of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe from Villette. Helen also becomes far too saintly towards the end in a death scene that is everything a Victorian heart could desire. But she still lives as a character and draws us into her world, and she is braver and more sure of her own integrity than Jane or Lucy.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Restoring the full text is obviously vital to appreciating Anne Brontë’s achievement, and her true daring. The Folio edition is based on the 1992 version prepared from the original by Oxford University Press; it includes Brontë’s important preface to the second edition that responds to some of the negative comments on her work.

The introduction by historical novelist and Brontë enthusiast Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring, A Single Thread) puts the work into context with some pertinent details, but is not anything terribly special. I confess to wishing that Folio would commission more scholarly introductions that strive for more illuminating and surprising insights. I find them to be usually fairly bland and forgettable in general.

But the words of the author herself are as pointed as one could wish:

“When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are rather than as they would wish to appear.”

Amen, and happy birthday, Anne.


New Release Review: Hidden Figures

Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (2016)

hidden-figures-pb-cover-copySo, if you’re simply wondering whether I think this book is worth reading, and you’re interested in women’s history, civil rights, U.S. history, the space program, math, or computer science (which I should think covers most of us), I will save you some valuable reading time and say: yes, it is. Go get a copy of this book pronto, and don’t just rely on watching the movie. You’re going to want to know the facts behind the film.

But if that’s not enough for you, here’s my more detailed description and response: Hidden Figures tells the fascinating story of a group of “colored computers,” black women employed to do essential mathematical tasks in the development of air and space technology. During World War II, when employment opportunities were of necessity stretched beyond their normal limits, these brilliant, talented women got a toe in the door of the burgeoning military economy, even though they were segregated and often overlooked and undervalued. Shetterly focuses on four of them, though she believes that there were many more than even the available historical record shows. The story of their bravery, determination, and intelligence makes for some compelling and inspiring reading, as in our world today it becomes clear that the ugly prejudice that they had to fight against has by no means been conquered.

Not just a peek into an obscure, forgotten corner of our history, this is a subject that touches on so many important and relevant topics that it’s really essential for anyone who wants to know where we came from and where we are going. Shetterly expertly interweaves the personal stories of the women into the larger picture of social and technological change that took place during their era, an enormous upheaval that we still have to wrestle with. She didn’t conduct her research just in dusty archival records; she actually knew some of the women growing up, as her parents moved within some of the same circles, and this helps bring them closer to us.

tlc logoIn spite of that personal connection, Shetterly generally writes in a calm, measured third-person style, describing rather than dramatizing the incidents of her narrative, though she occasionally inserts some stirring and passionate commentary. She also has a tendency to use flowery similes that I found unnecessary and distracting, but mercifully these were few and far between. It’s going to be interesting to see how the book is turned into a film, since there is almost no dialogue given; much will have to be invented. For that reason, if you’re interested in historical accuracy I definitely recommend the book to ground you in reality, although the dramatic potential of the story on screen is certainly irresistible.

However you experience it, Hidden Figures is a story that definitely deserves to come to light. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Official publisher link from HarperCollins

Copy gratefully received for review from TLC Book Tours – click here for more stops on the tour



Top Ten Funniest Books by Women


When I was writing my review of Lucky Jim, one of the most acclaimed comic novels of all time, I looked around to see what else was included on lists of the funniest books. I found that they were heavily dominated by male writers; this one from AbeBooks, for example, was chosen by British readers and only includes two female authors, Helen Fielding and Sue Townsend.

Now, it’s not to say that these women’s books are not hilarious, nor to denigrate the comic talents of Wodehouse, Vonnegut, Bryson, and Pratchett, all of whom I adore, but there are some other writers out there whose works really deserve our attention as well. I find it quite depressing that when New York Times editors were asked to choose the funniest novel, not a single woman made the list. I can only imagine that those editors’ reading habits are very different than mine, because when I started making a list featuring female authors who make me laugh, I found it difficult to stop. Here are ten or so of my personal favorites — sorry, I was laughing too hard to count.

BrandonsPeriod Piece – Gwen Raverat
Written and illustrated by Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, who became a fine artist, this marvelous memoir of the Victorian age affectionately pokes fun at the habits of our ancestors.

The Brandons – Angela Thirkell
For fans of Trollope, Thirkell takes us back to Barsetshire with a social comedy full of witty phrases and sly allusions.

Friday’s Child – Georgette Heyer
One of Heyer’s funniest, sunniest Regency romances, this is about a young couple who have to grow up — and fall in love — after they get married.

Christopher and Columbus – Elizabeth von Arnim
When unsympathetic English relatives send a pair of half-German twins to America during World War I, nothing turns out quite as expected. The absurd dialogue of the Twinkler twins is the highlight here.

The Egg and I – Betty MacDonald
MacDonald turned a difficult life on a chicken farm in the Pacific Northwest into superb comedy. Her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children are also both hilarious and psychologically astute, with their magical solutions to child-rearing problems.

UnderfootShowPlease Don’t Eat the Daisies – Jean Kerr
The wife of New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr was a playwright and humorist in her own right. Some of the humor in her 1957 book of essays has dated, but it remains a lively and intelligent take on family life.

Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff
Hanff is mostly known for 84, Charing Cross Road (which is also a very funny book), but I wish more readers would pick up her delicious memoir of trying to make it on Broadway.

The Serial Garden – Joan Aiken
For over sixty years, starting about age sixteen and continuing right up until her death in 2004, storyteller extraordinaire Joan Aiken wrote tales about an otherwise ordinary British family who just happen to become involved in magical adventures, with wild and wacky results.

Bilgewater – Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam can take the painful realities of life and turn them into comedy like nobody else. Her early coming-of-age novel about a girl growing up in a boys’ school is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious.

YearoftheGriffinYear of the Griffin – Diana Wynne Jones
Jones’s delightful send-up of the “magical school” trope is also very likely the only book ever to feature a female griffin who goes to college. Please ignore the bizarre cover art; it makes Elda look like a menacing monster, but really she’s a sweetheart.

To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis
I haven’t yet read Three Men in a Boat, a popular choice for funniest book of all time, though it’s on my list. Even so, I found Willis’s slapstick time-traveling homage to Jerome’s Victorian classic a hoot.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell
First in an all-too-brief mystery series, featuring a group of young British barristers and their older mentor — who, in a tantalizing twist, narrates their adventures without revealing his/her gender. As is appropriate to legal mysteries, a highly stylized, double-edged writing style is key to the humor here.

And I haven’t even mentioned Lisa Lutz, Margery Sharp, Maria Semple, Shirley Jackson, Susannah Clarke … just thinking about them makes me smile. What are your favorite funny books and writers?