Infidelity in Victorian England: Double Standards Based on Gender and Class

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wild fell Hall is a novel in which the plights of the female protagonist overlap with the issues faced by the majority of women in the Victorian Era of England. The book raises questions of the Brontës’ family’s sisters own experience with infidelity, alcoholism, and overall debauchery pertaining to the men in their life. The sisters shared the two men closest to them, Branwell and their father Patrick, as well as the escapades that came with these family members, specifically Branwell. Branwell was well known for his inability to keep a job, however he is more similar to Arthur Huntingdon, the abusive antagonist of the novel, in their shared love of alcohol, gambling, and adultery whether within their own respective relationships or the relationships of other prestigious community members. Huntingdon’s wife Helen is the female protagonist of the novel, though she faces criticism throughout for her inability to detach herself from her physically and emotionally abusive husband. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an introduction to a more shocking variety of the Brontës’ literature; the novel covers topics that were not considered acceptable for social conversations, but aimed more towards the Victorian women who felt gossip was just as acceptable as intellectual conversations. However, it is not simply about adultery, but also the unfair repercussions women in this time period faced vs. their male significant others, and how those below a certain social class could not legally separate because of the literal high cost of divorce. There lies the motivation of Helen Huntingdon to stay somewhat attached to the man she married; as a woman in this time Helen’s rights were already diminished; by divorcing her husband, Helen faced the very real possibility of losing her son, any money she brought into the marriage, and all standing in the social world.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is based around the obsession surrounding the newest occupant of a long-forgotten vacant building. While she does not make it easier on herself by hiding, the people of the surrounding area are instantly overtaken by a necessity to know and understand the beautiful woman who has just moved in. Helen Graham is her name, and she leads a quiet life with her young son Arthur, both are purposely removed from the hustle and bustle of the local town. This unwillingness to throw herself into the social scene causes a frenzy in itself; local males are interested in the prospect of a new woman to woo, while local females are instantly jealous of the splash this young woman is not attempting to make. Soon our main protagonist, Gilbert Markham, finds himself unable to ignore the gossip and slander of the townspeople that do not know her and vows to make it his mission to uncover the entire truth around her spontaneous arrival and the questions that surround it. He learns the woman’s name is actually Helen Huntingdon, and, over time, it is revealed she is on the run from the alcoholic, abusive father of her only child who shares his father’s name. She has assumed a different name and taken on this quiet persona in an attempt to prevent him from coming and taking not only their child, but any chance said child had at growing up to be a young man of exceptional character. However, it becomes quite clear that Helen is incapable of severing her relationship with Arthur Huntingdon completely; his hold on her is legal as well as emotional and Helen cannot help but be drawn back to him in his time of need. As Arthur is preparing to die Helen returns to his side to make him as comfortable as possible, though it is not until after his death that she herself can truly be free and comfortable. Throughout this time Gilbert has not heard from her or of her until there is announcement for her marriage. Quickly he races to her, only to find that the wedding is between Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s brother, and Helen’s friend, Esther Hargrave. Though he fears Helen is far above him in terms of status and wealth, the two come back together as lovers and marry. Victorian England is a setting in which women were more often than not seen as lesser than their male counterparts; whether it be in the world of business transactions or relationships, though these two were often synonymous. Marriage, especially in the gentry, was more about the social, political, and economic ramifications than the wants of the two young adults involved. (Nicolaou 8) Feelings were often considered unnecessary to a new relationship, instead couples would learn to live with each other and eventually produce children to carry on the family legacy and, more importantly, the family name. A natural consequence of these relationships was the mistreatment of significant others through adulterous behavior; often these secret relationships were between the male head of the household and a young lady who has caught his eye, if only for her forbidden nature. Beginning in the era of King Henry VIII, an aura of cynicism surrounded marriage as his own divorce cracked the already fragile relationship between subject and king. From there secularization took ahold of England “…the most common eighteenth-century term to indicate changing attitudes towards religion was the spread of ‘infidelity.’” (Patricia Corfield 1) Defined in the dictionary as transferring from the power of the church to a civil or lay power, marriage was no longer a sacred bond between man and woman; instead, families looked to merge their blood lines in hopes of saving money as well as keeping the gentry in its safe, little, bubble. Desire to marry outside of one’s class was either seen as incredibly rebellious and idiotic or insanely optimistic, depending on the direction one would like to move on the class pyramid. These are the building blocks on which marriages of a purely financial or social sort were based.

Growing up with an older brother such as Branwell, Anne Brontë was exposed to a life of hard drinking, opium addiction, and blatant favoritism based on gender; though this life was not her own. As Patricia Ingham notes, Branwell was “talented, vain, ambitious, but given to dissipation and depression. (Ingham 9) Anne was merely a bystander watching the life of her brother, three years her superior, as he drank away his business opportunities, any formal training he received, and any sort of creative outlet that had come his way. His painting career was going nowhere and his inability to write left the remaining Brontë sisters to write literally for their lives. They would now become the breadwinners of the household as they all quickly realized the men in their life could not provide such a comfort. Branwell is important to the idea of infidelity and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because of his own brush with infidelity, or more specifically a married woman. (Spark 17) Furthermore, his dangerous lifestyle is perfect inspiration for the antagonist of the novel, Mr. Huntingdon; as mentioned before both Arthur and Branwell seem to take kindly to a bottle of whatever alcohol is closest accompanied by rather inappropriate, shameful behavior. Lisa Surridge writes about the comparison between animals who have been abused by their owners, and women who have faced abuse from their husbands though she admits this comparison was first made by Anne Brontë. Anne found the “female passivity” and “doctrine of the closed home” in novels pre-dating her own disgusting; the attempt to normalize marital abuse in these novels was in disagreement with the ideals in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. (Surridge 73) There is also a discussion of the meaning of masculinity within this novel, Helen faces drunkenness, marital infidelity, gambling, and swearing from Arthur, yet his friends do not see this as abuse. Rather, in the upper-class circles Mr. Huntingdon was a part of this behavior was seen as manly, as noted by Juliet McMaster. This is a statement not only about the differing views on marriage and the treatment of women, but also about how members of varying social classes approached married life. The “masculine domestic behavior” noted by Surridge was deliberately chosen by Anne Brontë as a way to portray the unacceptable treatment of woman in the Victorian regency.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a novel that exposed a dark secret among many Victorian upper-class families. The discussion this novel began was one many husbands and even a few wives did not want to have; Anne Brontë brought the very real issue of abuse and adultery into the private home and created a dialogue on a topic that previously remained in the shadows. This was not Anne’s first encounter with adultery however; her brother, Branwell, as mentioned previously, had been responsible for assisting his mistress and boss in committing adultery against her husband. Branwell thus provided an obvious inspiration for the antagonist of TWH, though Anne had hoped he would grow from his experiences and exit a life of blasphemous behavior, no such day ever came. It seems Anne was not the only one who wished her brother would feel remorse for his life of sin and worldly pleasures; Charlotte also had hopes that Branwell would seek forgiveness and repent, especially in his last days on this earth. (Thormählen 119) This is one additional parallel between Arthur Huntingdon and Branwell Brontë, both found themselves on their death bed with loved ones wishing they would seek God and the forgiveness He so openly offers. However, Branwell finally strays from his alter-ego, he repents and asks God to accept him and to forgive him for the life he has lead.

The build-up of deceitful behavior at his first post comes to a head when Anne so kindly gives him work at the same estate as herself. Though this gives Anne a front-row seat to the drama that will unfold it also casts a shadow on the Brontë name throughout the tutoring and governess world. Perhaps Anne had just grown too frustrated with Branwell’s selfish actions and his disregard for how these actions would affect the very sister that helped him to earn his job, but her creation of the character Arthur Huntingdon is easily a direct comparison to her brother. His choice to carry on an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of the man who was not only Branwell’s boss but also Anne’s. (Spark 18) For close to three years this affair carried on under the nose of these two Brontës’ employer, though when it ended Branwell had become so deeply involved that he believed it was truly love, a claim backed up by no one. (Lewis) This plays quite a role in the creation of Mr. Huntingdon and, by complete accident, exemplifies the process of infidelity and the reactions once it is found out.

Helen Huntingdon’s biggest fears regarding her husband Arthur come from a place of true terror; taking away her son is a completely legitimate option for him, as he is the male in the relationship and therefore has quite a few more legal rights and options regarding the fate of his son. Even though Arthur is the one who has committed adultery in his relationship with Helen, she knows she must abide by his wishes to stay in the house until she can figure out a way to literally escape her marriage and her own home. In Victorian England, there were few laws that supported women in their attempts to legally divorce their husbands and even fewer to assist them in winning possession of any sort of estate, wealth, or even the children. This is not to say a man attempting to receive a religious and secular divorce had it easy; the hoops most husbands had to jump through were somewhat ridiculous and included getting two witnesses to testify to the relationship’s good-standing before the wife committed adultery. This being said it was often found that adultery in women was a “…sustained campaign by her husband to find enough proof to justify a divorce.” (Nicolaou 107-108) Much like the observations of Anne on her dearest and only brother Branwell, Helen Huntingdon noticed the increase in the pattern of drinking, gambling, and general moral decay in her husband as time went on. Though for a man this would have been enough to begin the case for a divorce, Helen did not have the servants on her side to be her witnesses or to even corroborate her side of the story. Seeing as Mr. Huntingdon was the head of the household he could guarantee these servants regular employment for keeping their mouths shut or for saying whatever he needed them to, especially when it came to his loveless relationship with Helen. This wasn’t a rare occurrence in Victorian England, servants often were used in divorce cases as witnesses for the husband who could afford to keep them on the payroll once his wife was gone. (Nicolaou 109)

Another difficulty of divorce in the Victorian Era was the cost; the price to leave a loveless marriage was around $64,000 in today’s estimation. (Nicolaou 108) This means that those below a certain social class could not be guaranteed a divorce at all, often resulting in separations where both parties were still legally married with no interest in being together at all. For women, it was necessary to consider social standing in a marriage not only to increase her own wealth if the marriage is to succeed, but also because if the marriage fails she needs to have options in considering a divorce. (Nicolaou 20) Furthermore, social classes came into play as men who beat their wives often resided in the higher social classes where gossip was kept to a whisper and offering to help was not a feasible option lest you commit a social atrocity. The men of the upper classes have also been taught that wives are similar to “…domestic animals abused by their owners.” (Surridge 73) These men were able to hid behind their money and influence to ensure they’re discretions, in this case physically, emotionally, and mentally beating their wives, was not an issue with local law enforcement or government. Comparably, men in even slightly lower classes who held less local influence and who had less money still could not hide behind such privilege. Gilbert is our best example of this and he is seen as “puppy” by Helen (Brontë 14) until he truly begins “exerting rule” over those who surround him. (Brontë 8)

Works Cited

Nicolaou, Maria. Divorced, Beheaded, Sold: Ending an English Marriage 1500-1847. Pen and Sword, 2014.

“Real-Life Brontë scandal.” York Press, 8 Nov. 2011, www.yorkpress.co.uk/features/features/9372502.Real_life_Bront___scandal/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017.

“Branwell Bronte Biography.” Haworth, www.haworth-village.org.uk/brontes/branwell/branwell.asp. Accessed 21 Apr. 2017.

Spark, Muriel. The Essence of the Brontës : A Compilation with Essays. Carcanet Press Ltd, 2014.

Valbuena, Olga L. Subjects to the king’s divorce: equivocation, infidelity, and resistance in early modern England. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2003.

Thormählen, Marianne. The Brontës and Religion. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Surridge, Lisa A. Bleak Houses : Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Ohio University Press, 2005. Ingham, P. (2006). The Brontës. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Surridge, L. A. (2005). Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Leave a Comment