Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveler, or to cover them with branches and flowers. Oh Reader! If there were less of this delicate concealment of facts — this whispering of ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience. Acton Bell, Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The story of Helen Huntingdon is intense. We meet her as a mystery woman new to the neighborhood who appears to all as aloof and disinterested in society. “She doesn’t even go to church,” the gossips exclaim! She is misunderstood and a target of slander from the beginning and though she refuses to reveal the truth about herself none of the townspeople ever ask her outright. Her only trustworthy friend is also very attracted to her and he believes the worst about her until she is finally able to show him her journal, documenting the horrible life of abuse she experienced by her husband and the daring escape with her young son. This is the reason for secrecy and reticence in order not to be discovered by her husband.
Two Aspects of this Book are very Modern: Reading Classics in the 21st Century and Bullying Behavior
I had been book blogging for several months when I reviewed, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The House of the Seven Gables. After I published it on my blog I found a discussion about it on another blog on why is this still an assigned classic in school–it is so densely written and boring it should be tossed into the dustbin of literary history. I was fascinated, because all the criticisms the commenters were making were exactly why I liked it! The writing hadn’t seemed dense to me, because I love Hawthorne’s description of every little detail of a character’s thoughts, the minute details of the house and street it was located on.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the journal Helen gives Gilbert tells the story of her abusive marriage. It is achingly repetitive. The book itself is over 500 pages in my edition and the journal takes up at least ¾ of it and frankly it could have benefited from serious editing, the same criticism of The House of the Seven Gables. Even so, my interest was held through Arthur Huntingdon’s perpetual meanness, psychological abuse, leaving to carouse in London, adultery, drinking, the coming home and then doing it all over again. Throughout the journal, even before she marries him, Helen’s friends and family warn her repeatedly about his bad habits and immoral behavior, until it is so obvious she should not do it. And yet, she marries him and this repetition continues leaving the reader to wonder how long will Arthur’s abuse go on and how long will Helen accept it as her duty?
Does the so-called ‘boringness’ of these books for some call into question their relevancy? Do we find them boring because we have a smaller attention span now? Is it hard for teenagers in the 21st century to sit down and read a 500 page book? I suppose this means CliffsNotes will always be in demand.
The second aspect of this book that is very modern manifests in the way Helen bears the consequences of gossip and bullying, the way she believes her husband will change after they are married, the toll it takes in the way Arthur abuses, cheats on and neglects her and the vulnerability she experiences when Arthur’s friends see her as fair game because Arthur is reckless in his affections for other women and ignores her.
Helen has no recourse for this sham of a marriage since only her husband can enact divorce and though the church might take pity on her if she were able to admit and document how bad things are, most people, like her Aunt would still say she has a duty to the marriage and should go back to her husband. And Helen will say she has a duty, too.
Whatever I ought to have done, my duty, now, is plainly to love him and to cleave to him; and this just tallies with my inclination.
Today, there are a fair amount of churches that believe women are locked into the bonds of marriage no matter how harsh the treatment by their husband and continue to counsel against separation or divorce with dire consequences.
In another modern aspect, Helen is subjected to gossip and bullying behavior by the townspeople that remind me how exacerbated this would have become on Twitter, for instance, which would have a field day in blaming the victim, when their ‘evidence’ for Helen’s illicit relationship is only a ‘feeling.’
“Why mother, you said you didn’t believe these tales,” said Fergus.
“No more I do, my dear; but then, you know, there must be some foundation.”
“The foundation is in the wickedness and falsehood of the world and in the fact that Mr. Lawrence has been seen to go that way once or twice of an evening — and the village gossips say he goes to pay his addresses to the strange lady, and the scandalmongers have greedily seized the rumour, to make it the basis of their own infernal structure,” said I.
“Well, but Gilbert, there must be something in her manner to countenance such reports.”
“Did you see anything in her manner?”
“No, certainly; but then, you know, I always said there was something strange about her.”
In the Preface to the second edition of the book, published in 1848, Anne Bronte (writing as Acton Bell) addresses the critics who find the story coarse and brutal for depicting such negative scenes of married life. She answers that truth is better than falsehood and “to represent a bad thing in its least offensive light” is the least honest or safe for a writer. Characters like Arthur Huntingdon do exist and her purpose in telling this story is to warn both young men and women of the pitfalls of a marriage when you see it only through rose colored glasses–you must get to know the person.
So I answer my own question about the relevancy of classics with a resounding YES! Reading books written more than a hundred years ago with characters who are experiencing the same issues we are connects us to the past by opening our eyes to, in this case, perennial injustices in which we have evolved somewhat, but still have a long way to go. We may see ourselves in these characters and learn from their mistakes and triumphs. And what a way to respect the past than by heeding Bronte’s advice and her characters who lived exactly 170 years ago.
Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Full plot summary
Classic Club List, Classic Club Spin, Victorian Reading Challenge