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Book Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

A woman dressed in white posing for a portrait.Summary:
Originally serialized in 1859 to 1860 then published in book form in 1860 this epistolary novel is considered one of the first mystery novels. Walter Hartright is an artist who gets hired to be a drawing master for two half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe. He and Laura soon fall in love, but they cannot be together due to class differences and Laura’s prior promise to her now deceased father to marry Lord Percival Glyde. A mysterious woman dressed all in white warns Laura against her marriage, calling Lord Glyde evil. However, Laura is reluctant to renege on her final promise to her father and proceeds with her marriage, sending herself, Marian, and Walter into a spiral of intrigue and danger.

Review:
I love slow-moving, epistolary novels, particularly gothic ones read on a long, hot summer day.  One of my finest reading memories is of enjoying Dracula while working on a summer internship at a national park on a peninsula with four beaches.  So I came to this gothic, mysterious, epistolary novel with high expectations.  At first they were met, but as the plot proceeded I came more and more to want to smack Collins upside the head.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that the slowly building tension indicates a truly serious infraction on Lord Percival Glyde’s part that turns out to be not particularly shocking at all.  At least to my American mind.  Suffice it to say, it revolves around title holding, something which I find baffling and laughable.  Why should anyone care if Laura is Mrs. Glyde or Lady Glyde?  Her life seems more boring than the servants’ anyway.  I thought I would be reading a novel that was more about revealing the treachery and debauchery of the upper class.  Instead I got a book about bourgeois problems, which, I’ve indicated elsewhere on this blog, I simply cannot relate to and find completely annoying.  I get it that some people enjoy that, but the desire to maintain a tense, mysterious illusion around the book led me to believe it’s something it wasn’t.  That is frustrating, to say the least.

Beyond the disappointing mystery there’s of course the typical problems found in early 1800s literature.  The sexism comes from Marian’s own mouth, which is surprising given that she is a depicted as a strong woman.  She often will lament the short-comings of “her sex.”  Actually, the entire situation between Walter, Marian, and Laura is baffling.  Laura is a weak, foolish girl who Walter falls and stays head over heels in love with.  I cannot fathom why that would be when he spends an equal amount of time with Marian, who is a strong, thoughtful, intelligent woman.  Laura is described as beautiful, whereas Marian is described as possessing a beautiful body but an unfortunately masculine face.  This leads me to believe Walter is rather shallow, as I see no reason beyond Laura’s beauty for his devotion to her.  I know sexism is to be expected in older novels, but I would at least hope for a hero who loves the heroine for something beyond her beauty.

That said, the novel certainly gives modern women a new appreciation for our current situation.  The women in The Woman in White are constantly downtrodden by the men around them who believe it is entirely within their right to dictate to them everything about how they should behave, speak, dress, etc…  It appears that the only thing the women have control over is when to leave the men to their wine after dinner.  In fact the couple presented as the happiest and most well-functioning is that of Count Fosco and his wife, and they only function well due to the fact that she obeys his every command.  Mrs. Fosco is described as a woman who prior to meeting the Count was loud, obnoxious, and always yammering on about women’s rights.  Count Fosco, apparently, “fixed all that,” and she is now such a pleasant woman to deal with.  The only woman who does not base her entire existence around a man is Marian, and that is due to her bizarre, near worshipful devotion to Laura.  It makes me shudder to think if those had been my options as a woman–existing purely for the whims of a man, downtrodden and outcast, or pure devotion to a sister.  Yeesh.

I did enjoy listening to the book.  It felt a bit like listening to an old-time radio program, which I’m sure is due to its origin as a serial novel.  Those who enjoy the slower pace of older novels and can relate to the bourgeoisie will probably enjoy it.  If either of those elements turns you off, however, you should look elsewhere.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Librivox recording via the Audiobooks app for the iTouch and iPhone

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Book Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall By Anne Bronte

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment

coverthetenantofwildfellhallSummary:
Cited as the feminist antithesis to her contemporary Austen’s romantic 19th century ramblings, Anne Bronte’s best-known novel presents the much more dire image of the very real risk of marriage in a time where the wife loses all her human rights to her husband. Gilbert Markham becomes infatuated with the widow Helen Graham who has moved into his neighborhood with her son, but rumors soon start to spark up around her. When he confronts her about her conduct, she shows him her diary. There he learns her travails and sufferings at the hands of her still very much alive husband.

Review:
I came to this book with high expectations. I heard of it simply as the one of the earlier feminist novels written in response to such works as Austen’s. I felt this opened the door to many possibilities, but perhaps I was thinking about this with too much of a 21st century brain. What held The Tenant of Wildfell Hall back was the relentless presentation of Helen as the picture of Christian piety. Given the fact that Helen behaves quite willfully and controversially for the time period by leaving her husband’s home to live separately from him, this was probably quite necessary for Bronte’s contemporaries to find Helen a sympathetic character. For me though her severeness sometimes had me siding with her tyrant of a husband in my mind. He calls her cold and calculating. Well all she ever talks about is living piously now to be joyous in heaven after death. I would find that cold and calculating as well.

This book does hold value for the modern feminist though if we re-position ourselves to look at it through the lens of how society at the time has messed up both Helen and her husband, Arthur. Society tells Helen that it is her job as a woman to be the pious one. Although single men may go cavorting about she must sit respectably at home or go out to supervised dances. Men may behave however they desire as long as they settle down after marriage. This belief leads Helen to make her foolish, egotistical mistake of thinking that marrying Arthur is alright for she can change him after they are married. To a certain extent Arthur makes the same mistake. He has been told the ideal wife is a highly pious one, so he marries Helen thinking she will save him when, in fact, they are the most mis-matched couple ever.

Arthur enjoys cavorting, playing cards, and drinking. Helen refuses to do these things out of piety and nags Arthur not to do them. They both come to realize they are mis-matched, but in their society divorce is a painful embarrassment to both parties. Helen doesn’t even consider it for Christian reasons; Arthur in order to save face. This leads to their gradual loss of caring for each other, although Arthur’s comes much faster and more brutally when he carries out an affair with the wife of a visiting friend.

Arthur no longer wants Helen, but she is his wife and he would be a laughing-stock if he couldn’t control her, so he starts abusing her emotionally–repeatedly telling her it disgusts him to see her pale skin, for instance. He also carries out the afore-mentioned affairs with her full knowledge and at first forbids her from having any of her own. I am not condoning Arthur’s ill-treatment of Helen. He made the situation far more worse than society alone would have had them make it. He could, for instance, have allowed them to set up separate households, which was sometimes done. He at least could have shown her the respect she deserved as a human being, but instead he came to view her almost as a hated prison guard. This would not have been the case if they could have parted ways amicably.

I must admit what struck me far more than the restrictive society was Helen’s restrictive religion. She almost constantly lives only thinking of her reward after death in Heaven. She possesses nearly no joy for her beliefs require that she squander her life away serving a man who hates her. The only reason she even leaves him for a time, relieving some of her pain, is because she believes her duty to raise a pious son outweighs her duty as a wife, so she is justified to remove her son from the soul-risking influence of his father. Helen’s faith seems to bring her no joy, but instead demand she behave as a judging marble statue.

Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not an obvious feminist manifesto, it as an excellent rendition of the oppression of 19th century society on both men and women. Reading of their struggles and realizing as a 21st century observer that there is essentially no way out for either of them beautifully demonstrates how far we’ve come. Bronte’s writing style is complex enough that what could be a bit of a boring, straight-forward tale remains interesting throughout. She changes perspectives a few times via diaries and letters. She does suffer from the 19th century literature trap of overly extensive descriptions of settings, but these are easily skimmed. An excellent example of 19th century literature, I wish Bronte’s realistic work was assigned more often in literature classes than Austen’s fluffy, unrealistic drivel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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