Wednesday 30 December 2009

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

December 25th. - Last Christmas I was a bride, with a heart overflowing with present bliss, and full of ardent hopes for the future - though not unmingled with foreboding fears.
Thus writes Helen Huntingdon in her diary entry of 1822. Helen's foreboding fears are justified as her handsome husband emerges as a debt-ridden alcoholic who chased every woman 'aged between fifteen and forty-five.' Helen's strong Christian faith sees her through his humiliating affair with Lady Lowborough and his long drunken sojourns in London, but when he tries to install another of his women in their home as governess to their young son, Helen decides to take her child and run. Discovering her plan by reading her diary her husband destroys all of her art materials - her only means of earning a living - and cuts off all of her access to money and keys. Eventually Helen does escape with her son to a village many miles away and excites local gossip as the mysterious tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Many of the conventions of the Victorian novel can be observed in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The story is relayed through letters and diary entries. The good are rewarded and the wicked are punished, but Anne Bronte pulls no punches and the dissipation of Arthur Huntingdon is almost certainly a fictional portrayal of the troubled Branwell Bronte. Charlotte Bronte thought it a step too far, but Anne's interest in social justice and the lowly position of women in Victorian society is evident in both her published novels.

There is humour, too. Anne Bronte displays a taste for satirical comedy which seems to owe more to Austen than typical Bronte which raises an interesting question. Is it possible that Anne could have read and been influenced by Austen?

Happy new year!

Sunday 13 December 2009


She knew how to recognise the good girls and the diligent boys, the rebels and fuck-ups, the artsy kids who knew nothing about art and the ones who had art burning inside them.
38-year old Portia Nathan is an admissions officer for Princeton. Her life revolves around recruiting potential students and careful consideration of application folders. At home, at work, in transit she is surrounded by piles of orange folders containing the (sometimes heartbreaking) life stories of the brightest and best 17-year olds.

All is not well with Portia. She has a fractious relationship with her feminist activist mother, a stagnant relationship with her long-term partner and immerses herself in work to blank out events from her own teenage years at Dartmouth.

Fascinating though the admissions process is I was more interested in Portia's relationships. When her partner Mark invites the ghastly Oxbridge academic, Helen, to their dinner party Portia tries not to be irritated by her rudeness, her affected Virginia Woolf hairstyle and her expensive T-strap leather shoes. A lesser writer would have made Helen a caricature, but Jean Hanff Korelitz is much more subtle than that. Similarly, when Portia later learns that Helen is pregnant the truth begins to dawn on her the way all truths emerge:

She was thinking of something, or trying to think of something. Just beyond her grasp, her ken, flittering away.
Admission is amusing, perceptive and clever. You must read it.

Monday 7 December 2009

The Lacuna

Slightly frustrating when you pay £14.99 for a book, struggle to page 150 before realising you really don't care that much about the central character or his mother or anyone else in the novel and shove it back on your shelf with a vague plan of returning to it someday (knowing you never will). But that's the chance you take with fiction.

The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite novels and I was hoping The Lacuna would work some of the same magic. Set in Mexico in the early part of the twentieth century it is a coming of age story and combines fictional characters with historical characters of the era, for example, the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I don't think it works. Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful writer but this novel struck me as over-researched.

However, I'm reading Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz right now. It is so good I've been reading into the early hours and suffering for it the next day as articulated in this blog post by Louise Erdrich. 'Severe maternal inertia' indeed!