This year is the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s “own darling child”, Pride and Prejudice. This has led to a flurry of promotion and events created around, above & beyond this much neglected classic –barely read, rarely adapted and little known, it’s great that so much interest is being focussed at Austen’s most obscure novel… I jest of course, and while any attention directed towards books and reading is a positive thing, it’s not like P&P needs any marketing; a certain wet shirt ensured this perennially popular classic was seared into the consciousness of a whole new generation of TV viewers and subsequent readers. Plus there’s the whole Pride and Prejudice and Zombie Ghost Vampires or whatever it’s called. So I thought this was an apt time to dedicate a post to unsung heroes: books/characters/authors which for whatever reason haven’t garnered as much attention as they might.
Firstly, Anne Bronte, particularly The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (published 1848, my edition 2008 Oxford World’s Classics). The least known and least read of the Bronte sisters, I think the inevitable lumping together of her with Charlotte and Emily does her no favours. She is a very different writer, with little of the gothic, romantic sensibilities of her sisters. Anne actually sits more comfortably amongst the Victorian realist fiction of writers like Eliot and Gaskell, and in that way was a much more modern writer than Charlotte and Emily. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall takes on some pretty major issues that Victorian Britain would have preferred to have ignored: alcoholism, domestic abuse, the complete lack of legal rights for women, the damaging effects of believing boys & girls should be educated differently, single parenthood. Unsurprisingly, it was perceived as scandalous on its publication in 1848 and torn apart by those guardians of good taste, the critics.
Helen, a young widow, arrives in the town of Linden-Car with her young son, and attracts the attention of a farmer, Gilbert Markham. He pursues her despite the fact that she is extremely spiky (proof that you don’t have to be a giggling hair-flicking moron to get your man/woman/whoever you fancy) and she eventually gives him her diary to read, which details her young adulthood in Regency England, an experience a million miles away from Austen’s Regency romance. Helen had married the charming Arthur Huntingdon, who turns out to be an alcoholic, abusive, unfaithful rake (unfortunately those gorgeous breeches and big white shirts can only cover so much). When Helen sees the effect this profligate behaviour is having on her young son she flees. Back in the present day of the novel, she learns that Huntingdon is dying, and returns to him. I don’t think it’s a massive SPOILER to say he dies, allowing Helen and Markham to live happily ever after. This really isn’t a fairytale romance, though.
From the start Helen struggles to maintain a sense of herself as an individual, and her own integrity. Two years into the marriage, she realises the love of a good woman has not rescued him, and “how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried” – a scandalous thought for Victorian Britain but a reality for many couples who would be educated separately in different disciplines, barely know each other before marriage and then find they had no common language. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are high gothic romance, and while Tenant features a woman alone in a huge house in desolate surroundings, (fierce winds and thorny trees abound) it is more interested in the harsh realities of being married to the wrong man when “the ‘romance’ of our attachment is worn away”. As Huntingdon’s alcoholism escalates so does his abuse of Helen, and she is left in a situation where legally she cannot divorce her husband (although he can her) and her child would be left with his wholly unsuitable father as guardian. He can beat her legally, and all her wealth is judged to belong to him. Tenant is utterly damning of this situation, and if you’ll permit me the anachronistic term, Helen’s bid for freedom and a life on her own terms makes her a feminist icon. Once she achieves her freedom she doesn’t become a simpering Victorian “angel in the home” but ultimately drives her second marriage when she passes Markham a winter rose: “Look Gilbert, it is still as fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals. Will you have it?” The subtext is clear: Helen is no young blushing virgin, a romance heroine, but an experienced woman, choosing to marry for love (and presumably, sexual attraction) though she need not because she is financially independent. Anne Bronte gives us a much more complex heroine than those wailing women running around on moors (just kidding, JE and WH fans).
So why are Anne Bronte and Helen unsung heroes? There are difficulties with the book: Anne Bronte was clearly still learning her craft (but, I would argue, so was Emily) and it is flawed. The separate voices in the book aren’t distinct, and don’t always ring true in terms of how people speak. Emily was much better at this, and Charlotte was much more skilled in the craft of novel writing. Helen is a character with a highly developed sense of right and wrong, and this sometimes proves tricky for readers now, in that a character entrenched in Victorian morality can seemly judgemental to the point of priggishness. But it would take a heart of stone not to root for this brave, resolute and strong woman, and I urge you to give Tenant a go. The legal and educational situation may have changed but the story of a struggle for individual fulfilment against societal pressures remains timeless. And there’s a bit of romance too.
Incidentally, for those of you who enjoyed the BBC adaptation of P&P, they also did a very decent version of Tenant just a year later; Tara FitzGerald portrayed Helen, with Toby Stephens as Markham and Rupert Graves as Huntingdon (the first two of whom acted together again a decade later in the BBC’s Jane Eyre, fact fans), a gorgeous and hugely talented cast who did the characters great justice (dir. Mike Barker).
Secondly, I thought I’d look at a portrayal of an everyman hero, the type of person who is unsung in life, if not in the novel. The sub-theme of this post is clearly men called Gilbert, as I’ve chosen Gilbert Joseph from Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004, Review Books). Andrea Levy is not an unsung author, thankfully, as she’s brilliant and fully deserves the recognition she receives. Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, proving that sometimes these awards panels actually get it right.
It’s really hard to give a plot summary of the book without giving away some major spoilers, so I’ll avoid it all together. Purposely vague description to follow: the book looks at post-war Britain, and the experiences of interconnected characters following the migration to Britain by people from Caribbean. Queenie rents out her rooms to the new arrivals and encounters racism by association; Gilbert and Hortense are married immigrants, and quickly realise their experience is not going to be the one they were promised before they left Jamaica. The three of them, and Queenie’s husband Bernard, take turns to tell the story, having chapters to themselves at a time. The book is divided into Before and 1948, showing how the events of the war have far-reaching consequences on a personal level, not just national and political.
The character of Gilbert demonstrates that heroism is something that is not just found in extreme actions and extreme circumstances, such as war, but in the quiet, unassuming actions of the everyday. He finds himself in a cold, unwelcoming country, miles away from home, part of a nation that has used him as a soldier and then abandoned him, with a wife who looks down on him and where he is subjected to racism daily. And within these awful circumstances Gilbert doesn’t get ground down, and he doesn’t get bitter. Instead at the end of the novel he does something selfless and noble, and utterly believeable, and he also stands up for himself:
“You know what your trouble is, man?” he said. “Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it gives you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. No better, no worse than me – just white.”
I can’t fully explain what makes Gilbert such a hero without ruining the story for you, but I highly recommend this readable, insightful novel and if you read it I’m sure you’ll agree with me. Gilbert shows the greatness of ordinary people – we all know a Gilbert, and the least he deserves is to be recognised as a hero, which within the pages of Small Island, he is.
Here are the books alongside a hero of mine, David Bowie, who provided the title of this post. Like P&P, he also celebrated an anniversary this month (66th birthday on 8 January): see, there is a method buried somewhere amongst these rambling posts, I promise……