Monday, January 07, 2008

Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I started reading the Tenant of Wildfell Hall last night: just for an hour, I thought, before I go to sleep. At 3am I had to force myself to turn off the light. I finished it this morning as soon as I got the opportunity. I'd been expecting to have to make myself read the novel as it could happily be labelled "classic" literature, and therefore = worthy, possibly even high-brow, and all that.

Novels of this era/type often irritate me madly with over-blown emotional hullabulloo, romantic over-thinking and misunderstandings, which would be sorted out if the characters involved actually talked to each other sensibly. This sort of misunderstanding did happen in the Tenant, but Helen, the main female character didn't annoy me in the same way as other romance novel (if that's a fair description) heroines often do, (although I found her endless virtue and piety somewhat hard to stomach at times, too dutiful by half). But she was no fainting flower, and had strength of character and mind of her own. Unlike Jane Eyre's chaotic and impetuous flight from Rochester (although I suppose her case was very sudden), Helen's initial escape plan from her husband was organised and relied on her own abilities, a thinking as well as feeling female character.

The novel can be viewed as a proto-feminist text, and it certainly is an indictment of inequality in marriage, of woman as chattel, of the sexual double standards of the times.

Feminism is sometimes seen like a dirty word amongst women of my generation and younger, not something they want to be associated with. What has feminism, all this social change, ever done for me?* It's given us the vote, a voice, the ability to divorce crap/violent/abhorrent husbands or ones we just don't love any more, and not automatically lose any children from the marriage, we can own property and not be property, we can earn and keep our own money, we can slam the door in the faces of husbands in a row (apparently very shocking in those days - and hey, it's not a good night now in any household, but it's not shocking - and it's very much the done thing if you happen to live in a soap opera) and not have sex with them if we don't want to, although this last (rape within marriage) has only relatively recently been recognised as a criminal offence. And more besides.

* To paraphrase the Life Of Brian... Oh, that reminds me, I watched that again recently and it struck me that although it is often considered a blasphemous film, Jesus is a background figure, busy working miracles and giving sermons, in no way portrayed as a fake. I don't suppose it makes some of the ideas contained therein any less "blasphemous", but it's surely organised religion, ritual and gullibility that are the targets. Praise the gourd.

It's the seeing the bright side of crucifixion that's the problem, I imagine...

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