The Life of Charlotte Brontë, The House of Mirth, and Romola

Welcome back to another 3 Classics Review! I think there are going to be a lot of these this semester because I’m taking two classes on 19th-century literature. My first read for school is our third book in today’s review. So let’s jump in!

The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell

My Rating: 4 stars

It’s a bit unbelievable that I haven’t read The Life of Charlotte Brontë before now. I’ve looked at pieces of it for projects, but I’ve never read it in full. This is the first ever biography of the author, written two years after her death by her friend and fellow author Elizabeth Gaskell. This biography is just as engaging as Gaskell’s novels. She does an excellent job creating Charlotte Brontë as a character the readers can care about and sympathize with. Part of the purpose of the biography was to give the public an image of Brontë’s character, particularly as an upright and moral person. Gaskell certainly succeeds with that. And readers get to hear Brontë’s own voice since Gaskell liberally quotes from her letters, mainly the ones she wrote to her best friend, Ellen Nussey. Brontë scholars owe a great deal to this biography; without it, we likely wouldn’t have a lot of the information about the family that we do.

However, due to Gaskell’s intent to portray Brontë in a certain way, she also leaves a great deal out. Some of this is her purposely trying to hide things, such as Brontë’s love for her married teacher from Belgium, M. Héger. It would have caused a scandal, so Gaskell rearranges the timeline to make Brontë’s depression over the rejection seem to be about her brother Branwell. Some things Gaskell just didn’t know, such as the intensity of the Glass Town games, and as a result they are not included. The part that bothered me most is her gross misrepresentation of Patrick Brontë, which felt so unnecessary. She relied on gossip from a nurse who had been dismissed for being unreliable and didn’t seek out any better sources to confirm. It’s resulted in Patrick being misrepresented as a stern and almost tyrannical father for decades when that simply isn’t true. Though these stories were taken out of the third edition, the damage was already done.

Overall, The Life of Charlotte Brontë is an important book and a lovely read. However, I would only suggest picking it up after reading a more accurate biography, such as Juliet Barker’s The Brontës, so as not to be mislead by the inaccuracies.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

My Rating: 2 stars

I originally read The House of Mirth for a high school project back when I was sixteen, and I despised it. I had to read three of Wharton’s books, and I hated all of them and resented being told she was the American equivalent of Jane Austen. Since I’ve revisited The Age of Innocence as an adult and loved it, I thought my experience with The House of Mirth would be the same and my contempt would be replaced with awe. It was not. I will say, Wharton’s writing is as gorgeous as ever. Her descriptions are gorgeous, and her wit is sharp. However, the plot itself moves at a snail’s pace and doesn’t truly get interesting until the final chapters. Even then, the ending is incredibly unsatisfying and left me wondering what the point of reading the book was.

My biggest complaints are the characters and Wharton’s social critique surrounding them. This book is just a series of awful people doing awful things to each other. I could say the same thing about some of my favorite books, but in those cases, there is something about the characters that makes me care about them even if I don’t like them. I could not bring myself to care at all about Lily Bart, Wharton’s protagonist. She makes horrible decisions and has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And the people she spends time with are even worse. That’s largely the point Wharton is making; she is critiquing the wealthy New York society of the period. I enjoy many novelists who engage is social critique and satire, including Jane Austen and Frances Burney. However, the critique found there is usually delivered in a humorous way. There was nothing I found funny in The House of Mirth. I couldn’t laugh at any of it because the people are just too terrible.

Overall, this was a disappointment for me, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading Wharton or even picking up The House of Mirth. It’s not to my taste, but there are people who will enjoy it.

Romola by George Eliot

My Rating: 4 stars

This is my first book for the independent study on Victorian women novelists this semester. I have a bit of a complicated relationship with George Eliot; I loved The Mill on the Floss, but I couldn’t finish Adam Bede or Middlemarch. So I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this. I was pleasantly surprised with how readable it is considering it’s set in 15th century Florence. It’s also not slow-paced despite being over 500 pages. There are a few parts focused on politics and religion of the time that I found a little slow, but I found that overall it’s a page-turner.

Eliot’s characters are the true stars of the books, especially Romola, of course. She is presented as a dutiful daughter to her blind, scholar father, and she continues of act as an Angel throughout the book by caring for the sick and helping those in need. However, unlike many of the Angels in the House portrayed in Victorian fiction, she is a scholar in her own right. She has opinions and ideas, and she doesn’t take her husband’s bullshit. Speaking of him, Tito is an excellent villain who doesn’t seem like one at first. He’s handsome, pleasant, and overall likable until it’s revealed that he’s selfish enough to betray anyone if it suits his needs. How I hated him! Eliot really dives into the interiors of her characters’ minds, which results in wonderfully drawn characters who are complicated and real.

Overall, this is a fantastic novel that has fully restored my faith in Eliot as a novelist. Despite the slow moments, it is ultimately one of the most exciting novels I’ve read by her.

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