Helen as Angel and Rebel in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
In nineteenth century England, the lives of men and women were completely different. The women had very few - or no - rights and the man had absolute power over his wife and children. He even had the rights to his wife's income or heritage! The only acceptable way for a woman to lead her life was to be a social character, a supporting wife and loving mother, so to speak an "angel in the house". The term "the angel in the house" refers to Coventry Patmore's poem with the same name. The poem depicts the ideal of a loving, unselfish, (sexually) passive and sensitive woman, who was religious and devoted to please her husband: "Man must be please; but him to please, is woman's pleasure --- And if he once, by shame oppress'd [sic!], a comfortable word confers, she leans and weeps against his breast, and seems to think the sin was hers --- she loves with love that cannot tire...". This was the only acceptable way of life for a woman and in this essay I discuss whether Helen Graham should be described as an angel or a rebel, and to what extent she fulfils the criteria for a woman's mission in nineteenth century England.
What exactly was women's mission during the nineteenth century? The answer to this question can be found in the many so-called conduct books, which were written by women for women during the nineteenth century. These books were written for the middle-class and stated how a woman should act and behave. The conclusion we can draw from these books is that a woman's duty and mission in life was to be the religious and moral part of the household, to be a good mother and a supporting and caring wife. One author who wrote on the subject of woman's mission and duty was Sarah Stickney Ellis. Her book The women of England is filled with advice and rules for women and on the subject of a woman's duty, she says:
It is the duty of every [woman] to maintain the peace and order of their own household --- It is not easy for a man who has to fill the office of master to a number of apprentices and assistants during the hours of business, to unbend before them at his own fireside. But a considerate and high-principled woman, may, without loss of dignity, and certainly without loss of respect, make them feel that she regards it as her duty to be their friend as well as their mistress, and that she looks upon herself as under a sacred obligation to advise them in difficulties, to guard their welfare, and to promote their comfort, simply because the all-wise Disposer of human affairs has seen meet to place them within the sphere of her influence (Ellis, p 210-211).
Helen Graham, the heroine in The tenant of Wildfell Hall, is a strong and unique woman. She is in many ways a typical Victorian upper-class lady, but in many ways also a very modern and independent kind of woman. She lives with her aunt and uncle, who want to see her married to a wealthy man, but she refuses any...