GILBERT & HEATHCLIFF: BROTHERS (AND BRONTË SISTERS)

Many critics have already suggested that the unfortunate Branwell Brontë provided the main inspiration for his sister Anne’s self-destructive Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. He seems to have been also Emily’s bleak muse for the degraded Hindley Earnshaw, Cathy’s brother. In both cases, Arthur’s and Hindley’s, they are contrasted with a stronger man, and although the similarities between Gilbert Markham and Heathcliff, respectively, may not be obvious I think they should not be overlooked.

Yesterday we were reading in class the hair-raising passage in which jealous Gilbert attacks the man he wrongly believes to be his rival in love, Frederick Lawrence. The passage is brutal, surely more so because Gilbert himself narrates how he hits Lawrence in the head with the heavy metal pommel of his whip, abandoning the seriously wounded man on the road once he’s satisfied that Lawrence is not dying. I reminded my students that just a few days ago we read about Sikes’ murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist following a similar method: Sikes uses the butt of his pistol to batter Nancy to death. Yet while Sikes is an outright villain for whom Dickens plans the cruellest death, Gilbert remains the hero of the piece. A Victorian critic complained that he would have been the ruffian in any other novel, yet Anne, like her protagonist Helen, insisted that he is the hero. One wonders how Helen’s life improves in getting rid of an alcoholic, abusive husband to marry this (potentially) violent man. She, by the way, never learns of the attack as the gentleman Lawrence chooses, in a strange fit of masculine loyalty, not to sully Gilbert’s reputation.

It seems that Anne was thinking of Wuthering Heights when she imagined Wildfell Hall: both, as you can seem share the initials WH. I can’t know whether she was thinking of Heathcliff when her own Gilbert Markham was created yet the more I re-read The Tenant, the more I believe she did. Both are gentlemen farmers, to begin with, and passionate lovers hell-bent on getting the woman they love (both ladies, yes, happen to be married). Gilbert is, if you wish, a more civilised Heathcliff, raised unlike Emily’s orphan villain-hero, in a ‘normal’ early 19th century family complete with stern hard-working father, adoring mother, sweet sister and playful younger brother. Yet Gilbert also knows how to be ungentlemanly, as shown not only by his attacking Lawrence but also by his ugly treatment of poor Eliza, with whom he flirts shamelessly regardless of the consequences for her feelings when he drops her. If Heathcliff and Gilbert met they would possibly like each other, though I must note that as a reader and as the suitor of a richer woman, Gilbert also shares some features with Emily’s dark horse, Hareton.

Anne writes in her preface to her novel’s second edition, to defend herself of all the negative criticism received, that she wanted to tell “the truth.” Certainly, her account of Helen’s terrible marriage rings true but I’m not sure what she meant by offering Gilbert as an alternative: that there are no better men!? If we are to believe him, Helen and he have already spent twenty years together in blissful marital harmony when his tale begins; yet, as we don’t have her diary for this second marriage we can only wonder if this is true.

If I were she, I’d stick to my paintings and live the happy life of a rich widow but, then, happily for me, I’m not a Victorian woman.

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