I finished it yesterday. I found the middle section, consisting of Helen's account of her courtship and marriage an utterly realistic portrait of a marriage entered into with more haste than forethought.
Both parties has unrealistic ideas of the other. Huntingdon seems to have married out of a spoiled, egotistical, hedonistic man's desire to make a conquest of something he sees as utterly desirable - in this case a living, breathing woman (or girl, really) - that didn't quite turn out to be as delightful as he thought it would be, much like a young boy who sees and advert for a toy that, once he gets his hands on it, turns out to be something less or other than he thought it was.
Helen goes into the marriage knowing he has faults, but dismisses them as minor and expects to fix them and make him the good man she imagines she sees, through the rose-coloured glasses lovers often wear, underneath the carefree, spoilt exterior. Like so many women before and after her, she then discovers that it is easier said than done to change someone who doesn't want to change. Add Huntingdon's alcoholism into the mix and the outcome is an inevitable deterioration of the marriage and a dissatisfaction on both sides that grows into contempt on his side when he finds that he can't drag her down with him, and hatred on hers when she discovers he is cheating on her. This makes her determination to not allow him to turn their son into a copy of himself utterly believable, although her method of weaning the child off alcoholic drinks is really nothing short of child abuse, however well meant it is.
It is clear to anyone who has had to deal with an alcoholic in their life that Anne Brontë was writing from real life experience. That an unmarried woman during a time when such things as marital problems were not openly discussed should be able to write so convincingly about a deteriorating marriage shows that she must also have been able to observe something of that kind. The sick-bed scenes and death scene are utterly wretched and believable as well, and the pathos of Huntingdon's death makes one almost feel sorry for the wretched man.
If I have a complaint about the story it is the emotional melodrama of the aftermath of Gilbert's reading Helen's diary. He clearly has a low self-esteem mingled with strong pride. First he uses her absence from her son's home as an excuse for not writing to her (when a letter might easily be read after her return or even be forwarded to the right address by the servants) and then, when he discovers she is an heiress, all he wants to do is run away for fear that she will reject him. This spells to me a man who is in no way certain that his beloved loves him back. And is it any wonder, when she shows so much reticence to act in her own interest and send him a word? Even with the onus of having to be seen to be in mourning for a year after her husband's death, the postal service would make it easy for her to write to him without it being noticed. Or, for that matter, it would have been so easy to take her brother into her confidence and have him drop a hint in Gilbert's direction.
All of this makes for drama and creates conflict, to be sure, but the way it is done is just a little bit over the top. But, taken altogether, this is a nicely satisfying read. I might even read it again some day.
Oh, and the scene outside the church near the end? Brilliant. He gets to make a fool of himself over her, but not so much as to make him a public laughingstock:
I approached the little rural church—but lo! there stood a train of carriages before it; it needed not the white favours bedecking the servants and horses, nor the merry voices of the village idlers assembled to witness the show, to apprise me that there was a wedding within. I ran in among them, demanding, with breathless eagerness, had the ceremony long commenced? They only gaped and stared. In my desperation, I pushed past them, and was about to enter the churchyard gate, when a group of ragged urchins, that had been hanging like bees to the window, suddenly dropped off and made a rush for the porch, vociferating in the uncouth dialect of their country something which signified, ‘It’s over—they’re coming out!’
If Eliza Millward had seen me then she might indeed have been delighted. I grasped the gate-post for support, and stood intently gazing towards the door to take my last look on my soul’s delight, my first on that detested mortal who had torn her from my heart, and doomed her, I was certain, to a life of misery and hollow, vain repining—for what happiness could she enjoy with him? I did not wish to shock her with my presence now, but I had not power to move away. Forth came the bride and bridegroom. Him I saw not; I had eyes for none but her. A long veil shrouded half her graceful form, but did not hide it; I could see that while she carried her head erect, her eyes were bent upon the ground, and her face and neck were suffused with a crimson blush; but every feature was radiant with smiles, and gleaming through the misty whiteness of her veil were clusters of golden ringlets! Oh, heavens! it was not my Helen! The first glimpse made me start—but my eyes were darkened with exhaustion and despair. Dare I trust them? ‘Yes—it is not she! It was a younger, slighter, rosier beauty—lovely indeed, but with far less dignity and depth of soul—without that indefinable grace, that keenly spiritual yet gentle charm, that ineffable power to attract and subjugate the heart—my heart at least.
Now, I wonder which I should read next? Another book by Anne, or should I move on to Charlotte? I don't think I'm quite ready for Emily yet.