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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Anne Bronte on Spousal Loyalty

A View of Haworth, Anne Bronte's hometown

In the opening chapters of Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Gilbert Markham meets the reclusive Mrs. Helen Graham. Although she does nothing to encourage him, his regard for her grows as the months pass. When he confronts Helen with the rumor swirling around her, and insists on knowing her past, she rips a section from her diary and presses it into his hands. He flies home, locks himself in his room, and spends the entire night reading.

From those pages, he learns how she met and fell in love with Arthur Huntington. When he proposed marriage to her, she refuted all her aunt’s allegations regarding his character. Frustrated, her aunt insists that Mr. Huntington's bad reputation is thoroughly deserved, and asks how she’ll feel throughout eternity if he is consigned to the fires of Hell. Helen insists that Mr. Huntington is not so evil or incorrigible as to remain in Hell forever. Rather, she’s found enough scripture to believe that, after a period of suffering in Purgatory, he will be reunited with her in Heaven.

Following their honeymoon in Europe, they spend several months together on his Grassdale estate. Then the newlyweds visit London. Helen objects to his visits to his club, and how he conducts himself amongst his friends. So Arthur sends her back to Grassdale, insisting he will follow shortly. Instead, months pass until he returns home.

While she wants to believe the best in him, and that he still loves her as fervently as ever, she finds the physical separation from him difficult to endure. As the years pass, she gives birth to a son, whom she also names Arthur, and his presence helps her endure the months apart when her husband lives in London, and spends their money extravagantly. It doesn’t help when Walter Hargrave, who runs a neighboring estate, stops by to tell her of Arthur’s objectionable behavior. She does not feel it right that he should visit her in Arthur’s absence, and refuses to hear anything he wishes to say about her husband’s conduct. When Arthur returns to Grassdale, bringing all his friends with him to continue their carefree London lifestyle, Helen orders her maid Rachel to not share with her any observations that might give her a negative opinion regarding her husband.

Eventually, Helen witnesses actions she cannot condone, and realizes that Arthur is totally and hopelessly corrupt. Yet she believes it her duty to remain at Grassdale, and manage the estate. Only after he demonstrates a commitment to corrupting their son does she flee, seeking the isolation of Wildfell Hall and the anonymity of an assumed name. 

As rays of sunlight illumine his dark room, Gilbert sets down the torn-out pages. He now knows the story surrounding her and Mr. Lawrence was untrue. He hurries back to Wildfell Hall and declares his love for her. Helen admits that, despite her best efforts, she has come to love him too. But she refuses to listen to his arguments and rationalizations, and insists they must never see each other again.

A few weeks later, Gilbert learns that she has abandoned Wildfell Hall.

All through her marriage, Helen remains loyal to her husband, and seeks to safeguard his reputation, if nowhere else than in her mind. She repeatedly ignores the urging of others, whether they be Walter Hargrave, Rachel, or Gilbert Markham, when they argue that, as Arthur has wronged her, she should declare herself free of him. Instead, she remains wed to him in her heart, and conducts herself accordingly. For his part, Gilbert is shocked to learn where she travels after she leaves Wildfell Hall. To him, her actions prove that her spousal loyalty is even more extreme than he could have believed possible, and that Helen must be more angel than human. 

But then, all the best wives are.

Dragon Dave

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