Fictional heroines have been a problem for some time. Consider the classic heroine, who was cherished for her geniality, innocence, and—above all—her purity. Often, this veneration of sexual purity produced static female characters whose only power seemed to be waiting patiently for a union with an undeserving man who indulged himself while single.
Thankfully, heroines have progressed. And we see the beginnings of these protagonists in the Brontë sisters’ novels. Most readers may be familiar with Emily Brontë’s Catherine or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane, but lesser known is a heroine of Anne Brontë, Helen Huntingdon.
The First Feminist Novel
Lauded as one of the first feminist novels by some critics, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall judiciously critiques the role of the husband and wife in nineteenth-century marriage. Readers get a heroine who is cherished for more than her sexual purity and usefulness to her husband. Helen is intelligent, passionate, and an active force within the novel.
We’re first introduced to Anne Brontë’s heroine as Helen Graham, a mysterious widow who soon gains the attention of Gilbert Markham. As their friendship grows, Helen makes it clear their relationship cannot ever become romantic, even though their romantic interest is evident. Eventually, we learn that Helen’s husband Arthur is living, but she has left him to make a new home for her and her son. Arthur is a serial philanderer who refuses to divorce Helen despite his growing disdain and lack of love for her; going into hiding was her only hope for escape.
When I look at Arthur and Helen’s “marriage,” I don’t see one. Arthur seems to care for Helen throughout their courtship and at the start of their marriage, but his drinking and love for women soon usurps her place. By the time Helen runs away, he has repeatedly broken his wedding vows, freely sleeping with other women and verbally abusing his wife. He makes it known that Helen exists only as housekeeper and mother: their union is solely a legal one, but he refuses a separation, imprisoning her within his home and within a legal system that favors men and neglects women.
Brontë’s vivid depiction of Arthur’s cruelty apparently displeased her original readers, since she felt the need to defend it: “When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear.” While exaggerated, this unhappy marriage was a warning to readers. During their courtship, Helen knew that Arthur was prone to vice, but she thought she had the power to better her partner, declaring at one point that she will “save him from [his sins].”
The concept of a “good girl” saving a “bad boy” is hardly new. Just as earlier fictional heroines gave themselves over to the benefit of their wayward partners, and modern stories are occasionally littered with the same plot line (think Grease), so Helen promises to give herself over to the sanctification of her soon-to-be husband. “The Scriptures are open to him,” Helen’s aunt warns her, “if he hears not them, neither will he hear though one rose from the dead.”
Helen ignores her aunt’s advice. They marry, and Helen attempts to live out her rash promise to “save” her husband as best she can. Soon, she realizes she’s unable. At one point Arthur, mad at Helen since her devotion to her Christian faith is greater than that to himself, declares, “To my thinking, a woman’s religion ought not to lessen her devotion to her earthly lord.” She responds, “What are you, sir, that you should set yourself up as a god, and presume to dispute possession of my heart with Him to whom I owe all I have and all I am?”
Helen sees rightly: Arthur’s understanding likens the idea of a husband to that of a god. Arthur’s concern is less for her Christian faith than it is on his perceived threat to his comfort. Helen’s devotion to God (along with any other personal interest) apparently means less attention for him. While Arthur increasingly indulges his worldly interests, Helen is expected to make their home a place of worship—to him. She continues to keep her wedding vows and her place in their home, but she rejects the culturally accepted idea that a wife’s place is at the feet of her husband.
Brontë’s intention for marriage is the sanctification of both husband and wife, and we see this through the reformation of a Mr. Hattersley. Mr. Hattersley has lived similarly to Arthur, indulgent and selfish, and he marries Helen’s friend Millicent because he believes she will not try to reform him. After Helen confronts him, Mr. Hattersley renounces his egotistical lifestyle. Millicent thanks Helen, but Helen explains that Millicent could have done the confronting herself. Mr. Hattersley agrees: “You never tried me, Milly.”
It seems unfair, some might argue, that most of the sanctifying is enacted by the wife. This is further complicated in the novel when one man divorces his sexually promiscuous wife and later remarries a devoted, morally upright woman. There is no reformation (or even attempt at salvation) for the promiscuous woman, and she later dies penniless and alone.
This problem is deepened in a culminating act of (seemingly) marital devotion on Helen’s behalf toward the end of the novel. Even though Helen has the opportunity to live on her own, she returns to nurse Arthur back to health when she hears that he is sick. Arthur seems to deserve his sickness: his degenerate lifestyle has caught up with him and his lovers and friends have deserted him. Yet Helen returns.
Compelled by Christ
At first glance, it may seem that Brontë is suggesting that submitting oneself to a tyrannical, cheating husband is exactly what an upstanding Christian woman should do. It may also seem that women can only be effective in relation to the opposite sex. But this is a feminist novel just as much as it is a Christian one.
Helen does not subject herself to the headship of her abuser or to the bonds of a traditional marriage when she returns to serve her husband: her return is only under the condition that he acts appropriately toward her and their son. Helen makes him sign a contract that will allow her and her son to leave whenever she wishes, which provides legal autonomy. At another point, when Arthur briefly tries to win her affection with promises and compliments, she resolutely states that she does not and cannot ever feel marital affection for him again. She didn’t return to play house, humor romantic fantasies, or subject herself to her abuser.
Maybe her reason to return is more controversial. Helen credits her conscience, which is informed by the faith that she has clung to in the midst of her trials and mistakes, and we see her motivation more clearly as she persistently preaches the gospel to her husband.
When Arthur is close to death, in desperation he wishes that Helen could die too so she could solicit God’s favor for him. She explains that she can’t: “It cost more to redeem . . . souls—it cost the blood of an incarnate God, perfect and sinless in Himself, to redeem us from the bondage of the evil one: let Him plead for you.” It’s evidently the gospel that has led Helen to return to her enemy and show love for him, just as God showed love to her.
Helen forgives, serves, and loves because she is compelled by her Christian faith, proving that she is the most efficacious character within the novel. While others respond to lusts, passions, societal expectations, or forces outside of themselves, Helen manages to resist them, acting in light of a higher authority.
While Helen’s return to her unworthy husband is the culminating illustration of self-sacrifice in order to achieve eternal happiness for another, it also seems to suggest that a spouse should return to someone who has repeatedly broken their marriage vows—whether by verbal abuse, adultery, or other vices. It should be noted that as Brontë’s creation, Helen acts within the fictional confines of a text written in the nineteenth century. Brontë and the formalities of the nineteenth century protect Helen: she is constantly surrounded by hired staff and is no longer subjected to her husband’s cruelty. Her choice to return is descriptive of Helen and her circumstances, not prescriptive for women who see their own life reflected in Helen’s.
Additionally, Brontë does not treat Arthur sentimentally and he does not die a suddenly changed man. While she cares for his soul, Brontë does not give him a happy ending, and he seems to go to the grave unrepentant.
A Warning for Women
So why subject Helen to such a marriage? Brontë’s introduction sheds some light on this: “I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, [and] with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be . . . to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own.” Brontë’s goal is equally to warn readers of men like Arthur and to provide realistic, female characters with the ability to act on their own behalf.
Helen is not a domesticated doormat. No, she is an active force who acts according to what she knows is right and wrong. She acts outside of the expectations of her family, social roles, and gendered expectations.
Helen is an agent of good throughout the novel, enacting lasting change to those within her sphere of influence. A quasi-Christ figure, she literally and metaphorically exhorts her friends to “go and sin no more.” Brontë elevates the role of Helen, showing the detriment of a woman who follows the whims of her husband and the benefit of a woman who follows her God-informed conscience.
In light of the heroines who have gone before, Helen is not a woman who changes men through her sexual purity but through the work of God within her. For the fictional heroine, Helen Huntingdon is progress.
Cover image by Abigail Keenan