May 9, 2017 by femvestige
Very differently formatted than the books by her sister, Ann Bronte’s novel is filled with impropriety that makes it fascinating when you consider when it was published. A true critique of society, class, and what is considered ‘proper’ versus what our hearts tell us. A long read, but it’s worth it.
A General Summary:
We are first introduced to our characters through the letters of Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law recounting the experiences of his youth. He is a young farmer living in a small-minded town besotted with a young woman named Eliza. The town is shaken when a young widow Mrs. Helen Graham and her son Arthur move into the abandoned Wildfell Hall, owned by Fredrick Lawrence, a friend of Gilbert’s.
Gilbert slowly tries to earn the friendship and trust of Helen, who is reserved at best and hostile at worst. She is fiercely protective of her young son, to the point of missing Sunday mass as to not be without him.
As time passes, Gilbert is slowly able to earn Helen’s trust and the affections of her son, and realizes he has fallen in love with her. However, she rejects his admiration’s and has a dark secret from her past she does not wish to share. Many rumors pass through the town about the young widow, and Gilbert does not believe any despite how her reputation is continually tarnished by no correction of the accusations.
Gilbert witnesses a falsehood, and it leads him to reject Helen and severely injure one of his friends based off of this misunderstanding. Helen, realizing what the misunderstanding is, provides Gilbert with several ‘pages’ of her personal diary to clear the confusion for him.
The several ‘pages’ produce a full third of the book, from Helen’s personal perspective of her courtship with a Arthur Huntington who, despite many warnings from her trusted aunt, woos and wins her hand in marriage. From there, Helen experiences trial after trial of adultery, misogyny, gambling, drunkenness, etc. Her husband’s emotional abuse of her and utter lack of respect does not turn her from him, but his encouragement of his shameful behavior in her son prompts her to leave him secretly and act as a widow and tenant of her brother.
After the revelations of Helen’s personal sufferings, Gilbert understands and loves her all the more. There is more plot devices, suspense, and trials before we reach a happy ending with our honest Gilbert and strong Helen.
The structure of this novel is what allows the reader to see everything so detailed and objectively. It is like looking into a snow globe and seeing everything from above. I am sure Bronte chose this method of story telling because it made it easier to address the controversial topics that were so scandalous during that time. A woman who stands up to her husband the way Helen does to Arthur was revolutionary; slamming the door in her husbands face was horrifyingly improper. Leaving her husband with her child is unthinkable. And for Gilbert to be accepting of her behavior instead of chastising and judging her for it – even more unthinkable.
What I do not find believable about the structure is that I do not believe anyone’s real diary or letter would really recount events as detailed as they were in Gilbert’s letter and Helen’s diary. I grew exasperated with the format because I was skeptical at the amount of descriptive details and long winded explanations there were. Granted, Bronte was telling a story and needed to have these details, but the structure of letter and diary felt to stretched. She took advantage of the format and to me, that doesn’t work well.
The best feature of this book, is the strong characters of Helen and Gilbert. Unlike the other Bronte (and Austen) men, Gilbert is a genuinely decent person, however suffers from jealousy and impatience which makes him human. He does not have a distaste or certain view of what a woman’s place is, which sets him apart from the other men in the story and time period. As for Helen, her constant hold of her dignity and morality in the face of Arthur’s transgressions, and her fierce protection of her son make her absolutely admirable. Her willingness to let go of all comfort and raise her son by the talent of her own work is unheard of, which makes her a true feminist of her time.
I have two issues with this book outside of structure. The biggest plot device Bronte used was Gilbert’s misunderstanding of what he witnessed pass between Helen and her brother Fredrick. Instead of going to speak with Helen like they had prearranged for the next day, he avoids her. This is one of those “if they had only spoke to each other, this mess would be avoided” moments, and it is truly irritating. Gilbert is better than that, and I believe it was only used so that the structure could change to the format of Helen’s diary in order to tell her part of the story – which was ridiculously long-winded.
The other issue I have is that I do not believe we saw enough of Gilbert and Helen’s relationship take it’s natural course. Gilbert had a line that went something like, “after some months, she grew to trust me and accept my friendship.” What conversations did they have? Every conversation we were privy to from Gilbert’s accounts always ended with her ending it abruptly with her reserve. I do not feel we really saw their relationship grow to friendship, we were just told it did. I do believe we saw his relationship naturally grow with Arthur, but that is not the same. By the time we reached Gilbert and Helen coming together in the end, I had half forgotten the conversations they had before – and they were professing their love and commitment through marriage with each other. What happened to Helen’s reserve?
I enjoyed this book very much. I felt that it was really long and it took some time for the story to draw me in, but I felt the character development was excellent. The characters were vibrant, and the behaviors appalling which is part of why it’s so deliciously excellent to read. I do not think I would read it again, and I wouldn’t say Ann is my favorite Bronte – but it is absolutely worth the read. A book of genuine affection, societal critique and feminism.
Rating out of 5: ✮✮✮✮
Dates Read: 01/27/2017-4/29/2017
Character Development: A
Best Feature: Strong female character, unique structure, character development
Worst Feature: Structure limitations, length