‘You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827’ writes Gilbert Markham to his friend Jack Halford in 1847, ‘I know you like a long story, and are as great a stickler for particularities and circumstantial details as my grandmother, so I will not spare you’ and so he begins to recount the story of his meeting with Helen Graham. Gloomy Wildfell Hall has been shut for years, but word comes to the neighbourhood that a mysterious single lady has been seen occupying a few of the rooms with a young child. The chatter begins amongst the local families as they speculate and vie for information and invitations.
We know that she’s an artist, that she is alone with her son Arthur and one trustworthy servant and we know that there’s a secret and that she’s afraid – but what has happened? Helen takes Gilbert into her confidence and dramatically thrusts her diary into his hands.
‘Bring it back when you have read it; and don’t breathe a word of what it tells you to any living being – I trust to your honour.’
And so we learn about Helen’s past. Living with her uncle and aunt they take her to London for the season where against all advice she determines to marry Arthur Huntingdon, a handsome ‘wildish’ young man. As the diary goes on and the months become years, Huntingdon’s already obnoxious behaviour becomes increasingly cruel. Now parents’ Huntingdon fills the house with his friends (including the unscrupulous Annabella and her weak willed husband), for months at a time. Always drunk they goad Helen by plying the toddler with alcohol and encouraging him to abuse his mother while they fall about laughing, which in turn the child loves. Finally he moves his mistress into the house and Helen is trapped. But she is resolved to save her son and to do this she must escape, make an independent life and successfully earn her living. Written in 1848 this is powerful stuff, Helen is flouting the law as well as shocking social conventions as women and children were still the subject of their husbands control.
Anne Brontë was writing from experience as she had lived with her brother Branwell’s addictions and knowledge of his affair with the mistress of the house in which they were both employed. She says that she wishes ‘to tell the truth’ with this story and I thought there was a clarity and honesty in the writing that made it painfully real. Brontë doesn’t play to our sympathies, Helen is not a warm character, she is bound by a sense of christian duty and piousness which I found very boring but the sense of deterioration goes beyond their marriage; for just as Huntingdon is lost in addiction, trying to keep up with his younger friends, so Helen becomes hard and embittered, older than her years.
Brontë felt bitterly that education was to blame. That boys are taught to ‘rush into the snares of life,- to seek temptation for the sake of exercising (their) virtue by overcoming it’, whilst girls are taught ‘to be tenderly and delicately nurtured,- taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil.’ So that neither is actually prepared for life. Helen, in her naiveté is full of self-righteousness, sure that she can change Huntingdon on their marriage and save his soul, even though all the signs are there of his worthless character; and Huntingdon has been indulged all his life, he’s utterly selfish, treating everyone that doesn’t humour him with scorn and ridicule leaving him an easy target for swindlers and hangers on.
But despite the intense emotions recorded in the diary entries I’m afraid this narrative device kept me removed from them, so that it felt strangely flat for such high drama. I wish Helen was telling Gilbert about her past, a conversation would have felt much more alive. But at the end of the diary the narrative moves back to Gilbert’s letters and the story telling becomes much more lively. A cast of characters, conversation, misunderstandings and carriages that move swiftly through the night. I won’t give away the ending but I do love the constant excitement of Gilbert’s voice:
‘Winged by this hope, and goaded by these fears, I hurried homewards to prepare for my departure on the morrow.’
He brings some much needed gaiety!
I read that this was an immediate success on publication, it must have caused an enormous stir with its frank view of a marriage. In 1848 she wrote a preface to the second edition where she spells out her aim:
‘My object in writing the following pages, was not simply to amuse the Reader. . . I know that such characters do exist, and if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.’
Despite my problems with the diary device I’m very glad to have read this and really admire Anne Brontë for being so outspoken in her complete belief in equality and the importance of education and am looking forward to Agnes Grey.