By Susanna Millsap (MA ’19), Department of English, Kansas State University
Anne Brontë’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), ends with a marriage proposal. In this sense, it bears similarities to many Victorian tales and domestic novels in general, but the proposal itself is quite unique. After all, it’s not every day that a woman proposes to a man by offering him a flower.
Before moving on, it’s important to acknowledge that the relationship between Gilbert Markham, a gentleman farmer, and Helen Graham, the tenant of the title, has its fair share of problems. Helen is wise beyond her years, is ruled by thoughtful practice, and has, by the novel’s end, two estates and a considerable fortune besides. Gilbert often acts immaturely, makes decisions based on his passions, and falls squarely into the middle class. Because of these and other differences, many readers struggle to understand why Helen would want to spend her time with Gilbert — much less marry him.
Yet, I can’t help wanting to defend her decision to propose to Gilbert. Problematic or not, I’m inclined to believe that there’s something inherently defensible in Helen’s choice to spend her life with him.
Helen’s first marriage went very badly. She bound herself to the rakish Arthur Huntingdon — a man who promises that, with her help, he will smooth out the rough edges of his character. Instead of changing for the better, however, he debauches himself with all manner of worldly pleasures, soon proving a burden to Helen and a corruptive influence to their young son. When Helen encourages him to take up better habits, Huntingdon insists that his character is fixed, asking, “what can a man do with a head such as this?” (Brontë 191). Huntingdon refuses to take any steps to improve his character, a decision which ultimately costs his life.
Gilbert Markham, on the other hand, is capable of growth, especially if that growth can be used to Helen’s advantage. The unusual structure of the narrative allows us to see how he learns to check his impulses over time — thinking first of Helen and her happiness before acting on his own desires. For instance, when Helen alludes to marrying him, his first response is silence, “lest my emotion should overmaster me” (Brontë 402). For a man who is reactionary by nature, this shows self-reflection and even growth.
Upending tradition (and acknowledging her superior social status in the process) Helen proposes to Gilbert. The manner of her proposal is as unconventional as the act itself. She offers Gilbert a Christmas rose, later explaining that it is an emblem of her heart. Like Helen, the flower “has stood through hardships” but “is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals” (Brontë 402). After his period of reflection, Gilbert accepts both the token and her hand with great enthusiasm.
Interestingly, the Christmas rose that Helen gives to Gilbert is not actually a rose at all. Instead, it’s better known as hellebore: a poisonous bloom that has historically been used as a purgative.
While some people may read malice into Helen’s action — proposing with a poisonous flower could be quite nefarious, after all — I choose to see this as an unspoken agreement that Gilbert will continue to change himself for the better after their marriage. He has demonstrated already that he is capable of change, and the letters he writes throughout the novel suggest that he continues to purge undesirable aspects of his character in the years to come.
By proposing to Gilbert, Helen ensures that this marriage will not meet the same unhappy fate as her relationship with the stubborn Huntingdon. As Gilbert happily accepts her offer, he agrees to a proposal not just of marriage, but of change.
Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, edited by Lee Talley. Broadview, 2009.