Sunday, February 17, 2019

Fortnightly Book, February 17

When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers?

Of all the Brontë sisters, Anne Brontë has perhaps had the rockiest critical reception. This is particularly true of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the next fortnightly book. Contemporary reviews show that people regarded it as interesting, and it sold well, but it was also criticized for being too coarse, too violent, too disagreeable. Charlotte Brontë refused to have it reprinted after Anne's death, and critics in the aftermath largely seem to have agreed with her -- it did not fare well in the late nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century, in which its deliberately anti-Romantic approach was regarded as lacking in fire and spirit. The novel had its defenders, but the defenses are often qualified and backhanded. In the past few decades there has been an increasing tendency to push back at this general mix of disparagement and backhanded praise and argue that Anne is doing things more subtle than the critics had granted, and that the psychology of the work is richer than has usually been recognized. It is anyone's guess whether this will stick, since critics are not always particularly reliable across time, but it is worth noting that people have continued to read it. And that is, as I've said before, the only real test of quality for a literary work: that people who enjoy reading keep coming back to it.

In any case, I have never actually read the whole work, so we'll see how I find it.

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