When people think of the Victorian era and women, they probably don’t have a very positive image. No right to vote, few property rights, less power than men in divorces, and little to do but marry and have children.
What they fail to realize is that the women who lived during this era and endured its troubles–and not simply those who directly fought against these troubles–were strong. Women opposed the unreasonable strictures without abandoning virtue.
One woman who illustrates this so well is Helen Graham from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This books serves as quite the feminist manifesto against the oppressive ideology of the Victorian era and the “Angel of the House”–not for the feminism of our time, but for true womanhood.
(I must warn you, if you do not want this book ‘spoiled’ in some measure, read no further.)
We first see Helen Graham through the eyes of Gilbert Markham, a self-absorbed but kindly bachelor. At turns frustrated and infatuated with mysterious widow Mrs. Graham, he eventually befriends her and, through various circumstances, reads her diary to learn her secret history.
In her diary, an eighteen-year-old Helen tells us of how she met her husband. Arthur Huntingdon, a charming rake, becomes enamoured of Helen and soon proposes to her. It’s clear to the reader that he’s no good: if she annoys him, he ignores her and makes up to other women to make her jealous. Taken in by Arthur’s good looks and engaging, roguish personality, Helen sees some good in him and, as many women before her, thinks that by marrying him she can change him.
For quite a while she hangs on to the hope that he might reform, but all she details is her growing disillusionment. He treats her as the “Angel in the House”: a housekeeper and ornament, there to serve his pleasure and amusement, and wait on him hand and foot. Any difference of opinion, reproach, or suggestion differing from his own or deviating from his wishes meets only with unjustifiable rage or laughing dismissal. Occasionally he humors her, but mostly he delights in making her jealous, and becomes jealous himself when all her attention is not given to him. He is eminently, utterly selfish.
Arthur goes to London for his annual dissipation, and constantly invites his friends over to his house to participate in more. The culmination of his horrid activities is his affair with his ‘friend’s’ wife, Annabella Lowborough. Throughout all of this, Helen attempts to change her husband and turn him to a more virtuous path: pleading with him not to go to London, reiterating that what he is doing shows that he does not love himself, not allowing him to treat her as some submissive lamb. When she learns of his affair and sees his obstinate unrepentance, she washes her hands of him. Helen devises a way to escape with her son and her maid, and ends up in Gilbert Markham’s country village.
Perhaps at first Helen does not seem so virtuous: she knows exactly what she is doing, you say. She should not have married him, you say. That is true; but it hardly excuses her husband’s behavior. Under the circumstances, Helen acted rather virtuously–she humored her husband where she could, cared for him and worked for his good even when he mistreated her, and left when she realized it was best for her and her son. But there is more!
Helen rebuffs the advances of one of her husband’s better friends who falls in love with her, even once she has fallen out of love with her husband. She respects her marriage vows, and intends to live them out. That is why she is initially cold toward Gilbert Markham. In fact, she lives out her marriage vows so well that when she discovers her husband has returned from one of his debauches in a very bad way, probably on the point of death, she goes and cares for him until he dies.
That is strength. I will not claim that it was necessary for Helen to take care of her husband after his mistreatment; for her own sake and her child’s sake she is not obligated to return as such. However, her great respect for the bond of marriage–even to a most horrid man–is something not often seen in an age of both constant divorce and remarriage, as well as mere cohabitation.
Helen’s flaws are clear: her imprudence, pride, and self-righteousness led her to believe she could incite a change in a man through marrying him. Yet her strengths are equally so: endurance, humility to admit her faults and remain true to her marriage vows, and the prudence and courage to stand up for herself and her child.
With these flaws, with her to-the-point, brusque personality, and with these virtues, Helen Huntingdon is a strong woman.