Essays and Criticism
The Dichotomy of Country Life and City Life in the Novel
Anne Brontë, in her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, highlights the distinctions between city life and country life. The contrasts between London, known as Town, and everywhere else in England, which was largely the rural countryside, were important to nineteenth-century lifestyle. People of the upper class visited London during the Season, which was spring, when weather was mild and people were eager to get out of the house after being cooped up all winter. The Season is when Huntington makes his annual trip into London, although he often stays late into the summer as well. Being in London during the Season provided an important opportunity for socializing. During these visits, young ladies had the opportunity to exhibit themselves and attract potential suitors. These were periods also for distant friends and relations to visit, for people to meet new friends and go shopping to see recent fashions and trends. Men did business and looked for wives for themselves or their daughters. Various social events, such as balls and concerts, were hosted to bring people together. During a ball in London, Helen first meets Huntington. They meet again at a private dinner party at Mr. Wilmot’s residence in town, another common social function among the upper class.
London began to grow considerably in the 1830s when the first railways were built, making it more easily accessible to those who lived far away. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, London was the most populous city in the world and the largest city in Europe. Although New York City had the distinction to be the world’s most populous city a century later, London was still Europe’s largest city at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Although London is central to Britain’s commerce and identity in the early nineteenth century, the gentry regarded it as “dusty, smoky, noisy, toiling, striving.” Once summer began in mid-June, many would retire to country estates for “invigorating relaxation and social retirement.” There they would pass their time leisurely, enjoying their homes, tending to their families, corresponding with friends, reading, hunting, and visiting each other. It was common for guests to stay several weeks or even a number of months because of the great effort it took to pack and travel to a distant friend or relation. Thus, for several autumns, the Huntingtons entertain a group of their friends at Grassdale Manor for upwards of two months. Country life is considered to be peaceful, quiet, safe, and wholesome. When Helen returns to Staningley in West Yorkshire after meeting Huntington in London, she writes in her diary, “I am quite ashamed of my new-sprung distaste for country life. . . . I cannot enjoy my music, because there is no one to hear it. I cannot enjoy my walks, because there is no one to meet.”
Helen and Milicent, like all upper-class women of their time, go to London to meet eligible bachelors so that they might get married and settled in life as soon as reasonably possible. Unfortunately for both women, they find themselves unhappily married. Until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, which permitted divorce by courts of law rather than by an act of Parliament, divorce was difficult and expensive. Helen and Milicent had no hope of reversing their situation and could only try to change their husbands or find a way to live with them. Much of Huntington’s debauchery occurs when he is away in London or on the continent, underscoring the idea that the countryside is healthful and the cities are corrupt. Mr. Huntington’s hunting trip to Scotland is the one time he returns home healthier than when he left. His health slowly but steadily suffers from his drinking, which is inextricably tied to the fast life he leads...
(The entire section is 1527 words.)