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Monday, April 28, 2014

Anne Bronte on Defying Your Elders

A View from Haworth

In her first novel, Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte introduced us to a smart young girl, yearning to demonstrate her capabilities to the world. She yearns to grow, to stretch herself, but is constrained by familial concern and lack of finances. Agnes might make an ideal wife, yet in England at that time few aspiring men would give a young woman from a poor family a second glance. Nor is she likely to meet such extraordinary men, should they exist, as she does not live in the bustling city of London, but an out-of-the-way village much like Haworth, where Anne grew up. Nor do her parents wish her to hire herself out as a governess. They see such a situation as fraught with danger, and don’t believe she’s up to the challenge. Agnes may have no control over her marital status, but with regard to her vocation, she defies her parents, and continually argues with them until they relent, and allow her to advertise for a position. Unfortunately, both of the jobs she takes fall far below her expectations and hopes.

In her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte introduces us to Helen Lawrence. Although she came from a moderately well off family, her mother died when she was young, and her father didn’t want her. So she went to live with her aunt and uncle, who reared her with the aim of marrying her into a family of wealth and social prominence. Her aunt’s reasoning and coaching in the selection of a perfect mate seem logical and wise. Yet, when she “comes out” in London society, Helen is appalled by her aunt and uncle’s choices. The first, Mr. Wilmot, is a rich friend whom her uncle views as a prime candidate for marriage. Helen doesn’t mince words when recording her observations of the man in her diary. He strikes her as annoying, disagreeable and ugly. As if that weren’t enough, in one sentence she mentions that he is elderly, and twice that he is old.  Her aunt scolds her for describing him as wicked, and later, as a reprobate, but even she admits that he’s no saint.

So, Mr. Wilmot is no Roger Moore, it appears. (Nor, for that matter, an under-appreciated Val Kilmer.)

Her aunt and uncle then introduce her to Mr. Boarham. Her aunt especially thinks the world of him, and never ceases to sing his praises. Certainly in his own mind, he sees himself as a font of information, which he wishes to share with her. Helen immediately tries to avoid him at social events, for he continually seeks out her company. Once he has found her, he steadfastly remains by her side for the rest of the evening, enlightening her with all manner of useful facts. All too soon, he arrives at her aunt and uncle’s house. In his generous marriage proposal, he expounds on how he will overlook all her faults and deficiencies. He is much older than her, and thus a vast gulf separates them in temperament and wisdom. Helen assures him repeatedly that she appreciates his kind offer, but must decline it. He refuses to accept her answer though, certain that, as in all things, she will soon realize how wonderful life with him could be, and how fortunate she is that he selected her as his mate.

Like the man she has chosen, her aunt sees Mr. Boarham as the ideal choice. Helen argues that she must marry for love, and that she would grow to hate a man who constantly drones on and on about topics on which she has no interest, and who sees himself as superior to her in all things. She has already labeled him Mr. Bore’em in her diary, so you get some sense of her regard for him.

So, when it comes to the crucial moment of a young, rich woman’s existence, her season of “coming out,” Helen finds herself at odds with her aunt and uncle’s choices for her. Despite all the years of education and social conditioning they have given her, their “best” choices for her seem, at best, unrealistic. Although they clearly want the best for her, and as much as she loves them and respects them, she refuses to trust their judgment in these matters. But then, we were all young once, certain that we were right and our elders were wrong.

Of course, I was always right. But then, I’m unique.

Dragon Dave

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