(Reviewed as part of the Classics Club Challenge)
I’m wary of writing about a ‘proper’ classic. There are already so many other reviews out there, by people with a much greater depth of knowledge than me. But I can record my response to the novel. Here we go…
I have been slowly working my way through the Brontes’ catalogue over the past year or so. I enjoyed Jane Eyre; was glad to have finally read Wuthering Heights, and plodded dutifully through Agnes Grey. Wildfell loomed large, and when it was selected as the read for my old book club for the month after I moved, it seemed that fate had taken a hand. I am able to read and review from afar, (thank you, dear book club friends), so Wildfell would be read.
I was not particularly looking forward to it; in fact, I had something of a wobble and considered not bothering to start the book at all. I’d heard various mumblings about small print and many pages, and poor Sue seemed to be apologizing regularly for having chosen it. I made the mistake of reading a little about the book and my reservations grew: it sounded like a treatise for the evils of drink and it seemed I was in for an evangelistic, do-gooder experience. It certainly didn’t sound like a thrilling prospect, but I was wrong; I really enjoyed this book. It is far and away my favourite Bronte work thus far.
I read the book on my kindle. It’s been some time since I read a 19th century classic in anything but short, daily, online installments. (Courtesy of dailylit.com.) It took me a while to adjust to the format, and even longer to adjust to the language: not only the 19th century style, but the length of the sentences. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything containing so many long and complicated sentences. I love punctuation – and here we had it spades. Even so, I found myself reading aloud, just to get the measure of the sentence. It caused a few raised eyebrows in the household.
I found I most enjoyed the book if I read it in very small chunks – thoughtful of Anne to write it in so many short chapters! And I found it well-written, entertaining, and thought-provoking. I liked the structure: each chapter in Markham’s sections being a letter, and in Helen’s being diary entries. There is a story within the story, which meant Anne wrote in the first person from both the male and the female perspective and for me both were equally strong. The novel moved slowly and I had to read it slowly, thanks in part to the ponderous sentences but also the detail about the various characters’ inner thoughts and motives. Not to everyone’s taste, but very much to mine. Anne seemed to have a real insight into both the male and female minds of the time, which surprised me given what I knew of her relatively sheltered life.
As I read the early chapters I realised that this is a feminist novel; now that really surprised me! Reading more about the novel having finished it, I see that it was an instant hit but that it was shocking for its time. From the start it questions the inequalities in how boys and girls should be raised, and there are marked contrasts between the attitudes of the women such as Mrs Markham and Eliza when compared to the enigmatic, outspoken but strongly principled “Mrs Graham”.
The novel goes on to tackle still more serious and daring themes: adultery among both sexes; violence, abuse, alcoholism; the legal rights of women; women earning their own living … It is a romance, yes; but it’s also a book centered in realism – a far cry from Emily’s Wuthering Heights or Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. I found it a bold and courageous book in which Anne tackled themes to be found in both her sisters’ books but without the gothic mantle.
Helen as a character stood out for me and I liked her very much. Her dilemma is universal: women face these issues today – although with greater freedom to act than Helen had then. And I would have loved to have met Anne! What a daring and strong young woman she was in her own right despite her sheltered upbringing. For me, her first novel, Agnes Grey, was well-written but predictable and lacking any sense of pace. It gave away nothing to suggest that Anne was capable of a novel such as Wildfell. What else might she have achieved had she lived?
I’ve already said that Wildfell is without doubt my favourite Bronte novel to date – and Anne has become my favourite Bronte sister. Like her sisters, Anne, wove wonderful descriptions of nature into the book. The weather, the passing of the seasons, the flora and fauna were all beautifully described. But unlike her sisters, Anne chose to ground her book in the issues of the day and she did so unflinchingly. She’s now on my list of people I would love to have around a dinner table – if only I gave dinner parties!