Smashing Mr Thornton

I couldn’t believe my eyes  while I was reading a comment of one of my students to a post on Gaskell’s “North and South”. It was not a comment, actually, but rather, a deliberate attempt to pull apart piece after piece the romantic aura that surrounds Mr Thornton,  who actually shares the top step of the podium along with Mr Darcy for the most iconic and beloved male character of 19th century  English literature. He found faults in a man who has always been considered fault proof; he regarded weak the one who has always been the epitome of strength for any woman; he even found immoral traits in the uncontroverted  picture  and quintessence of  moral behaviour.

LADIES (angry): To the gallows!!!” “Blasphemy!!🤬🤬🤬

MRS TINK : “But, my dear ladies, calm down! I believe that even  this irreverent  young  man has the right to be tried first, so let’s hear what he has to say. He asserts that our minds have been clouded by the romantic charm of this character – well, that could be, especially since  Mr Thornton took the semblance of Richard Armitage, we must admit it –  and that, let me read, “the man appears systematically unable to take a single good decision in any field of his life”.

LADIES (super angry):To the gallooooows!!!🤬🤬🤬

MRS TINK : C’mon ladies, don’t rush into conclusion. He may have some good points! Let him speak his mind first and eventually we will decide what to do. Just cool down!(whispers) Ohhh, good ….so, he was just saying that some of Mr Thornton’s decisions were wrong…..

STUDENT (aside): All!😑

MRS TINK (To the student): Oh! Shut up! I’m m trying to save you from this angry bunch of ladies!🤨

STUDENT (boldly to the ladies): It is under everybody’s eye  that Mr Thornton’s business fails, can you prove the contrary?😏

MRS TINK and The Ladies: No, we can’t. But…..😧

STUDENT (more audaciously): Furthermore, he does not prevent the strike and hires the Irish in the mill provoking violent reactions.😏

MRS TINK🤨 : How could he have prevented the strike? He had no means to give the rise in salary the workers demanded and he was not alone in this, after all, there were other manufacturers.

STUDENT: “Yes,  but he was the most influent one, wasn’t he the magistrate of Milton? But, I have not finished yet. He proposes to Margaret even if he knows that she will probably refuse him and then he commits an abuse of power deciding not to investigate the same Margaret!😧

LADIES (in unison):  But he did it for love! He wanted to protect her! How insensitive!😮

STUDENT : I know, but that was actually a crime, or do you have another word to call it?😏

LADIES: We cannot listen to this nonsense any longer!😤😤😤

STUDENT (raising his voice): One more thing! He does not join his brother-in law’s speculation  and doing so, not only he loses all his wealth, but he also does not overcome the trauma of his father’s death. The very few good decisions such as hiring Higgins, for example, derive, directly or indirectly, from Margaret. Please forgive me ladies, but I did find hilarious seeing your romantic hero, the strong self-made man, the passionate lover with the endless sideburns, saved by a presumptuous 20-year-old girl from the South. Now I’m done. Thank you.😏😑😑😑

LADIES:(silence)😲😲😲

MRS TINK: (trying to break the silence). So you mean that Thornton is a loser .🤨

STUDENT: That’s what I mean.😑

MRS TINK: Well, I guess you should have thought about what makes Mr Thornton a loser first, in your eyes at least . To make you understand my point, I want to compare him to one of the greatest “losers” in world literature.

STUDENT: Who is it?🤔

MRS TINK: Hamlet. If you remember his story, we may say that Hamlet, to use your own words, appears “systematically unable to take a single good decision in any field of his life”: father, mother, Ophelia, the revenge plans etc.  He, actually, never truly acts, and if he does, it’s just because he cannot avoid it. Three seconds after talking to his father’s ghost, the initial flame of rage starts to put out and soon he feels unfit for his demand of revenge. Even in the last act, when he finally revenges his father’s death killing his uncle, he doesn’t even know how he found himself in that situation, as the duel with Laertes is actually his uncle’s trap in order to kill him. Have you ever considered Hamlet a loser?🤨

STUDENT: A victim maybe?🤔

MRS TINK: In a way he is a victim, but he is the victim of his conscience and conscience , he says, makes us all cowards, that is, unable to act freely, because we cannot avoid the burden of the moral implications of our actions. The ethical dilemma between what is right or wrong consumes our will, and thus “ the native hue of resolution, is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Undoubtedly, the name of the comet star that guides Mr Thornton’s action is: ethics. He always tries to do what is right, even if he knows that it will not end up as he wishes, as in the case of Margaret’s rejection or when he hires the Irish. Had he been ruthless, he would have employed them much before, it is also because of this delay in taking this decision that he loses all. It’s in this constant search for the correct thing to do, his attempt to overcome the trauma of his father’s death.🤨

STUDENT(puzzled): So you mean that ethics and success cannot go hand in hand?🤔

MRS TINK: Correct.🙄

STUDENT: And that Mr Thornton‘s comet star is ethics.🤔

MRS TINK: Exactly.🙄

STUDENT: So, he is a loser.😑

MRS TINK😒: If you measure a man by means of his profits, yes, he is. But a man is more than the money he can make. I’m talking about other qualities such as sensibility, reliability, courage, sacrifice, the capacity to love; Mr Thornton is all this and more. Hence, he could never be a loser for us all, my dear. Never.😍😍😍

LADIES: To the gallows?😡😡😡

MRS TINK: No…….Student, stand up! You are sentenced to watch the BBC series again twice and read the book. You will produce then another comment on the topic and if we can spot some evidence of your redemption, we might even let you live. Off you go!

(Exeunt)

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Becoming a Tenant

 

It is dawn. In the darkness three silhouettes are on the run: Helen Graham, her son and a trusted servant. They aim at leaving behind a life made of vexations suffered from an egoist self-conceited man, Helen’s husband, to face all the troubles of an uncertain future. Their destination is Wildfell Hall, Helen’s family house. Helen Graham is the protagonist of Anne Brontë’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, a novel which can be considered in all respects a feminist milestone, as the authoress’ s intent is clearly that of vindicating the necessity of women’s emancipation, a “real” one.

At the time of publishing, that is 1848, the word emancipation for a woman still coincided with marriage: a girl left her patriarchal structured family to emancipate herself and join another one, whose prevailing role naturally pertained to the husband. It was truly a peculiar way of emancipating oneself from our modern point of view, particularly, if we consider that before the Women’s Property Act of 1870, once married, women lost their rights on their properties, profits, they had no legal custody of their own children and could not sue or divorce. Therefore, emancipation meant actually leaving a cage to fly lightly into another one, hopefully on the wings of love. “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” warned a more realistic Charlotte Lucas and she was right, as too often those girlish Prince Charming fantasies crashed against the reality of that long awaited “emancipation”. That “unpalatable” truth had to be made known and Anne did it, in her own way.

Helen Graham, in fact, is one of those women who married for love. Being her reason blurred by her feelings, she is blind to her beloved  Arthur’s tricks and wicked nature and she is determined to have him despite her family’s warnings. Pretty soon, once clouds disappear and Helen recovers her better judgement, she understands that under the ruins of what she believed marriage was, nothing remains but abuse and fear. She is bullied and mistreated, in fact, by her husband Arthur, but only when she realizes that their only son has begun to be the object of his ill-treatments too, she decides to leave the marital home going against all the moral and social laws of the time and take refuge at Wildfell Hall, her brother’s house. She will become, hence, a “tenant”, that is displaced. The word tenant reinforces, in fact, the concept that society did not conceive a place for a woman without a man by her side. Those places were all filled by men. Helen is well aware of that, in fact, she introduces herself in the new neighbourhood as a widow, thus providing herself with an acceptable justification for her present situation to the eyes of strangers.

Life was not what Helen had hoped to be and her story was that of many other girls: painful truths often untold for shame or fear. Anne meant to give voice to those silent cries, but, naturally, that voice at those times had to belong to a man to be heard, that is why, just like her other sisters, she published her works using a male pseudonym. The novel was a hit, but popularity often attracts bitter criticism too and this was exactly the case. That is why she felt compelling to add a preface to the second edition of the novel, where she claimed that it was time somebody revealed the truth. That was her mission:

“…when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest?” (Preface. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall)

To those who had censured her choice of language, which was regarded shocking, if not brutal, she replied that  “if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts” the young of both sexes who were about to experience marital life would suffer less misery, they would be more prepared, rather than being left “ to wring their bitter knowledge from experience”. If somebody questioned the truthfulness of her characters she answered that they were not a product of her imagination: “I know that such characters do exist” and for this reason she felt her duty to speak the “unpalatable truth” in order to warn women, but also to incite them to be aware of their full potential.

Before marriage, for example, Helen knew exactly who she was: an artist. Once she becomes Mrs Huntingdon, thus accepting her new role of wife, she rarely refers to herself in such a way. That is why the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband represents not only the first conscious reaction against Victorian strict moral rules, but it also gave hope that things could be changed, would have changed one day, if all those silent voices had eventually found the courage to speak all together, fight together, in order that their daughters and granddaughter would have no longer been just “tenants” in this world.