As Anne Brontë’s novel opens, the young and cocky Gilbert Markham becomes aware that there is a new woman residing at the dilapidated Wildfell Hall: Helen Graham, a widow with a young son. He’s careless at first, because Mrs. Graham is distant and reserved. After a few weeks of her company and her strongly expressed opinions, however, he begins to care for her, and to be jealous of the attentions paid to her by other men. When his jealousy overwhelms him, and he demands answers to the mysteries surrounding Helen’s life at Wildfell Hall, she gives him her diary to read.
This volume makes up the second portion of the novel. It reaches back to her entry into society as a tender 18-year-old, her meeting with Arthur Huntingdon, their courtship, and the long, heartbreaking series of disappointments and conflicts that make up their marriage. Finally, Helen decides to leave Arthur for the sake of her baby son. But with no support anywhere — no money of her own, no laws to back her up, no friends except those who think she is mad to do what she’s doing — can she succeed?
Jenny: I’ve read both Wuthering Heights and (of course, your favorite and mine) Jane Eyre, but the third Brontë sister has been on my list for a long time. And this was an incredibly interesting novel! While I thought that it was moderately successful as a novel (by which I mean that it’s good, but it’s no Bleak House) I thought it was tremendously successful as an examination of a woman’s position and the inequality of the marriage contract.
Teresa: Like you, I’ve had Anne Brontë (and this book in particular) on my list for a long time. I was fascinated about the ways that it was similar to, yet different from, her sisters’ work. Both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre deal with unbelievable situations, but this novel is much more grounded in reality. It definitely seems to have more of a social conscience—at least a more overt one. But Anne Brontë still uses of some of the Gothic elements her sisters employed to draw the reader in. There’s a sense of menace that pervades much of the novel, from the early talk of Helen Graham as a widow with a secret through the detailed account of her married life. It feels Gothic, but the situation is absolutely real.
Jenny: Oh, it was all too real! I absolutely cringed at the descriptions of Huntingdon’s infantile sense of humor, his petty cruelties, his “degradation” (a word that is repeated over and over.) The trap that Helen finds herself in must have rung true to many women: the man with absolute power over his wife, and deserving absolutely none of it in terms of intellect, moral superiority, or indeed anything except his maleness. In fact, this made me question some of Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester is surely suspect from this point of view (as well as a few others, but let’s not get into that right now — we can come back to it if we need to!) And to be honest, I didn’t like Gilbert Markham, either. Not much of a hero, if you ask me.
One theme that stood out for me was Helen’s anxiety to stop the damage being passed on to another generation. Huntingdon wanted to “make a man” of his son, by passing on his alcoholism, his misogyny, his spendthrift nature, and every other vice possible. “Being a man,” in this novel, is no compliment. So what’s the alternative, for little Arthur? Do we ever see a real role model for him? Not to be flippant, but is his goal to become a woman?
Teresa: Certainly his goal ought not to be to follow in the footsteps of any of the men in this book. They’re all terrible, in one way or another. Even the ones who are basically decent men are either blind to Helen’s situation or too impotent to do anything about it, or they’re amiable doofuses like Gilbert. But Helen’s response to the conundrum was fascinating, and so relevant to questions of child-rearing today. The debate the characters have about how Helen has trained her son to be repulsed by alcohol involves the same questions people have today about how much to shield children from the world. Helen seems to err too far in the sheltering direction, but I can see how she doesn’t feel she has much choice.
And that’s not the only area where the novel felt contemporary to me. There’s a section leading up to Helen’s marriage where she talks about how people have warned her about Huntingdon’s dissolute habits, and she declares that she can change him, even perhaps seeing it as her calling:
There is essential goodness in him; and what delight to unfold it! If he has wandered, what bliss to recall him! If he is now exposed to the baneful influence of corrupting and wicked companions, what glory to deliver him from them! Oh! if I could but believe that Heaven has designed me for this!
How many women, then and now, go to the altar carrying that vain hope in their hearts? (A hope that has perhaps been nourished by the novels of the other Brontë sisters.)
Jenny: Exactly! This book shakes its fist in your face and says, Oh, sister, you’re never going to change him, because the entire system backs him up: the Church (although not the Bible), the laws, the family, the money, the society, public opinion from women and children and men. Everything and everyone will be against you. You’re on your own.
Which is why I found so much of the book so thrillingly realistic and engaging — all the parts where Helen was struggling against her husband and her fate, struggling against a hardened heart — and found the ending rather dissatisfying. I didn’t think her romance with Gilbert was very convincing (I would go farther and say that Gilbert was less pleasant than an amiable doofus; his assault on Lawrence, his mistrust of Helen and his “sullenness” are pretty icky) and I think she’d be wary of a second marriage. What did you think?
Teresa: I was of two minds about the second marriage. I would have preferred for Helen to be able to be independent or to find someone else entirely, but there was a point when it looked like she was marrying Mr Hargrave, and at that point, I was fully behind Gilbert. Hargrave was frightening, but Gilbert was mostly just a brat. I think, too, that he had grown out of some of his brattiness after hearing Helen’s story and realizing how harsh the world could be. I think that’s why he was so frustratingly, ridiculously hesitant to express his feelings in the end.
Actually that whole last section that didn’t quite work for me. Until that point, I had sort of thought that Gilbert wasn’t really a character in the story, except as a vehicle for setting it up, sort of like Mr Lockwood in Wuthering Heights. He wasn’t much of a romantic hero, that’s for sure, and I really didn’t care about him. If this is Anne’s idea of romance, I’m not sure she would be any more satisfying to go “dude watchin’ ” with than her sisters! (And, yes, I’ll admit, I still do carry a torch for Mr Rochester—the reformed version at the end of Jane Eyre anyway. Jane was clever enough to let life change him instead of tying herself to him in hopes it would happen!)
Jenny: Yes, but look at Mr. Rochester from Helen’s perspective, if you can. He marries his first wife for nothing more than money, by all accounts — sealing a business deal. When she doesn’t live up to his expectations (and who knows what those are), he has all the rights. He locks her away instead of helping her (if she could be helped; we don’t know that for sure.) When something he likes better comes along, and at least this time it isn’t money, he decides to do something snakebelly low: take the second woman’s rights and reputation away, too, until it’s too late. A year and a day, yeah right — she’ll be pregnant by then, and in bigger trouble than ever. Jane was smart enough to wait until bigamy charges couldn’t be leveled and until he couldn’t exactly beat her, but she still shackled herself to someone who would do those things! (I’m not saying this is the only way to look at Mr. Rochester, or even my way, but I’m thinking it might be Anne’s way.)
Still, the characters of Helen and Huntingdon are exquisitely drawn. The idea that someone like Huntingdon could be sexually attractive and roguish and fun with his friends and a “gentleman,” in all accepted society, and still a terrible, terrible husband and human being, is chilling. And Helen’s gradual hardening is beautifully done. I also liked Esther — Helen without the bad life experience.
Teresa: Oh, I think you’re probably quite right about how Anne would read Rochester’s actions, and it’s a fair enough reading—if not the only one. The complexity of the characters is what makes Jane Eyre such a favorite, and I’d say the same complexity shows up in many of Anne’s characters. It may be that even Gilbert starts to appear more multidimensional on a second reading. I’m so glad I finally read it for the first time and enjoyed it enough that I know it’s a likely candidate for rereading someday.