Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"There is one day that is ours. Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American."
~O. Henry

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Poor Anne Bronte tends to live in the shadows of her two older sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Readers only manage to get around to her after reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, if at all. This is most unfortunate, because though her writing style is different from her sisters, it is still poignant and relative to today's world. Her second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, shows the true beauty of grace and love and seals her right to join her sisters in the rank of classic author.

The Plot:

The novel is told as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his brother in-law, discussing earlier events in his life. "You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827. " At that time, Gilbert was a young, prosperous farmer who was casually courting the younger daughter of the local vicar, Eliza Millward. His life is pretty routine and ordinary until the arrival of a young widow and her son to nearby Wildfell Hall. The neighborhood is at once astir with curiosity and seeks to know more about her, though Helen Graham is reticent to be drawn in to the local social circles. At first, Gilbert is offended by her cool and distant treatment, but as he slowly gains her trust, he begins to discover the true sweetness and gentleness of her nature. They spend more and more time together, discussing her art (which she sells for a living) as well as literature. But as Gilbert's infatuation grows, ugly rumors begin to surface regarding Helen's past, most of them spread by the spiteful Eliza Millward.

Gilbert disbelieves everything said against Helen, at first. But as circumstances seem to point towards the truth of the rumors, his suspicions are aroused and he demands the truth from her. Her only answer is to give him her diary, which contains the dread secret that she has been so desperately trying to hide. As Gilbert reads Helen's sad story, his love for her grows. But the awful secret contained in the pages of her diary threatens to keep them apart forever.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Oh, those lovely, lovely Bronte girls! All so different and all so wonderful. Like most readers, I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because I had already read Charlotte and Emily. Most critics talk down Anne's work, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I must say that I found it to be a very pleasant read. There are many similarities between Anne's and Charlotte and Emily's works, as well as many differences. Some of these make Wildfell Hall better, while others bring it somewhat below the other works.

The main difference between the works is the tone that Wildfell Hall takes. While it is certainly along the Gothic (as well as the Byronic) lines of the other Bronte novels, it leans more towards realism than romance. There is no mad wife locked in the attic, nor do ghosts appear at windows. Instead we have real people with real problems; problems that we still face today. Though Anne touches on the problem of a woman leaving her husband, that is not really the point. Unfortunately, Wildfell Hall, like Jane Eyre, tends to be painted into the "feminist novel" corner. Just because a novel has a strong woman as the main character does not make it "feminist". In the novel, Anne spends more time on the horrible problem of alcoholism (as experienced through her brother, Branwell) and the overwhelming grace of God than she does on "feminist" writing. In fact, you could almost say that salvation and grace are the biggest themes of the novel. Here we have Arthur Huntingdon who treats Helen abominably throughout the story. And yet, as he is dying, Helen returns to nurse him and comfort him. She tries to make him see that even now, with all of his sin, he can still accept the grace of God.

'"Stay with me, Helen," he says; "let me hold you so: it seems as if harm could not reach me while you are here. But death will come - it is coming now - fast, fast! - and - Oh, if I could believe there was nothing after!"

'"Don't try to believe it, Arthur; there is joy and glory after, if you will but try to reach it!"

'"What, for me?" he said, with something like a laugh. "Are we not to be judged according to the deeds done in the body? Where's the use of a probationary existence, if a man may spend it as he pleases, just contrary to God's decrees, and then go to heaven with the best - if the vilest sinner may win the reward of the holiest saint, by merely saying, "I repent!"'

'"But if you sincerely repent - "

'"I can't repent; I only fear."

'"You only regret the past for its consequences to yourself?"

'"Just so - except that I'm sorry to have wronged you, Nell, because you're so good to me."

'"Think of the goodness of God, and you cannot but be grieved to have offended Him."

'"What is God - I cannot see Him or hear Him? - God is only an idea."

'"God is Infinite Wisdom, and Power, and Goodness - and LOVE; but if this idea is too vast for your human faculties - if your mind loses itself in its overwhelming infinitude, fix it on Him who condescended to take our nature upon Him, who was raised to heaven even in His glorified human body, in whom the fullness of the Godhead shines."

Though I really enjoyed the story of Wildfell Hall, there are a few things that somewhat lowered it in my esteem. Perhaps it is because I have loved Jane Eyre for so long, but this novel just couldn't reach the heights of that one. The characters, though as full of passion as Rochester and Jane, never really seemed to come alive. I never lost that subconscious understanding that these were not real people. They just couldn't quite rise from the page. The other problem for me was the format that Anne chose to use. Though it is in the first person, it is addressed to an unknown reader, making me feel more like an intruder than the intimate friend that I felt I was while reading Jane Eyre.

Though it lacks the power and wonderful characterization of Jane Eyre and the technical skill and correctness of Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still a wonderful story of grace, love and forgiveness. And though Anne only lived to be 29, she left with as rich a literary legacy as her sisters. She is truly worthy of the name Bronte!

The Movie:

There have been 2 versions of this classic Bronte tale made for television, both by the BBC. The first was in 1968 starring Janet Munro and Bryan Marshall as Helen and Gilbert.

The other more popular version was made in 1996 and stars Tara Fitzgerald as Helen and Toby Stephens as Gilbert. I have only seen a few clips of it and it seemed fine. Toby Stephens especially seems to pull off the young, passionate Gilbert very well. The Amazon.com ratings are pretty good, though differences between the film and the book are noted in many of them.

Trivia: Both Tara Fitzgerald and Toby Stephens would star in the 2006 adaptation of another Bronte classic, Jane Eyre, with Tara playing Mrs. Reed and Toby giving a wonderful turn as Edward Rochester.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Happy Birthday To:

Robert Louis Stevenson
November 13, 1850

Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see,
Bread I dip in the river -
There's the life for a man like me,
There's the life for ever.

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around
And the road before me.
Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I seek, the heaven above
And the road below me.

Or let autumn fall on me
Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
Biting the blue finger.
White as meal the frosty field -
Warm the fireside haven -
Not to autumn will I yield,
Not to winter even!

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around,
And the road before me.
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
And the road below me.

~The Vagabond

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

"There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and everyday confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense."

Without a doubt, Pride and Prejudice is Austen's most popular and enduring work. Though it was first published almost 200 years ago, it's story and characters still resonate with 21st century readers and has spawned numerous screen and stage adaptations as well as various sequels and prequels. With good reason! It is probably Austen's most amusing and accessible story; her characters leap off the page and almost live and breathe before our very eyes. With her trademark wit and irony, Austen takes very ordinary people in very ordinary situations and makes them extraordinary.

The Plot:

Charming and witty Elizabeth is the second of the Bennett family's five daughters. Since their father's estate is entailed upon a distant cousin, Mrs. Bennett's goal in life is to see that her daughters marry well (rich). When eligible bachelor Charles Bingley settles near them, she is sure that he will marry one of the girls. His eye is immediately caught by the sweet and beautiful Jane, and they seem to be forming an attachment. Elizabeth is initially interested in Bingley's friend Mr. Darcy, but his haughty manners put her off. Her dislike for him increases when she is told of apparent wrongdoing towards the son of his father's steward, George Wickham. Bingley abruptly leaves the neighborhood and Jane goes to London brokenhearted.

Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy again while visiting friends in Kent and it is there that she discovers that Mr. Darcy separated Bingley and Jane because her family was "unsuitable". When Darcy reveals his love for Elizabeth and proposes marriage, she stoutly refuses him citing his interference with Bingley and Jane as well as his injustice to Mr. Wickham. As the truth is slowly revealed and Darcy's true character comes to light, Elizabeth begins to see how wrong she was, and wonders if her chance at happiness is gone forever.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Aah, those first impressions. In this novel, Austen reveals how unfortunate it is that we sometimes allow the first few seconds to determine our relationships with other people. This is exactly the mistake that both Elizabeth and Darcy make and it almost cost them their happiness.

"...to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable nowhere, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with."

"Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise."

Elizabeth especially has a hard time seeing past her early prejudices when judging people. Her abhorrence of Mr. Darcy stems mainly from his insult upon their first meeting, while her good opinion of Wickham is due almost entirely to his agreeable manners. She soon discovers that her prejudices blinded her both to Mr. Darcy's real goodness as well as Wickham's true colors. It is only once she is at Pemberly, hearing Darcy praised by those who knew him best, that Elizabeth realizes her mistake.

"There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth's mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance. The commendation bestowed on him by Mrs. Reynolds was of no trifling nature. What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant? As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship! -- How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow! -- How much of good or evil must be done by him! Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character, and as she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression."

There is also a great irony being played out throughout the entire novel. As with Persuasion, Austen attacks the idea that rank determines good breeding. The main reason that Darcy gives for breaking up Jane and Bingley is the behavior of the majority of the Bennet family.

"The situation of your mother's family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly, betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father."

Funny thing is, Darcy and Bingley's relatives aren't all that classy either. Bingley's sisters are extremely rude and his brother-in-law indolent and dull. Darcy's aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, is self-absorbed, vain and demanding. Just as Mrs. Bennett is constantly saying things that betray her absurdity, so is Lady Catherine.

"There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient."

"...and though Mrs. Collins has no instrument, she is very welcome, as I have often told her, to come to Rosings every day, and play on the piano forte in Mrs. Jenkinson's room. She would be in nobody's way, you know, in that part of the house.''

As I said in my introduction, it is truly the characters that, in my opinion, really distinguish Pride and Prejudice from Austens other works. They are so complete, their actions so believable, and their dialogue so revealing, that they can sometimes seem more real than the characters in the other works. It is also a fine example of Austen's writing style at its best, combining the sharp wit of Northanger Abbey with the subtle ironies of Emma. It well deserves its place near the top of many reader's lists (including mine). I can't say enough about it. If you never read any other Austen novel, you must read this one. I'll leave you with a quote from Sir Walter Scott's private journal on his opinion of this novel.

"Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen's very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!"

The Movie:

Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for the screen so many times that it isn't even funny. It has even been adapted into a Bollywood production called Bride and Prejudice. But there are four main adaptations that claim the hearts of many fans.

First, there is the 1940 adaptation starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. I've never seen it, but I do know that the time period was pushed forward to allow for more flamboyant dresses. Not sure how I feel about that.

Then there is the 1980 adaptation starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. I haven't seen this one either, but I would imagine it to be like the other Austen adaptations of the period.

Finally, there are the 1995 and 2005 adaptations starring Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth and Keira Knightly/Matthew Macfadyen respectively. They are both wonderful in their own way. For my review of them, see here.