The great affliction of the 20th century was the redemption story. You know it, because you’ve seen it during every episode (and I do mean every episode) of E! True Hollywood Story and Biography. Mr. Neutral does something bad and becomes Mr. Bad. Mr. Bad stops doing bad thing and becomes Mr. Redeemed. And the crowd goes wild!
I despise the redemption story for many reasons. Just on its face, it is artificial: anyone’s story can be cast in this way and that is why the aforementioned TV shows use it. Who has not been led astray, willingly or unwillingly? But even more offensive is the the idea that redemption is even possible. It isn’t. You’ve done what you’ve done. You live with it as best you can. To take an extreme example: there was nothing Hitler could have done to redeem himself. Of course, by Christian dogma, had he found Jesus in the bunker, he’s in heaven right now, enjoying pure ecstasy in the beatific glow of God’s love. How about that?
The 19th century had a different affliction: the redemptionless story. In it, the world is divided into good people and bad people and rarely the twain shall meet. And so it is, in the surprisingly good The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by the lesser Bronte sister Anne.
Make no mistake, I hated this novel. And yet, it was hard to put down. I really think that Anne was the most talented writer of the sisters. She combines the power of Emily with the detail and cunning of Charlotte. Added to that, she doesn’t stick with convention, organizing the novel as a long letter with someone else’s diary stuck in the middle. Although I think that everyone should read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights if for no other reason than that everyone should know who Rochester and Heathcliff (not the cartoon cat) are, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is probably a better read.
My biggest complaint about the book is that Bronte spends 200 pages—200 pages!—on “my husband is awful!” Yeah. I figured that out. He’s debased, debauched, degraded; perverse, perverted, and decadent; unclean, sick, and rakish; depraved, unwholesome, dissolute; slutty, demoralized, and warped. He’s a libertine, a reprobate. Yes, yes, yes! He’s all this and more synonyms. Get on with it already!
And another thing that really bugged me was in Chapter 15, Graham gives Gilbert her diary, saying, “Bring it back when you have read it; and don’t breathe a word of what it tells you to any living being. I trust to your honor.” Understand: Gilbert is the good guy. What does he do? Only reprint the entire diary for his pen pal! Perhaps it didn’t count because it was written and therefore not a word was literally “breathed”?
The primary annoyance of this really very capable novel is the rigidity of the characters. The only thing the reader has to look forward to is how the good people will finally end up together. In this way, I can see why after years of Jane Austen (who I love) and the Brontes, George Eliot was such a refreshing change of pace. In the end, it must be admitted that English Literature of the 18th century is what we now get from Hollywood. Cervantes and Homer it ain’t.
 Sydney “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done” Carton is kind of an exception.