Book Review: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I’ve never embraced the Brontës in the way I have Jane Austen (and, yes, I agree they shouldn’t always be played off against each other – although surely Charlotte B started it?).

I had three stuttering starts with Jane Eyre before I could move on past St Helen of TB’s death, although once I broke free of Lowood School along with Jane I grew to love it. And Withering, sorry, Wuthering Heights? Two self-indulgent people squabble for years until one of them dies and then it’s all “it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home” and the whole time I’m thinking “but that man is a bully and a dog killer. I’d stop banging on that window if I were you, love”.

But despite my less than enthusiastic embracing of the Brontë canon, I’m still seduced by the romanticism of the family’s legend. In particular, I’ve long been intrigued by the “forgotten” Brontë sister Anne, the youngest, who is perhaps more critically acclaimed for her poetry than her two novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been on my to-read pile for ages; I couldn’t resist the idea of a book about a lady living alone in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere whose presence causes much tongue-wagging amongst her bored neighbours.

Often held up as the first feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Huntington, a young bride forced to flee her drunk, adulterous, bullying husband for the sake of her son and her sanity. She attempts to do the unthinkable at the time, to leave him and live a new life where she would support herself (in this case, selling her paintings).

At the time it wasn’t just Helen Huntington’s fictional neighbours that were scandalised. Anne Brontë’s tale of one woman’s fight to break free from martial brutality caused such a stir on its publication in 1848 – under the pseudonym Acton Bell – that Anne was compelled to write a prelude to the second edition defending the author’s right to write about subjects of interest to both men and *gasp* women. She also made no secret of the novel being a lesson to young women, writing: “…if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.”

No one had ever confronted the very real issues of abusive marriages in print before. Back in the 19th century women just didn’t leave their husbands and certainly didn’t take any children with them – they remained the property of the men even if they were wine-sloshed tyrants. Women’s lives were simply not their own to do as they wished with, they were playthings for men, their feelings as inconsequential as that of an animal (less so in some cases – Victorian men seem inordinately fond of their horses and dogs).

Women stayed at home embroidering and gossiping until they were married off, where they continued to embroider and gossip although they now had to keep house and have children. If they were lucky, marriage would bring them security, if not happiness, but too often the unequal partnership between men and women would lead to a life of strife and misery as Helen Huntington finds to her cost after falling for the charms of the Bryonic, and at times, Bertie Wooster-ish, Arthur Huntington.

The novel, while not in the same league as her sister Charlotte’s (and okay, then, Emily’s) genius, is a gripping and fascinating tale badly let down by the clumsy narrative device Anne – against the wishes of her publisher – chose to tell the tale. We come to know of Helen’s plight firstly through the laboriously detailed letters that the novel’s ‘hero’ Gilbert Markham writes to his brother-in-law (who I couldn’t help imaging rolling his eyes as another great wad drops through the letterbox). Gilbert’s first person letters bookend the novel, but the chunk of the tale is told through Helen’s journal that she, in a desperate but odd act, throws out of the window to the love-sick Gilbert who then transcribes (yes, really) the whole thing to his long-suffering BIL in another series of letters.

The novel also suffers from Helen being a hard-to-love heroine. She’s feisty and determined – think Jane Eyre crossed with North and South’s Margaret Hale, complete with all the piousness that that pairing invokes – but, unlike these two, she’s chippy and charmless. And Gilbert? What a pompous oaf. I found Mr Hargrave a far more endearing proposition. Anne’s writing, if anything, is more reminiscent of Jane Austen than the starker, bleaker writings of her sisters, although she has none of the Pride and Prejudice writer’s wit or her satirical eye. Anne is more straightforward, she doesn’t hide behind the reality of life for some married women in a Mr-Collins-and-Charlotte kind of way and has no time for literary frills.

Despite the bad plot structure and the unlovable leads, I found the Tenant of Wildfell Hall a fascinating and moving novel. I always find it tempting to look back at the past and believe that women just accepted their lot, that they assumed society was nicely arranged as God wanted it to be. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opened by eyes to the fact that there were women who wanted – needed – change – and Anne and her Helen – in their own way – went some way to help put that change in motion.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Hymn/Cocktail Sticks by Alan Bennett, The National Theatre

Jeff Rawle, Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in Cocktail Sticks at the National Theatre

Jeff Rawle, Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in Cocktail Sticks at the National Theatre

I spent one summer working in Primrose Hill and the occasional lunchtime highlight was spotting Alan Bennett on his old-fashioned woman’s bicycle complete with wicker basket. He always seemed to be going to the Post Office. The whole effect – the bike, the wicker basket, popping to the Post Office and his thick rimmed glasses – was just like watching a character from one of his plays.

And here he is in one of his plays. Or rather, not him, but the remarkable Alex Jennings who inhabits the playwright’s awkward self-possession with such brilliance that there are times when I wondered if this was a double bluff and that it really was Bennett. His own mother would probably have trouble telling them apart. And here she is, or rather her dramatic ghost, played so beautifully by Gabrielle Lloyd in the second of the afternoon’s short plays, Cocktail Sticks.

Both Hymn and Cocktail Sticks see Bennett revisiting territory from his memoir A Life Like Other People’s, recalling his pre-poncy Primrose Hill days and reflecting on how his quiet, uneventful early life came to shape him and his work. The first play, the short but very sweet Hymn, is a musical memoir where Bennett’s words share a stage with George Fenton’s clever score and a string quartet (plucked from the Southbank Sinfonia). Fenton’s score is evocative of a bygone England, weaving Elgar and Delias into his original work while at one point providing sound effects to the memory that lies at the heart of Hymn. Hymn spins on the moment Bennett’s father, a keen and accomplished violin player, attempted, with little success, to teach his son his beloved instrument. Bennett laments that his father’s disappointment at his son’s inepitude would “outlast the violin and my childhood, and go down to the grave”. *Sob*.

Themes and storylines naturally overlap into Cocktail Sticks, a piece that is both a homage and atonement to his eccentric yet utterly normal parents. The play is everything Bennett has come to encompass – unearthing the funny, heartbreaking and poignant in the ordinariness of life – telling the story of how he got to understand that there was art in the everyday.

The play begins with him remonstrating with his mother about his undramatic, happy childhood, a childhood so devoid of incident that he claims (this is twenty one years ago, after Bennett had already found success on the West End stage) it’s given him nothing to write about. “We did our best. We took you to Morecombe”, “You played out with your friends”, replies his unmoved mother. “I bet Proust didn’t play out with his friend,” mutters Jennings’ Bennett later to none other than J.B. Priestley who momentarily walks into the Bennett’s domestic setting.

The piece starts after the death of his father; his mother now in a home in Weston-Super-Mare, when Bennett is clearing out the family’s kitchen cupboards and discovers a box of cocktail sticks. Bennett then oscillates between the years, resurrecting his parents to quietly demand questions and atone for his embarrassment of them that reached a peak during his time at Oxford. The portrait of his mother is particularly moving as we watch her slip from vague disappointment to depression and finally dementia. Mrs Bennett was a woman who dreamed of a life beyond bus rides to Skipton and trips to the cinema, convinced everyone else was sipping cocktails with prawns in them while she sat at home drinking tea. Her desires were simple – to hold a cockTAIL party, but the stench of dripping that wafted up from Mr Bennett senior’s butcher’s shop that the family lived above and her husband’s aversion to alcoholic drinks barred her entry to this glamorous world.

“I’ve been reading about these cockTAILS”
“They’re COCKtails, not cockTAILS”

“Yes, cockTAILS”
“COCKtails, the emphasis is on the tail not the, oh never mind.”

In lesser hands, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks could be twee or, worse, patronising. After all both plays rely on us, the audience, (we’re at The National here, so it’s largely white, middle class Londoners and those fresh off the train from Dorking) laughing at two working class northerners and their distrust of avocado pears. But Bennett’s deft touch ensures that we’re not laughing at them, but at him, at us – his happy parents don’t seem like the naive ones compared to our 21st century lust for drama and revelation that have brought us no-where. The performances also prevent it slipping into a nostalgia/lets-laugh-at-the-funny-northerners show. Lloyd and Jennings I’ve already mentioned, but Jeff Rawle as Mr Bennett senior also brought the right amount of gruff northernness to the role without falling into Last Of The Summer Wine territory.

This is a beautiful, tender piece of theatre with is written and performed with real affection and is as heart-warming as it is heart-breaking.

Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, The National Theatre until March 17 2013. Transfers to the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End from March 22 2013 for a twelve week run.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The soap opera life of Henry VIII has been told so many times in film, novels and campy TV series that you could argue we don’t need another historical novel to rake over the ashes of the heroes and victims of this bloody age.

But Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, the second novel dramatising the rise and, although we’re not there yet, the fall, of Henry’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, raises Queen Anne and the other Tudor ghosts from the ground in such exquisite style that it renders so much that’s gone before it ordinary. I guzzled up the 600+ page novel, reading well into the small hours a story I’ve heard told in far less bewitching ways a hundred times before.

The novel begins at Wolf Hall, the soon-to-be royal cohorts the Seymours’ house, with Cromwell flying his falcons, named after his daughters and wife. It’s a disorientating opener as Grace, Lizzie and Anne, as those of us who read Wolf Hall or read Mantel’s handy ‘Cast of Characters’ know, are long dead, making their resurrected names momentarily distracting and ghostly. Surely grounded Cromwell hasn’t started seeing ghosts? But this opaque paragraph aside, it’s not Mantel’s desire to bamboozle you, she’s a writer of great clarity and simplicity once the historical fog clears. There’s been much made of her writing in the present tense and her (over?) use of the third person pronoun, but there’s a beautiful fluidity to her style that can go unnoticed until you’re ensconced in Mantel’s Tudor England. (I once joined a book group and on the first meeting some members were discussing Wolf Hall – a book they’d read a few months before – and one of the book clubbers dismissed it as ‘full of words and literature’. I am no longer a member of that book club).

The use of the present tense raises the novel from the past, giving a pace and urgency to a five hundred year old tale. Thomas Cromwell’s life and the Tudor age is brought vividly to life by the living nature of the present tense and the author’s deliberate use of non-historic language – this is not a pastiche of olden times, you won’t find a ye olde shoppe in Mantel’s 16th century. Mantel’s characters aren’t a strange race from the foreign land of the past, they are people who talk and think like us; they tell jokes (this novel is often very amusing); they’re ironic “Ah, do you see, I am an Englishwoman now! I know how to say the opposite of what I mean”, says the once Spanish Lady Willoughby; they hate paperwork and love sport; they nod off at the dinner table after too much wine. In short, they aren’t monsters hell-bent on sending everyone who disagrees with them to the Tower. Their very real emotions pulse through and off the page – the ending is of course  no surprise, as much as this is a work of fiction Mantel’s not about to let Boleyn walk off into the sunshine with grumpy old Henry and his gammy leg. But despite the restriction of the inevitable ending, Mantel builds the tension to such an extent that my heart from beating furiously as Anne’s fate loomed over the novel.

Bring Up The Bodies, for all the gory connotations of the titles, is remarkably unbloody (“bring up the bodies” refers to prisoners at the Tower of London being brought up for their trial). The four men, Francis Weston, Henry Norris, George Boleyn and Mark Smeaton are not tortured (although Smeaton has an uncomfortable night with a pair of fairy wings in ‘Christmas’); the out-going queen is treated with respect in the chambers she spent the night before her coronation. This was the only part of the novel that didn’t quite ring true for me. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by textbooks and The Tudors, but I was unconvinced by the rather modern leniency and compassion that the men were shown. Perhaps Mantel has become a little too close to her Cromwell to allow him to start ordering potentially innocent men to the rack?

For this isn’t a story of the downfall of Anne Boleyn, this is the re-telling of the much maligned Thomas Cromwell, a man who’s gone down in history as a ambitious, cruel man who would lop anyone’s head off on his way to the top. But Mantel’s Cromwell is a man of even temper, of great intelligence. He’s capable of kindness and is so loyal to his friends that he would, Mantel hints, seek bloody revenge for any wrong-doings to them (the four convicted men who fell with the queen were all players in a parody of Cromwell’s great mentor Wolsey after the cardinal was driven to an early grave. We are not encouraged to think this is a coincidence). He’s benevolent and generous; his contempt for those higher born than him who scoff and mock the blacksmith’s son is only barely concealed – although concealed, even to himself, it is. Mantel’s Cromwell is an honest man amongst a court of ignorant, greedy nobles. This is a man who wants to push through a Poor Law that is obstructed by a room full of titled idiots; who takes in begging jesters and undermines Lords. He’s a class warrior who is merely carrying out his king’s orders for the good of monarch and the nation. I am already lamenting his demise…

Suzanne Elliott