The Redemptive Work of Silence: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

If you have not already read my post about Anne Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey, you can find that here. The post includes some insights about Brontë’s faith and how it motivated her characters and storylines. Brontë’s second and final novel was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. At the time of its initial publication, the novel was seen as a scandalous fantasy about a dysfunctional marriage and moral depravity, so much so that Charlotte Brontë suppressed the publication of the novel for nearly a decade after Anne’s death. Anne’s short career and her sister’s portrayal of her as a timid, sheltered, and mostly untalented girl led to Anne’s works and importance as an author going largely unnoticed for over a century. Only in the past fifty or so years have scholars begun to revisit Anne’s works and notice what her contemporaries failed to see: she had crafted a nuanced and insightful narrative with an understanding of domestic violence that was 150 years ahead of its time. In that respect, Anne’s life has much of its own to tell us about the work of silence, and how long it can take for things of value and truth to be recognized as such.

Tenant opens on a young man, Gilbert Markham, who has set aside any occupational ambitions he may have had to continue farming his deceased father’s land. Generally, Gilbert is a good guy. He is obedient to his mother without complaint or diffidence. He is faithful in his work, though his job falls short of his potential. He is temperate with alcohol, he doesn’t engage in inappropriate humor, and he is kind to animals, all of which run hard against the grain of the toxic masculine trends of his day. So far, Brontë has cut him out to be her ideal Christian man. But Gilbert is not perfect. He can come off as arrogant, he doesn’t have a good rein on his emotions, and his boredom with his life causes him to maintain a flirtatious relationship with a flighty young woman he knows his mother dislikes. In a way, Gilbert has occupied himself with the empty noise of life, being swept along both by external expectations and internal immaturities. 

Gilbert meets a young widow, Helen, and her son, who have recently moved to his town. Helen has already been making a reputation for herself – she comes off as antisocial and highly opinionated, and she refuses to be separated from her son for any length of time. It does not take long for Gilbert and Helen to butt heads – Helen has no patience for people trying to apply the general wisdom of the day to her specific situation. Gilbert is slightly annoyed by Helen, but their subsequent encounters pique his interest. She is intelligent and serious in a way that he has not found among his usual companions, and her rigid morality and personal boundaries challenge him to hold himself to a higher standard around her. Before long, Gilbert falls in love with Helen, and he is confident she loves him as well.

His supposed happiness is complicated by two factors. The first is that any time he tries to get closer to Helen, she rebuffs him and it takes an increasing amount of time to earn her trust back. The second is that rumors begin swirling around town that not only is Helen carrying on with her landlord, Frederick, but that he is actually the father of her child. Gilbert vehemently defends Helen to the town gossips, but one evening he catches Helen and Frederick in a seemingly intimate moment. When Frederick later approaches Gilbert on the road, Gilbert assaults him, his conflicted emotions spilling out against the bewildered landlord. Helen angrily confronts Gilbert, saying that she had thought he was someone she could trust, but his recent petulance and judgmental attitude have called that into question. She leaves him with her diary, saying that will explain everything, and then Gilbert can decide how he feels about her.

It turns out that Helen is not a widow, but a wife fleeing an abusive marriage. She took her son and ran away because wives were not legally permitted to divorce their husbands. Helen’s husband, Arthur, is dissolute in every way common to their society: he drinks in excess, he carries on an affair with his friend’s wife, and he is shockingly abusive and manipulative toward Helen and his friends. All of these things were bearable to Helen, but it was ultimately the fear that her young son would one day imitate her husband’s behavior that made her resolve to leave. 

Despite all of this, Helen still feels the moral obligation to remain faithful to Arthur. More than that, Helen maintains hope that Arthur will one day repent, not for her own sake, but for his. It is this fidelity that made her keep Gilbert at arm’s length, and it is that sense of obligation which calls her back to her husband’s side when she hears that he is gravely ill. 

As he watches the life he hoped for slip out of his hands, silence begins its work in Gilbert’s life, silence that had already been long at work in Helen’s.

Helen had already been aware of some of Arthur’s moral failings when they married. She had been strongly warned by her aunt not to marry him, but Helen haughtily disregarded this warning. Helen believed a notion common to many, that if she lived a righteous life and modeled loving God and others to Arthur, he would be instructed and influenced by her good conduct. But Arthur had no interest in Helen’s teaching, nor her faith, nor her love – he was only interested in indulging his passions. No amount of Helen’s instruction could shape him if he didn’t want to change. So Helen stopped trying to change him, and tried her best to live a worthwhile and faithful life in spite of him, hoping for the day when God would reconcile the two of them, even if that day was not until eternity. Helen learned to live in silence.

But Helen’s silence was not passive, nor servile, nor fearful. Helen still retained every bit of her moral resolve, every bit of her fighting spirit. While her husband would not listen to her, she knew others would. While her husband was not teachable, others were, and those who Helen counted as friends benefited from her encouragement, her exhortation, and occasionally her confrontation. And while she was content to wait for God to fix her relationship with her husband, she knew she could not let her son suffer for it, so she sought safety even if she couldn’t have freedom. 

This same resolution is how Helen could bear with the insensitive and judgmental “insights” of her new neighbors. They scorned her because they thought she was prideful and hostile, but she knew that she was not only living in the way that was best for her and her son but also living in the way she knew was right before God. Their approval was of no consequence to her, except for that of Gilbert, and though she desired his approval, she would not let that desire cause her to stumble. 

When Helen is called back to her husband’s sickbed, she returns with hopes that his nearness to death will cause him to repent and be reconciled to God. But Arthur persists in his folly and only wants Helen to pray for God to be merciful to him. In time, Arthur dies, and Helen is freed. 

At this point, the audience would expect Gilbert to run to Helen’s side, now that there are no moral obstacles between them. But Gilbert doesn’t do that. This time of separation and silence from Helen has been a time of growth for the young man. For the months that Helen had been tending to Arthur, Gilbert’s only way of hearing about Helen was through Frederick, who is revealed to be Helen’s brother. Frederick dislikes Gilbert, not only because Gilbert is too low-born for someone of his sister’s stratum, but also because Gilbert has demonstrated a serious lack of control over his emotions and temper. And Frederick is not wrong. While Gilbert has many excellent qualities, his hot-headedness makes him a poor match for a woman who has suffered significant long-term spousal abuse. Gilbert quickly learns that in order to get any information about Helen, he has to exercise patience and equanimity as he befriends Frederick and earns his trust.

The mandatory period of silence between Gilbert and Helen while Arthur still lived cultivated something new in Gilbert: a willingness to be silent because it was the wise and kind thing to do, not merely because it was necessary. Gilbert comes to understand some very important dynamics about his relationship with Helen. When Helen came to his town, she was in reduced circumstances and depended on Gilbert’s kindness as her only true friend. It would be presumptive, even manipulative, to present himself to her as a suitor now, when it could be seen as an attempt to elevate his own circumstances. Furthermore, Gilbert is aware that Helen has had a very difficult life that cannot easily be recovered from. She needs time to grieve and to find a new kind of stability and safety for herself and her son. So for a full year after Arthur’s death, Gilbert does nothing to pursue Helen. He doesn’t even ask Frederick for information about her, only receiving what Frederick elects to tell him. He resolves to move on with his life and let Helen have her peace.

That is, until he hears that Helen is going to marry. Hilariously, Gilbert loses all of his equanimity and races to the church to stop the wedding, only to find out that it is actually Frederick who is getting married. Hardly knowing what to do with himself, Gilbert makes his way to Helen’s estate and stands outside, wondering whether this fit of passion means he should try and reconnect with her or walk away. Just as he once again resolves to leave Helen alone, she happens upon him and gladly invites him into her home. Completely convinced of how unsuitable a husband he would be for Helen, Gilbert successfully reins in all of the feelings of affection and longing that threaten to burst out of him. In fact, he does this so successfully that Helen briefly thinks he no longer cares for her. But the confusion is quickly dispelled, and the couple resolve to marry. There is a humorous exchange between them, with Gilbert trying to negotiate an earlier wedding date, and in this we see that while he still likes to push boundaries a bit and is driven by his emotions, his strongest drive is to be a blessing to Helen.  

Through Gilbert and Helen’s story, we see silence working in two different ways. For Gilbert, sitting in silence made him more gentle and understanding, someone who could truly put aside his own desires in order to do what was best for the woman he loved. For Helen, silence emboldened her to stand firmly for not only what she believed but also what she deserved as God’s image-bearer.

As believers, silence can be a profoundly difficult time, but it is never without hope. Sometimes we don’t know why God has delayed our hopes, or why he seems reticent to make something clear. Like Gilbert, we are invited in those moments to learn to hold our passions and not let them overwhelm us. Because we know God is good, we can trust him to eventually bring us to a good place, a place where our experiences begin to take on meaning and we find the beginnings of peace and contentment. Like Helen, sometimes we are subjected to abuse by those who are supposed to protect and honor us. When we trust in God, we can be free from bitterness for that person and desire their repentance while also finding the boldness to speak truth to them and not submit to their oppression. Like Helen, even if we are staunchly trusting in God and walking in his ways, sometimes the silence around us prompts others to judge us or give unhelpful advice about how changing our conduct could change our circumstances. We don’t have to give those words any credence if we know we are right before God. He will vindicate us at the proper time and lead us to a place of safety and stability. Our stories might not look the way we wanted them to in the beginning, but we will know God better, which is the fullness and goodness of life itself.

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