And lo, Mr Huntington was a douche: reasons why you shouldn’t get married according to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
So if you think the name Anne Brontë sounds weirdly familiar, but you’re pretty sure her name was Emily or Charlotte, trust me when I say you’re by no means the first person to say “hang about… there was a third Brontë sister? O.o”
Anne isn’t that widely read nowadays, especially not in comparison to her wild-child sister Emily who wrote of the wild Yorkshire moors, high-flying passions, and mouldering bodies in Wuthering Heights (or as I like to subtitle it, ‘Set Fire to the Rain’). Charlotte’s novels are similarly awash with gut-wrenching heart ache, and her bestseller Jane Eyre is still seen as a Gothic masterpiece, filled to the brim with creepy rooms, brooding men, and a surprising amount of word play.
Anne’s novel is nowhere near as dramatic; pathetic fallacy doesn’t do all the talking for characters, no one claims that their souls were made of the same stuff, and there aren’t any fires, in other words – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is more relatable.
Our heroine, Helen, has to deal with her extended family badgering her about when she’ll finally get married, as well as her married city ‘friends’ constantly mocking her for living a sad single life. If that wasn’t enough, even when she moves away and into the countryside to live a secluded life with her son, the villagers frequently spy on her household and gossip behind her back making outlandish claims about her lifestyle.
Just about what you’d expect from an introverted village? Well, that would be quite enough of that if Mrs Helen Graham and her young son, Master Arthur were just the flavour of the month. But when gossip gets the better of common sense, and potential lovers – I’m looking at you Gilbert – run around and whip perceived rivals off of horses in a flash of jealous rage, what do you do?
If you’ve got a really long story, and we’re talking like length-of-a-book kind of a story, and you don’t have the time in your day to sit down and tell it, like Nelly did for Lockwood in Wuthering Heights (because there’s precious little entertainment in the C19th countryside when you’re resting up with a broken ankle) – what’s the next best thing?
If you’re Helen, give him your diaries. Irrefutable proof of your thought-process during the time, and in the aftermath, and unlike Nelly’s blatant eavesdropping and bias speculation, forging a load of diaries just seems like far too much effort.
The diaries track Helen’s younger years, when she was a single woman around the town. She seems like a pretty sensible woman, and a lot of her reasoning for not marrying random people seems pretty solid. But the list gets more convoluted once she finally marries Arthur Huntingdon. In all fairness to Helen, he’s cute, he’s rich and he seems to be into her. But after being married for a few years, the vices which Helen had hoped to cure with love and patience just seem to get worse and worse. Mr Huntingdon becomes a violent alcoholic, he gambles with a group of rogue men (one of whom chats up Helen). While all this is going on he starts up a passionate affair with an old flame, Annabella (now married herself), which continues for several years. Only when he starts encouraging his five year old son to drink whiskey, as well as swear and blaspheme does Helen pack up and leave with her son, Master Arthur.
Helen chose to ignore her husband’s descent into debauchery, at least in the beginning when it only affected her, because realistically what were her options?
She was a woman without any claim to her husband’s money, meaning that even if she wanted a divorce there is no way that she would be able to fund it. Even when she separates from her husband Helen risks being shunned by society as a dangerous woman with no morals, and people could easily refuse to let her rent a place to live or refuse to sell her basic commodities, like food.
So, Helen’s decision to leave her husband whilst she had a young child to support wasn’t taken lightly; according to Helen’s meditation on her marriage, before, during, and in the aftermath, these are the things that you shouldn’t marry for:
Lots of money
A great position in society
Because your Mum wants you to
Because your brother is whining about you hanging around the house all the time
All of your friends think your potential husband is really fit
To get back at a relative’s annoying, self-righteous advice
You have an all-consuming passion (… Sorry Heathcliff and Catherine)
To make a malicious b!*@h jealous
If he’s worthy, but you don’t actually like him
If you like him, but he’s not worthy of you
If he has a horrible mother (imagine the horrible dinner parties)
If they have any human flaws
And lastly (it’s convoluted…):
If you like him now, and he’s worthy, but there’s the possibility – even if you can’t possibly foresee it now – that at some point in the future you might have a really important disagreement.
Or straight up, your love just fades.
If you are anything like me you’re now sitting there, totally overwhelmed, thinking “Alright Helen, under what conditions can I marry?”
Because Helen remarries at the end of the novel after the death of her first douchebag husband, Arthur Huntingdon. So either she had a rethink about the list, or Gilbert is the one and only perfect partner? Which, if true, is a shame what with there being only one of him, oh and also he’s fictional.
Luckily for us, this comprehensive and unattainable list can be solved in two easy ways:
1) don’t marry a douchebag, and
2) if you do end up married to a crappy person, hope that they kept you in the will and that when they meet their untimely demise through boozing it up, that they name you as your kid’s legal guardian.*
By the end of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen has cash, her kid, a nice house in the countryside, and Gilbert. Helen’s as lucky as any virtuous Victorian woman married to Mr Huntingdon could hope to be; although he dies without taking any responsibility for his actions or his affair, he does die. Better yet, he dies begging Helen to pray with him for the salvation of his soul, and at the end of the book Gilbert reports that he has heard a rumour that Annabella was divorced by her husband and died somewhere in Europe.
Helen’s ultimate triumph from a Victorian perspective looks pretty inevitable: she’s a worthy woman, a good Christian, and a loving mother.
The outcome is half-luck on Helen’s part and half-cowardice on Mr Huntingdon’s. Helen’s really lucky that Mr Huntingdon still cares that she is a good Christian woman, rather than rejecting Christianity altogether in his death throes, taking the Byronic line in death: “Christianity is so mainstream, I do what I want”. This luck is mostly because Huntingdon is a coward: he refuses to take any responsibility for drinking, gambling, cheating, threatening and emotionally abusing his family. Helen ends up as Arthur Jr. guardian for two big reasons:
1) Huntingdon is self-obsessed and is too wrapped up in his impending death to think about anything else, and
2) he’s not Heathcliff, in other words he’s not obsessive about the idea of revenge but rather a ‘victim’ of a ‘gentleman’s upbringing’.
So, how do you know if you’re marrying a stand-up guy or a man-child?
In the end, the answer is fairly straightforward: you can never be 100% sure, but if you think about your significant other and your first thoughts are about how married life is going to perform some miraculous change on their character, then they’re probably not the one for you. You may have just got married, but life goes on and conversely you can’t expect someone to remain the same – there’s going to be births, deaths, marriages, tragedies, and all sorts that are going to affect your partner and your marriage which was Huntingdon’s biggest mistake.
Helen may have made a big mistake in thinking that she could change him, but Huntingdon made the bigger blunder of assuming that she would be a fixture in his life: always the patiently demure woman, even after she rears a child.
So, on the surface of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, after the shit storm that was Helen’s first marriage, Helen falls into the loving embrace a Gilbert a man who is trustworthy, respectful(ish), and pretty honest about his feelings and intentions.
But just because Helen is about to marry for a second time to someone who for the most part, by Victorian standards, is a stand-up guy – how do you maneuver around the lingering fears that she writes about in her diary?
What if somewhere down the line, for one reason or another they disagree or, terming it in modern language, have ‘irreconcilable difference’?
More important than picking the right partner, it seems to me at least, is being able to rely on your own individual means. It’s essentially dangerous to rely on your partner for your validation, your social standing, and your survival.
Even as Helen decides to marry Gilbert I feel that there is a subtextual nod to the reader that she’s choosing to be with him because she loves him, and that if something did go horrendously wrong somewhere down the line, Helen has the financial resourcefulness (and conveniently the resources from her first marriage) to support herself, and the emotional fortitude to care for herself and her son.
Reasons you should get married, according to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: because the dude’s a bonus to enhance your life, not a lifeline.
Image: http://kitty-grimm.deviantart.com/art/The-Tenant-of-Wildfell-Hall-434288100, Kitty Grimm’s a phenomenal artist I’ve admired for many years, highly recommend checking her out.
* Terrifyingly enough, it wasn’t until the Infant’s Bill of 1886 that mothers were made the default guardian of their child if the father died. Before this point a father could keep a posthumous grip on his kid’s upbringing in the event of his untimely death by naming a guardian, who would have all the same powers as a father in the eyes of the law, and there was nothing in the rules that said they had to name the mother. p.154, Peter Keating, The Haunted Study.
Interested? Keating’s chapter ‘Parents and Children’ in The Haunted Study has a lot of quick-fire summaries and dates of laws and he includes a lot of books like The Mayor of Casterbridge, and more obscure books like the Beach of Falesa which has Uma, a native of Falesa tricked into an illegal marriage which makes John Wiltshire her husband, but only for a night.