“Not Counting the Cost”: Reflections on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Written by Megan Keyser
One of the most cherished aspects of Well-Read Mom is how it continually introduces me to new books. These works increase my own understanding and provide me with invaluable wisdom to bequeath to my children. What a joy it is to discover an ever-growing treasure trove of literary works! Because of my background, I will better serve my daughters (and sons!) as they navigate young adulthood and discern vocations!
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte, is a perfect example of such a novel. Raw, gritty, and even excruciating, Bronte’s disarming account of the potentially colossal dangers of imprudently entering matrimony is harrowing. Helen, Bronte’s intelligent, virtuous, and yet woefully naïve heroine, falls prey to the dashing, impious, and pleasure-seeking Arthur Huntingdon, only to realize too late the impotence of her own abilities to “reform” and “reshape” a hedonistic and self-obsessed husband. Though perhaps unromantic advice from her aunt to exercise caution in choosing a spouse, Helen feels confident that she can be Arthur’s savior: reforming his waywardness and setting him on a righteous path while maintaining marital harmony and fidelity (142). Yet, as predicted, Helen’s heedlessness in ignoring the admonitions of her aunt and the reproofs of her mind and soul lead her through a nightmarish odyssey of wedded horror.
As our own children mature and navigate romance and marriage, particularly in a world that enshrines self-indulgence at the expense of sacrifice and authentic love, the magnitude and solemnity of marriage can be more keenly felt through Bronte’s words spoken through a battle-weary Helen: “When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone: there are many, many other things to be considered. Keep both heart and hand in your own possession, till you see good reason to part with them; and if such an occasion should never present itself, comfort your mind with this reflection, that though in single life your joys may not be very many, your sorrows, at least, will not be more than you can bear” (401).
Rather than dissuade young people from marriage altogether, I hope Helen’s experience will impress upon young people the importance of uniting oneself to a worthy spouse: one with shared values, respectability, mutual esteem, and most importantly, a passionate commitment to sincere and lasting love.
“…When the citadel of the heart is fairly besieged – it is apt to surrender sooner than the owner is aware of, and often against her better judgement, and in opposition to all her preconceived ideas of what she could have loved, unless she be extremely careful and discreet. Now, I want to warn you, Helen…not to suffer your heart to be stolen from you by the first foolish or unprincipled person that covets the possession of it”Margaret “Peggy” Maxwell, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 142
And though she is certainly not the recipient of lasting love from her narcissistic husband, ironically, with each humiliation and abuse bravely and patiently endured, Helen grows in supernatural love herself. Despite her husband’s hedonism, infidelity, and manipulation, Helen demonstrates the depth of her love for the spouse she freely chose when she allows her own needs and desires to be eclipsed to “promote the recovery and reformation” of the husband who has been her tormentor (464). Our modern sensibilities recoil at this “death to another,” particularly one who has inflicted pain and suffering upon us.
We marvel at how anyone could show Helen’s forgiveness and forbearance to such a villainous individual. Yet, suppose we are to build a culture of sincere, Christ-like love. In that case, this is the model of self-sacrificing love we must nurture and uphold: a love that “…is patient, is kind…feels no envy…is never perverse or proud; does not claim its rights, cannot be provoked, does not brood over an injury; takes no pleasure in wrong-doing, but rejoices at the victory of truth; sustains, believes, hopes, endures, to the last” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, emphasis mine).
I hope no one reading this has ever been as maltreated, reviled, and injured as Helen Huntingdon. Still, I hope we can better emulate her patience and steadfast endurance in the face of life’s injustices, disappointments, or trials that inevitably touch each of us. I know, for my part, how readily a sharp sense of justice reverberates within me whenever I am slighted, misrepresented, or harshly treated. In a vindictive spirit, I yearn to correct the wrong—worrying little about extending compassion toward anyone but myself.
I recently stumbled upon the words of Dorothy Day, and I couldn’t help but recall the example of Helen: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” Love isn’t about caring for those we like or those with whom we are in love; it’s about actively choosing to extend charity toward those who annoy, inconvenience, or even hurt us. If our love for others ceases when we are suffering, insulted, or frustrated, or if we only extend our care to the loveable or when our mood suits it, are we really loving others or camouflaging self-love in deceptive finery? Would Helen have proved such a striking foil to her egocentric husband had she abandoned him in his hour of pitiful need to promote her own happiness?
Yes, she undoubtedly would have spared herself suffering. Indeed, her husband was to blame for his deplorable condition, but by considering her own suffering first, how many opportunities for heroic virtue would vanish? What spiritual advancements would be forfeited? What eternal gifts forsaken? To a spiritually infantile world lacking genuine faith in God and spiritual perspective, suffering surely seems meritless or fruitless. Helen argues, “I do know that to regret the exchange of earthly pleasures for the joys of heaven, is as if the groveling caterpillar should lament that it must one day quit the nibbled leaf to soar aloft and flutter through the air, roving at will from flower to flower, sipping sweet honey from their cups, or basking in their sunny petals” (435).
Love—the outpouring of self—requires surrender, a leap of faith, to do things we could not fathom or imagine ourselves undertaking. A friend in my WRM discussion group aptly described Helen’s persistent and preserving love by quoting the beloved prayer of Saint Ignatius of Loyola; Helen gave “without counting the cost.” Even in the face of scorn, horrific suffering, and so little discernable change in her husband, Helen chose to give without “counting the cost.” She may not have felt like doing this, but she consented to do these hard things because that’s what love demanded.
We must endure many sufferings in this life. Perhaps the people we love will spurn our charity, care, and regard. Our efforts may seem useless, and we will question why we endure. But if endurance is a distinguishing characteristic of authentic love, it is what is required of us to become loving people. We may not transform the world, and our efforts may not appear marked by outward success. Still, with Christ’s example and assistance, we can change ourselves, becoming the witnesses He called for: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:35).
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