... how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried - doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!
Anne Bronte's novel explores emotional abuse - in this case, within a marriage. She also looks at the bigger picture of how abuse may be condoned, ignored, or encouraged by the surrounding culture.
The narrator, Gilbert Markham, meets a woman who has moved with her young son to Wildfell Hall, a home in his neighborhood. He comes to know her as Helen Graham, a widow who paints for a living. After a serious misunderstanding, she gives Gilbert her journal, which explains her marriage and her flight from an abusive husband. Until that point, Gilbert was the sole narrator. The journal focuses the novel on Helen's voice and story. A woman finding a way to express her usually buried thoughts or live independently through writing and art is an important theme (one that I remember emerging in Charlotte Bronte's Villette and Jane Eyre too). Helen's husband destroys her paintings at one point. In another scene, she fights off an attempted rape (from one of her husband's guests) by using a palette-knife, a tool of her art.
The emotional abuse within the marriage is a soul-crushing force. Helen, for instance, tries not to show emotion, because she knows her husband is watching her closely and relishing her distress. Hiding emotions and thoughts from abusive people is a typical defense, but it can destroy you in the long-run. You bury everything that they can use against you, but what you bury may become lost to you, and you die inside.
Helen also worries about the long-term effects of living with someone coarse and degrading. ("Things that formerly shocked and disgusted me now seem only natural.") Then there's the question of her son.
As in her other novel, Agnes Gray, Anne Bronte explores how children are socialized in damaging ways. Although she focuses on children from the upper classes, her concerns have relevance beyond that social sphere or the place and time she lived in. She observes boys regularly encouraged to be cruel and domineering and girls who aren't taught anything important about the world, even with respect to personal relationships that will define their life.
"I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path: nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power, or the will, to watch and guard herself..."Helen's main justification for leaving her husband - at a time when this wasn't legally or socially acceptable - is to spare her son from his influence. It's not really for her own sake.
Which is part of the problem - she can't do it only for herself. She has fully absorbed the idea (an idea enforced with severe legal restrictions) that a wife has to stay with her husband, and what's more, that she has to be the one to save him. The dynamic of the marriage is that he's a spoiled destructive child, and she's the mother figure who needs to teach him better and attend to his whims. Another way of looking at it is that she should be the angel of the home, sacrificing herself no matter what. Bronte shows the mental and emotional deterioration that results.
Interestingly, before her marriage, Helen had a choice between two men. One was a condescending bore who would have treated her like a child. The second man - the one who became her husband - winds up being the child in the marriage, though with adult power at his disposal. (Initially, he had come across as charming, lively, and intelligent, which is also common in abusive people.) Either marriage would have made someone an infant.
That's one of the qualities I like about this novel. It's unsparing in how it takes apart adult relationships and explores the distortions arising from individual temperaments, the way people are raised, and societal rules and norms surrounding marriage. Helen and Gilbert get their happy ending, but only after a number of chance meetings and obstacles that in real life would probably be insurmountable.
(I'm also thinking of Charlotte Bronte, and how the happy ending in Jane Eyre comes with important conditions, including Jane's independent fortune and Rochester's diminished physical power. Then there's the ambivalent ending in Villette, in which you don't actually know if the narrator and her love interest wind up marrying. These endings reflect deep skepticism about the kind of happiness women could enjoy in a real-life marriage in the authors' day and age.)
Helen is not the only woman Bronte "saves" in the novel, giving her a happier ending than the one she'd likely find in real life. An "old maid" who is overlooked by most people and taken for granted also finds a husband who appreciates her. Even as she's stuck in an unbearable situation of her own, Helen helps other women. One is a friend married to an aggressive drunk; Helen's intervention helps their relationship improve. The other is a younger woman whose family is pressuring her to marry a cruel man; Helen helps her resist their demands. Helen attempts to work within a system of laws and values that work against her.
When Gilbert meets Helen, she lives mostly in seclusion with her son - which can't be healthy for the boy either. Bronte is asking how people can develop the capacity for love, respect, kindness, and a thoughtful morality in a culture that frequently tramples on those qualities. In the novel, individuals manage to communicate with each other, largely in private, and exert an influence on each other's lives in this more limited way. Can these personal interactions have an effect on the broader culture?
(This one was on my Classics Club list.)