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Customer Review

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good in parts, 28 Jan. 2013
This review is from: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Wordsworth Classics) (Paperback)
I have never been a great fan of novels from this period, even if they purport to be early examples of "liberated" womanhood. I recently re-read this novel after a gap of 25 years. I originally read it after watching a TV dramatisation in which, I recall, Corin Redgrave played the feckless Arthur very well, and I was intrigued by the depiction of a man who wants to repent of his sins on his death-bed because he is terrified of death, but cannot because his character remains essentially unchanged, wholly corrupted by his lifestyle and entrenched attitudes. Much as in Marlowe's "Faust": Christ's blood streams in the firmament, inviting repentance even at the last moment, but not for Arthur.

On re-reading it my opinions of the book did not change, except that I found the suffering, but also insufferable, Helen more sanctimonious and prim than ever before. And although I am perfectly aware of the social conventions of the time for genteel women - they had to marry well, (or become governesses), propriety was everything, and they lived in an exceptionally narrow world dominated by male privilege - the fixed poles of marriage and inherited wealth, around which everything moves, does tend to pall and to make the predicaments of the main characters rather less compelling than they might otherwise have been. I cannot read Jane Austen any more for this very reason - her women never do anything except gossip and match-make, and their sole idea of social inclusion is to visit the poor every now and again with a basket of pastries.

Having said that, I still found the latter half of "Tenant of Wildfell Hall" in which Helen describes her awful life with the shallow, selfish, morally deficit and completely vacuous Arthur to be quite riveting. Her infatuation with Arthur, and the belief Helen clings to that she can reform him despite all the evidence to the contrary not just after marriage but before it, is superbly described. As is her gradual disenchantment and Helen's determination that she must, at least, save her son from growing up with the same attitudes and values as his father.

The character of Arthur (and indeed, the characters of his largely worthless friends)is sharper, more detailed and far more convincing than the character of Helen. It is no wonder that the book was considered shocking at the time, with its graphic drunkenness, immorality and suggestions of opium addiction.

It is true that the format of her revelations (in epistolary form, as a journal, so as to explain our heroine's mysterious behaviour to her puzzled suitor) does not work well and it would have been a better narrative told at first-hand. And the neat, convenient marriage at the end with lots of suddenly inherited money and land, is annoying but it was a convention of the time.

Not, in my view, a ground-breaking novel about an independent woman standing up for herself against male odds, but worth reading as an exposition of human vulnerability, well stated and developed.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 11 May 2013 17:18:29 BDT
Rich says:
I also found the account of Helen's marriage grim and compelling, even though I found Helen herself to be unlikeable.
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