The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte

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Throughout January I listened to the audiobook version of Clare Harman’s excellent and very sensible biography of Charlotte Bronte on my drive home from work each evening. I always think January is the bleakest of months and I don’t particularly enjoy long stretches in the car at the best of times so as the days passed I was surprised to find myself looking forward to my cosy night-time drives with the Brontes. As the audiobook was drawing to a close I wanted to prolong that nice companionable feeling a bit longer so I went on the hunt for a new-to-me Bronte novel in all the (three) bookshops close to my office. I had an idea that it might be a good time to read Agnes Grey or Villette or (ideally) some of Emily’s poetry, but alas, it was not to be.

The best I could manage was a rather tatty copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which I found squished at the end the Bronte section in Waterstones. It followed a whole shelf and a half stuffed full with beautiful copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights which made me feel a little sad for poor, overlooked Anne Bronte.  I was pretty certain I’d read this already (and didn’t think much of it) but my memories were pretty hazy so I parted with the cash and it came home with me. It turns out that the book I read fifteen years ago was possibly one of those abridged versions mutilated by Anne’s horrified publishers in the years after her death. It was definitely much shorter than the version I’ve just read so I had a hard time reconciling this version with the one I very vaguely remember from back then. It’s nice in a way because it made the book feel new-to-me all over again.

Anne’s publishers subjected the book to pretty heavy editing after her death to mitigate some of the negative publicity that both of Anne’s published novels seem to have attracted.  It seems highly unfair now but I expect the novel’s themes were pretty shocking to readers of the time (“Wildfell Hall it hardly seems to me desirable to preserve”, wrote Charlotte later. “The choice of subject in that work is a mistake”).  This is the story of Helen Huntingdon and her radical decision to flee from a drunken, womanising husband after years of torment at his hands. Much of Helen’s story is told in diary format but it’s sandwiched between letters written several years later by Gilbert Markham, her only friend during her months in exile. For once, I wasn’t a huge fan of the diary/letter style but only because it feels like such a direct, confrontational novel; I think it needs a more direct style of narration perhaps.

“… for, since he and I are one, I so identify myself with him that I feel his degradation, his failings and transgressions as my own; I blush for him, I fear for him, I repent for him, weep, pray and feel for him as myself; but I cannot act for him and hence I must be, and am, debased, contaminated by the union, both in my own eyes and in the actual truth…” 

My main fascination with this novel lies in the fact that it so obviously draws upon Anne’s own experiences with her brother Branwell’s decline into alcoholism and drug addiction. It must, I think, have been a bitterly uncomfortable book to write and it gives you a strange sense of how impotent the sisters must have felt as they watched their brother rage and waste away the opportunities offered to him as the only son in the family. The injustice of their situation is mirrored in Helen’s powerlessness to do anything for herself or for husband. Of course, in the eyes of the law and the church Helen’s property is Arthur’s property, she is Arthur’s property, so she is completely at his mercy. Her decision to run away is a radical one but leaves her vulnerable to rumour, suspicion and condemnation.

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to based on my experiences with the abridged version fifteen years ago. I’m reluctant to spend too much time comparing it to the other Bronte novels I’ve read but I will say that it doesn’t have the romantic brutality of Wuthering Heights but it’s not as restrained as Jane Eyre either. Anne clearly didn’t feel shy about portraying a very real and very common, but rarely discussed, problem in all its grubby sordidness or to say that it wasn’t fair to deprive women of any power to help themselves in situations such as this. The writing isn’t as polished as her sisters’ perhaps but while the subject matter (and all the moralising) may feel a little dated now it’s a much braver novel than it perhaps gets credit for.

I detested Gilbert Markham more than I hated Helen’s wicked husband but it’s weirdly refreshing every now and again to read a Victorian novel in which the menfolk are unremittingly awful in every possible way.

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The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe

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Harry Clarke [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Harken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story…”

This story is number four in my Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories anthology which, I must say, I’m enjoying immensely. This particular tale is the most well-known of the four but it’s also one of the shortest. I found that it can be read in about the time it takes to consume a jacket potato and a cup of hot tea in the staff canteen. It’s also, I think, the edgiest of the four I’ve read so far.

The unnamed narrator of this tale tries to persuade the reader of his sanity whilst simultaneously describing his decision to murder an old man in his bed. It’s a carefully planned murder but not one motivated by hatred or greed, at least not according to our narrator who is clearly mad and not worth trusting. Considering the time in which it was written there’s an unusually frank description of his efforts to dismember the body and hide it under the floorboards. Unfortunately, however, these diligent attempts to cover his crime are thwarted when three policemen arrive to investigate the strange noises reported by a neighbour. It’s at this point that the tale takes a supernatural turn although it’s unclear whether the events that follow are genuine or whether they are simply the paranoid hallucinations of a guilty man.

Unlike the other three stories, there’s no scene setting here; Edgar Allan Poe jumps straight in with the deranged ramblings of the murderer and his insistence that the events he’s about to describe are the actions of a sane, rational human being. It means there are a lot of unanswered questions but, unlike with The Botathen Ghost, the air of mystery worked really well here. I also really like the fact that the precision with which the murderer plans and carries out his crime is at such odds with his behaviour after the murder and with the tone of his narration. It makes him all the more menacing. This is a simple story but Poe’s clever timing and his tension building are pretty perfect. Within a few short pages he’s whipped his narrator, and the reader, into such a frenzy that you feel like a lot more has happened. I think this might be my favourite one so far.

The Spectre of Tappington (1840) by Richard Harris Barham

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Image courtesy of Wikmedia

Evenin’ all.

I’ve been absent from the blog for a couple of weeks so I’m a bit behind on reviews and updates and all that jazz. I’ve read three books in this time (all very short) so I really need to get some posts up here. I’m beginning with this (equally short) review of The Spectre of Tappington, which is the second in my Classic Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories collection. The first was Scott’s The Tapestried Chamber which was neither Victorian nor Edwardian. This one is at least Victorian but strictly speaking it’s not really a ghost story. What a great way to confuse your readers!

The Spectre of Tappington is apparently part of a larger collection of stories by Barham featuring Tappington Hall and Tom Ingoldsby. In this particular story an old friend, Charles Seaforth, a soldier, has returned to England from India and is staying at the Hall with his distant cousins, the Ingoldsbys. Thus far the plot is really quite similar to The Tapestried Chamber, especially as Seaforth is then given a room that appears to be haunted. Each night he awakens to witness a skeletal figure parade through the room and steal his trousers. The first time it happens he convinces himself that it’s all a dream but he soon changes his mind:

“He came to the bed’s foot, stared at me in a manner impossible to describe – and then he – he laid hold of my pantaloons, and whipped his long bony legs into them in a twinkling…”

“Absurd, Charles! How can you talk such nonsense?”

“But Caroline, the breeches really are gone!”

By the third night Seaforth’s getting annoyed – and running out of trousers – so it’s up to his friend Tom Ingoldsby to investigate.

The blatant thievery is comical rather than spooky but it feels much more substantial than The Tapestried Chamber. There’s more story, more witty conversation and a good description of Seaforth warming his arse before a fire that I quite enjoyed. It’s a trifle silly, and I felt a little cheated by the ending, but there’s not much else to complain about with this one.

What I find particularly interesting about this story – more than the story itself in fact – is that Barham used the pen name Tom Ingoldsby and Tappington Hall was his real home. You could, if you wished, stay in the room that inspired this tale. It’s the kind of literature/real-life cross over that I always like.

I’ll do my best to get a couple more reviews up here this week so I’m properly up to date, otherwise I’ll start forgetting what I’ve read. I’m tinkering with the idea of reading War and Peace next but I might talk myself out of that one in a day or two!

The Count Of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas

MonteCristo2Hurrah. It’s finished.

I’m relieved and pleased and sorry and a little sad to see the back of it. It’s been a good companion over the past three weeks. I will miss it.

When I started reading The Count Of Monte Cristo I didn’t know a great deal about how the story would progress beyond the first twenty chapters, which I’d already read. I’d seen the film, the one with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce, but I soon realised that this would be of no help whatsoever. The book and the film bear only a passing resemblance to each other, as Wikipedia so wryly notes:

“[The film] follows the general plot of the novel…. but many aspects, including the relationships between major characters and the ending, have been changed, simplified, or removed; and action scenes have been added.”

As a result of this I think I was sort of expecting a straight forward story about betrayal and revenge but in the end it wasn’t really the swashbuckling adventure I’d imagined. There was a lot more to it than that. Our hero, if you can call him that, can be cold, calculating and unscrupulous. He can be frequently cruel and he doesn’t really care who gets hurt as long as justice has finally been done. Half the time I didn’t know whether I wanted him to succeed or not. As a reader you start to wonder whether his obsession with revenge has obscured his natural sense of right and wrong. It becomes a story that’s as much about a man trying to find peace as it is about vengeance.

I think it’s funny the way that you almost forget that the Count is really Edmond Dantes. It’s a bit a like you get wrapped up in the myth he creates for himself. It helps, of course, that Dumas takes such a long time to confirm the Count’s identity, so for much of the book you can’t really be sure who he is (although you have strong suspicions). In the meantime you’re forced to go along with the mystery until you almost start to believe the lies the Count tells to others and to himself. You forget about Dantes and get swallowed up in the myth of the Count’s extraordinariness, this ‘exceptional being’ (as he so modestly puts it), an avenging angel sent by God himself. It’s cleverly done I think.

I enjoyed this book hugely. It was so readable and involving that I didn’t really feel like it started to flag until the very end (those final few chapters felt a bit flat after the drama of the preceding ones). But for such a long novel the pace was pretty steady.  I guess that’s probably down to the fact fact that it was originally published in instalments and you can see the evidence of this everywhere: in the absence of lengthy descriptions, the characters who pop up and disappear again, the plot threads that are left hanging for chapters on end, the corrections added at a later time… (My favourite being: “We had forgotten to say that Jacopo was a Corsican…” ). These aren’t huge issues at all – I think they’re part of the book’s charm – but I can understand that if you like your books concise and neatly constructed then this might be a little distracting.

In summing up there isn’t a great deal more to add, besides that I highly recommend The Count Of Monte Cristo to all. If you’re interested in my earlier updates on this book then you can read these here:

It’s Alexander, dumbass! (Chapters 1-14)

Le Comte est trop grand pour mon sac (Chapters 15-35)

Sacre blog! (Chapters 36-86)

I’ve tried not to make them too spoilerish but watch out just in case.