Societal Shifts in the Victorian Era: Marriage, Men, and Domesticity Analyzing Chapter 16 of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Victorian Era is defined by the societal alterations that developed over the time period. This is particularly true when concerning wives, mothers, domesticity, and the like. Throughout portions of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the relationship between Helen and her aunt, Peggy Maxwell, portrays this ever-present dichotomy in the face of change. In particular, views regarding men and marriage demonstrate a clear separation in view between the two characters. On one hand, Helen is a young, proper, and originally energetic young woman, keen on finding a man who is both suitable to her guardians as well as the love of her life. On the other hand, Helen’s aunt Peggy is a traditional, conservative, and strict woman that seeks a man who she approves of based on a series of time-honored norms. Specifically, Helen and Peggy’s differences concerning the type of man Helen should marry, how said man should be arranged for marriage, and the domestic role of the wife in the Victorian Era all present the ideologies of dueling generations in an era that was rather hesitant to rapid change.
The proper traits of a man for Helen to marry was a rather contentious topic between the young woman and her aunt. Take for example Helen’s first encounter with her future husband, Mr. Huntington. After seeing Helen in the forced clutches of the much elder Mr. Boarham (whom she was set up with by her aunt) Mr. Huntington essentially saves her by asking for a dance. After a dance, Helen is –much to her displeasure – rushed to an early exit by her aunt in which Mr. Huntington helps her to prepare for her departure (Bronte, 135). In her recollection of this initial rendezvous Helen explains, “I was sorry to go, for I had found my new acquaintance a very lively and entertaining companion. There was a certain graceful ease and freedom about all he said and did, that gave a sense of repose and expansion to the mind, after so much constraint and formality as I had been doomed to suffer” (Bronte, 135). Of course the ‘constraint and formality’ she complains of comes directly from her aunt. Helen finds Mr. Huntington to be refreshing – a young and vigorous man that stood out amongst the old and mundane men her aunt had been advocating for. Yet as expected, Peggy has a rather different view of Mr. Huntington, claiming he is, “… a bit wildish I fancy… destitute of principle, and prone to every vice that is common to youth” (Bronte, 135-36). This instance perfectly explains the changing of the guard, so to speak, that slowly took place throughout the society of the Victorian Era. The old guard sees the ideal man for marriage as established in both age and merit, as Mr. Boarham is much older than Helen and decently wealthy. Yet Helen, the new guard, seeks a man that is ideal in personality and allure, a concept that utterly perplexes her aunt. In advocating for the new guard Helen explains, “… I always judge of peoples characters by their looks – not by whether they are handsome or ugly, but by the general cast of the countenance. For instance, I should know by your countenance that you were not of a cheerful, sanguine disposition…” (Bronte, 136). The last line, a small jab at her aunt, displays said advocating by shining a light on Peggy’s displeasure with Helen’s interest and brief encounter with Mr. Huntington. Rather than going about choosing a man in the proper, old-school, basically pre-Victorian manor Helen is propelling the societal shift towards a young woman’s empowerment in regards to determining the proper traits for a husband.
Choosing a man is one thing; how to go about marriage is a separate issue for the aunt and niece. In Peggy’s eyes, “It is not… to be supposed that you would wish to marry any one, till you were asked; a girls affections should never be won unsought… I want to warn you, Helen… to exhort you to be watchful and circumspect… and not to suffer your heart to be stolen from you by the first foolish or unprincipled person that covets the possession of it” (Bronte, 131). Basically, Peggy is warning Helen to be conservative in going about marriage. In her eyes, Helen should wait for a man to properly court her, to ask for permission for her hand in marriage from her guardians, and to present himself as a genuine gentleman in a traditional context. This is furthered by Peggy in a religious sense when she instructs, “Remember Peter, Helen! Don’t boast but watch. Keep a guard over your eyes and ears as the inlets of your heart, and over your lips as the outlet… Receive, coldly and dispassionately, every attention, till you have considered ascertained and duly considered the worth of the aspirant…” (Bronte, 132). Referring to the biblical Peter Helen is brashly told by her aunt to not concede to what would then be modern temptations of promiscuity and, in her eyes, rushed and rather false love. Initially, Helen does not necessarily go as far as to completely refute this traditional notion, but she does question it by pondering, “But what are all the poor fools and reprobates to do, aunt? If everybody followed your advice the world would soon come to an end” (Bronte, 132). Helen, as a part of the generation of young women becoming eligible bachelorettes, questions what she thinks may be outdated principle. Through slow societal shift Helen has become more open and sympathetic to the potential to marry a man that doesn’t necessarily conform to her aunt’s ideals on how to go about marriage. In fact, although conceding truth in Peggy’s notions of respect and measured considerations concerning how to go about marriage, Helen asserts, “I should not only think it wrong to marry a man that was deficient in sense or in principle, but I should never be tempted to do it… It is needless to say I ought to be able to respect and honour the man I marry as well as love him…” (Bronte, 132-33). In the context of the conversation Helen is acknowledging that it is impossible to go about marrying a delinquent, her aunt is obviously correct in that. But what Helen refutes is larger. Rather than finding attraction in the properness and tradition of approaching matrimony, why can’t Helen simply find a man she loves and save the practices of marriage to their own devises? Helen wants to simply find true love and let the rest settle itself, having a man ask her guardians for her hand in marriage does not necessarily take priority over the potential to love a suitor, and Peggy cannot truly understand this, as she was not a young woman in this era.
Finally, the domestic and interpersonal relations between man and wife become a heated debate between the quarreling women. From Helen’s perspective, a primary domestic duty of the wife is to assist the husband via moral assistance and guidance. This becomes clear when amongst the argument between Helen and her aunt regarding Mr. Huntington, Helen declares, “… I have been well brought up, and had good examples always before me, which he, most likely, has not; – and besides, he is of sanguine temperament, and a gay, thoughtless temper, and I am naturally inclined to reflection…. my sense and my principle are at his service!” (Bronte, 149). Overcome by young love Helen is infatuated with the notion that she can morally balance the relationship between her and the immature Mr. Huntington. However, in the traditional sight Peggy rebutes, “That sounds presumptuous, Helen! Do you think you have enough for both; and do you imagine your merry, thoughtless profligate would allow himself to be guided by a young girl like you?” (Bronte, 149). By contemporary estimation its very likely that Peggy’s conventional wisdom prevails in this instance, while Helen’s young demeanor is getting the best of her. In an age where morally teaching the husband to a point of acceptance is seen by young women as merely a bump in the road may (and in the case of this novel, will) spell doom upon a relationship. While Helen brushes away skepticism her aunt pleads, “Helen, the world may look upon such offences as venial… and thoughtless girls may be glad to win the smiles of so handsome a gentleman… but you, I trusted were better informed than to… judge with their perverted judgement” (Bronte, 150). Instead of a behind-the-times guardian that is hesitant to catch up to modern realities of the Victorian Era, this is an instance of experience attempting to prevail. However, as is typical with this quasi mother-daughter relationship and the rivalry between Victorian societal shifts and a traditional point of view, Helen blatantly ignores her aunt’s argument from experience. To show her displeasure Helen arrogantly refutes that, “… if I hate the sins I love the sinner, and would do much for his salvation…” (Bronte, 150).
Throughout the Victorian Era views on men, marriage, and domesticity slowly but surely shifted from a rather traditional, often biblically charged practice to one of optimism and empowerment for the woman. Throughout chapter sixteen of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the relationship between Helen and her aunt Peggy portrays this without fail. Tradition seeks a man of wealth, merit, and age, while the young Victorian woman seeks one she truly believes she loves regardless of mitigating factors. Tradition seeks marriage via outlined protocol, while the young Victorian woman seeks to quell the importance of formality, although they may still conform to such. Perhaps the only instance, in this case, where the tradition seems more acceptable is in regards to the domestic relationship between man and wife. Tradition seeks a relationship where the woman is assured of her husband’s loyalty and maturity, while the young Victorian woman seeks to help her husband become morally sound and mature. Overall, while the societal shifts of the era in this case typically seem to be positive, Helen, at least in one instance, fails to recognize the importance of the experience the traditional point of view brings to the table. In other words, change is often good, but only if it is built upon a foundation from the preceding era.
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