Home > 19th Century, British Literature, Brontë Sisters, Classics, Feminism, Novel > 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? (Anne Brontë)

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? (Anne Brontë)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë was published in 1848. It is Gilbert Markham’s letter to his best friend and telling him how he married his wife. The novel is divided in three parts. The first one is told by Gilbert and relates how he met and fell in love with Mrs Helen Graham, a widow newly settled in the neighbourhood, in Wildfell Hall. In this part are described both Mrs Graham’s temper and Gilbert’s increasing regard for her. The reader soon understands that there is a mystery in her presence in that isolated and gloomy house, alone with her child.

The second part reveals everything about this mystery through the means of Helen’s diary. It relates her miserable life from the moment she meets and marries Arthur Huntington until her arrival at Wildfell Hall. She tells all her misfortunes and describes the pain she took during these years and how she eventually escaped with her son.

The third part is narrated by Gilbert again, from the moment he ends up the reading of the diary to his wedding with Helen. During this period, she returned to her former house to take care of her dying husband and lost her uncle.

I understand that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can be linked to Gothic novels, as it is about a distressed young lady obliged to overcome all kinds of misfortunes to reach happiness. I noted that since Jane Austen’s chaste prose, lovers kiss, hold hands and take their fair lady by the waist. The change of narrators and tone gives a freshness to the story. Each part of the novel ends with a pivotal scene between Gilbert and Helen. Each of these three scenes is a step in their relationship. First Gilbert declares himself and receives hints that his love is requited. Then Helen acknowledges that she loves him but cannot marry him and concludes they must part. Eventually she takes control and proposes to him.

I liked the two first parts better than the last one, because they show Helen’s rebellion against general admitted principles and her confidence in her own judgement. The third part disappointed me because of its religious and virtuous tone. I didn’t like Helen going back to his husband to take care of him. It seemed unnatural and a compliance to social rules. I thought it was there only to ensure the society of the time that she really left her husband to protect her son and not for herself. It would have been too scandalous to write otherwise, I suppose.

 That book had me thinking “Every teenage girl should read this novel because it contains valuable lessons about love relationships”.

When Helen meets Arthur Huntington, she disregards all warnings upon his temper and marries him against her better judgement, thinking that her constant goodness will improve him through a sort of capillary action. To me, believing to have such a power on someone as to change them is vanity. People don’t deeply change and most of the time have nothing “behind the face”. No one has the power to change someone, unless unwillingly. Bad boys are not tortured souls in want of rescuing by a pure gentle lover, they just are bad boys who want to have fun.

It is also a very unsteady soil to build a relationship on, as it breaks the equality between the two members of the couple. His behaviour may have been highly reprehensible, but what a pain it must have been for Arthur to be constantly lectured ! Loving someone means accepting them as they are. Constantly expecting them to change for our vision of themselves is not love but alienation. Bluntly said, you’d better quickly turn your ethereal romantic young love into a more earthly but nonetheless deep feeling if you intend to happily share the same bathroom with someone “for as long as you both shall live”.

 But is accepting your beloved spouse the way they are the key of a successful marriage? The relationship between Milicent, Helen’s friend, and her husband Ralph Hattersley is interesting for that too. She is constantly physically and mentally molested by her husband and always yields. She pushes the acceptance of his temper to the farthest and he thinks she doesn’t resent his treatment of her as she never complains. It would even push him to torment her, to obtain a reaction. Helen finally convinces him that Milicent is hurt by his behaviour and having thus realised his error, he improves. Let’s imagine that such a radical change is possible. But the third relationship, between Annabella and her husband Lord Lowborough, proves that Anne Brontë was not so naïve as to think every one is reformable. This relationship could be the mirror of Milicent and Ralph’s, the wife being the torturer this time. This one doesn’t end well and it kinds of level the playing field between men and women, equally able to hurt their spouse. Here comes the second valuable lesson : a relationship cannot bloom without respect and communication.

Another defective relationship is the one of Eliza Millward and Gilbert. Gilbert is in love with Eliza and is thinking of marrying her at the time he meets Helen. He is blinded by her physical appearance and cheerfulness and doesn’t see clearly her flaws, despite his mother’s kind warnings. He gradually discovers a littleness in her and a lack of principles which drains his love for her. Third valuable lesson : the necessity to share the same values.

The relationship between Helen and Gilbert is the one that brings them happiness. But they almost missed each other because of Gilbert’s pride and because of his prejudice against the difference of wealth between them after she inherited from her uncle. He was too proud to ask her brother if she sometimes inquired after him, too proud to ask him her address and write the letter she expected. He was too prejudiced against her wealth to show up at her home, though he had travelled a long to time to reach it.

Anne Brontë seems to say to her contemporary girls: don’t hurry, take the time to know each other before marrying and don’t surrender to parental pressure to accept a man for his title or his wealth. She shows how women are abused in their marital life but she is clever enough not to describe women as only pure and innocent. She also pleads for women to be the master of their destiny. Helen makes her decisions herself and doesn’t complain about the consequences. She takes control of her life and she is a very modern woman. Anne Brontë’s novel is a cry for equality between men and women. A feminist novel.

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