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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Anne Bronte and the Power of Rumors

Farmland near Haworth,
Anne Bronte's hometown
In Anne Bronte's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, we meet Gilbert Markham, a farmer in 19th Century England. He’s a responsible man who grows his crops, cares for his animals, and uses income from the farm to purchase additional land. As his father has died, he taken over the role of family provider. With him live his mother, who orchestrates the running of his household, his younger brother Fergus, who seems to take nothing seriously, and his sister Rose, who takes an interest in everything that occurs in their community.

Gilbert may not be a socialite like his sister, but he’s gained the esteem of society. He’s befriended Frederick Lawrence, a man who grew up in nearby Wildfell Hall, but now manages another estate. He frequently visits Rev. Millward, a man of strong beliefs and rigid principles. Not only does he enjoy the priest's company, but he’s also attracted to Eliza, the man’s youngest daughter. While Eliza returns his interest, his mother pleads with Gilbert not to pursue her. He honors her request, but hopes his mother will eventually set aside her disapproval of Eliza, and allow him to ask for her hand in marriage. 

Then a widow and her young son rent Wildfell Hall, a deteriorating manor house on a nearby estate, and everything changes in Gilbert’s world.

As Rose craves the company of others, she needs little convincing to pay her respects to Mrs. Helen Graham and her young son Arthur. Soon Rose is visiting Wildfell Hall regularly, and bringing along Fergus and their mother. After his long workday, Rose regales Gilbert with descriptions of Mrs. Graham: her looks, her actions, and her taste in clothes and furniture. On those rare occasions when, compelled by Rose or Rev. Millward, Mrs. Graham attends civic functions, Gilbert finds the young widow stern, reclusive, and argumentative. Yet he likes young Arthur enormously, and there is something about Helen Graham that intrigues him. After awhile, he accompanies family members on visits to Wildfell Hall, and forges reasons to make solitary journeys there. When he's out managing his farm, he keeps an eye out for Mrs. Graham. If he spots her walking in certain places at regular intervals, he returns to those places, and at those times, so that he can pretend to bump into her.

Gilbert’s family and friends notice his rising interest in Mrs. Graham and her son. Equally noticeable are Frederick Lawrence's visits to Wildfell Hall. A story circulates that something improper is going on between Mrs. Graham and Mr. Lawrence. As Gilbert admires Helen for her intelligence and convictions, he refuses to believe it. Over time, he perceives two young women at the center of this story: the impishly beautiful Eliza, and her talented friend Jane Wilson, a young woman who has designs on Frederick Lawrence. Previously he has held both women in high regard. Yet how can he claim that the story they are spreading is a baseless slander? Perhaps Gilbert is too biased in his opinions of Mrs. Helen Graham. Perhaps his initial assessment of her was correct, and he should accept the opinion of others he has known far longer. For nearly everyone in society whom he loves and respects, including Rev. Millward and his family, have accepted this unproven story as the truth.

Such is the power of rumors.

Dragon Dave

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