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The right book can instantly transport you to anywhere — and anytime — in the world. Every Thursday, we recommend one of our favorite books with a strong sense of place so you can see the sights, meet remarkable people, go on exciting adventures, and feel big feelings. Bonus: You don't even have to put on pants.
This post is part of our 'Weekend Getaway' series.
This weekend, travel back in time to Yorkshire and meet Helen Graham, a surprisingly independent woman who finds herself stuck in the social mores of the Victorian age — until she forges her own path to happiness.
Earlier this week, we shared six literary characters who are excellent role models to help us endure this strange period of self-isolation required by the coronavirus. Helen Graham could easily have been included on this list.
She is a very independent-minded woman at the heart of a Victorian novel that feels surprisingly modern. Anne Brontë sometimes seems doomed to be the forgotten Brontë sister, but this novel is essential reading: Most literary critics hail it as one of the first feminist novels. Helen, the woman at its heart, is equal parts 19th-century stick-in-the-mud and stand-up role model. She’s courageous, honest, determined, and self-contained — all qualities that are particularly helpful right now.
When the story opens, Helen finds herself isolated and far from what she thought would be her home. She is — for reasons that will become abundantly, painfully clear — on the run from a shady past. She’s taken up residence in the previously neglected Wildfell Hall, and she’s determined to find peace and to create a safe, happy life for her young son.
To the townspeople who are now her new neighbors, she is a vexing and beguiling riddle, the object of intense curiosity and judgment. She soon becomes a favorite topic for tongue-wagging over tea. Beautiful but unmarried, distant and laconic, she’s an artist who sells her own paintings to make a living… how dare she?
Unlike Thornfield in Jane Eyre and the titular estate in Wuthering Heights, Wildfell Hall is not haunted by ghosts or memories, but it is damp, unwelcoming, in disarray — a reflection of the town’s attitude toward Helen and Helen’s own state of mind when she arrives. Even the garden has given way to weeds, and a boxwood shrub carved into a swan ‘had lost its neck and half its body.’
The structure of the novel — essentially a long letter that’s broken up with excerpts from a personal diary — gives it a touching intimacy and immediacy. Through the words of a potential suitor and Helen herself, we learn about the bitter events that brought her to Wildfell.
Helen is no winsome, charming heroine. She’s a strong lady who is resolute in her pursuit of the life she knows she deserves, and that makes her timeless.
Near the top of this hill, about two miles from Linden-Car, stood Wildfell Hall, a superannuated mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark grey stone, venerable and picturesque to look at, but doubtless, cold and gloomy enough to inhabit, with its thick stone mullions and little latticed panes, its time-eaten air-holes, and its too lonely, too unsheltered situation — only shielded from the war of wind and weather by a group of Scotch firs, themselves half blighted with storms, and looking as stern and gloomy as the Hall itself. — Anne Brontë
This Victorian classic (394 pages) was published in January of 1970 by Wordsworth Editions. The book takes you to a manor house in England. Melissa read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
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Top image courtesy of James Genchi.
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