Are you a helpmeet or kindred spirit?

On a visit to the market town of Arundel in the South Downs last year, I did what I always do and looked for second-hand books. At Kim’s Bookshop I found a 1972 biography of Aleksandr Solzhenistyn by David Burg and George Feifer, with around twenty press clippings tucked among the pages. I had great pleasure in giving this treasure to my son George, who had taken an interest in the author after borrowing my edition of Cancer Ward.

For me, I found a 1908 edition of the Complete Letter-Writer for Ladies and Gentlemen, published by Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd.

The book provides nearly two hundred example letters, covering social invitations, letters from parents to and about their children, letters relating to betrothal and marriage, letters of condolence, and letters relating to employment and business.

Love letters

The general advice on how to write any letter warns the writer against ‘badinage’ which should never be attempted unless the parties are on very friendly terms. And even if they are on very friendly terms, certain conventions apply. The book devotes a not insignificant proportion of the section on ‘Practical Letter Writing’ to the topic of love letters, with strong encouragement to express one’s feelings in loving phrases that are ‘gentleman-like’ and ‘lady-like’,

‘With reference to “love-letters” no rule can be laid down; but even here the less “high-falutin” writing and bombast the better. Affection is very well, but extravagance is not unlikely to provoke ridicule, and that is fatal to a lover’s correspondence.’

This example letter in the romantic category caught my eye.

No. 150. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Affirmatively.

MY DEAR MR. WALKER,
Our friendship, if I may use the word, has not had a long existence, but short though it has been, I have learned to appreciate it more than you can imagine. Indeed, were it not so, I should shrink from replying frankly to the question you ask. You ask me if I will accompany you to Africa, and share the trials of a missionary’s life there, and I answer that I will, believing it to be my duty to join in so noble an undertaking as the wife of one whom I esteem. I cannot, as your wife, aid you as I would like, and to the work I cannot bring more than a willing heart, but perhaps the Almighty will strengthen both my heart and my hands, and enable me to be useful as your helpmeet in your distant home.
The day of your departure is, you say, drawing nigh, but, however near it may be, I can be ready. The sorest part of the preparation will be saying good-bye to those I love, and they are many. I am sure, however, that they will not tax my strength too far when they know in whose care I shall go.
You will tell me what to do.
And believe me,
My dear Mr. Walker,
Yours sincerely,
MARY BURTON

My immediate thought on reading this earnest epistle was that the template would be of no use to Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre (from the front
cover of the Blackie & Son edition)

I turned to my Blackie & Son edition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and looked up the episode where St. John Rivers proposes marriage to Jane. He wants, nay demands, that Jane accompanies him to India,

“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must––shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you––not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”

And,

“… do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself forever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity. Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith, and are worse than infidels!”

He waited for an answer. Illustration by F. H. Townsend from an 1897 edition of Jane Eyre..

The next example letter in the handbook affords a refusal.

No. 151. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Negatively.

MY DEAR MR. WALKER,
Were I free to consult my own wishes, my answer to your kind and generous letter would be “Yes.” I have seen much in your character to admire since you first became a visitor at my father’s house. But my parents, to whom I showed your letter, consider that I am constitutionally unfitted to reside in a climate so trying as that of Africa, and wish me to remain with them. They are, with myself, grateful for all that you say; and, were it not that you go abroad, their consent would have been willingly given. I feel myself, too, that I would be only an encumbrance even were I spared; and at a missionary station there should be no encumbrances.
You will allow me to call myself your sincere well-wisher, if nothing more, and I hope that your efforts in Africa will be crowned with success.
Believe me,
My dear Mr. Walker,
Yours sincerely,
MARY BURTON.

Alas, this template would also have been of no use to Jane, whose refusal of St. John is necessarily more forthright,

“God did not give me my life to throw it away; and to do as you wish me would, I begin to think, be almost equivalent to committing suicide.”

Charlotte Brontë 1816-1855

Helpmeet – what does it mean?

In the example letter No150 (the acceptance letter), and in Jane Eyre, we find the term, ‘helpmeet’. St. John wants Jane to accompany him as his ‘helpmeet and fellow-labourer’.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, helpmeet is an ‘absurdly formed’ compound of the two words, ‘help’ and ‘meet’. With its biblical roots in The Book of Genesis, the later conjoined version came into prominent use during the nineteenth century. It was unknown to lexicographers Dr Samuel Johnson (d1784) and Noah Webster (d1843). The OED gives this definition of the term,

‘A fitting or suitable helper; a helpmate: usually applied to a wife or husband.’

We know that by ‘helpmeet’ St. John means wife, as he finds Jane’s offer of her companionship to India as his ‘sister’ unacceptable. He wants a wife and nothing less, “the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death”.

The OED cites a usage of the term by Samuel Smiles in his 1873 book, Huguenots in France, which would aptly describe St. John’s impression of Jane Eyre as a, ‘true helpmeet for him, young, beautiful, rich, and withal virtuous.’ By the time of his marriage proposal, Jane’s inheritance had been divulged.

Whilst helpmeet is a term I don’t use myself, I did recognise it when reading the example letter No150. I was surprised therefore when several of my friends and associates had never heard of it.

The Oxford Etymologist, Anatoly Liberman, writes an interesting post on, Helpmeet, Or Can Stillborn Words Prosper? He concludes that the term is the product of ignorance, and acknowledges that our language constantly delivers such ‘freaks’, which through usage may even for a short while look like ‘well-formed creatures.’ Liberman tells us that in usage, everything is right that the majority considers right, which does not mean that every novelty is beautiful.

Here are a few examples of the term’s usage from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, from the British Press.

‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’

In 1880, a Miss Farningham delivered a lecture on the topic of ‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’ to a small gathering of the Huddersfield Young Men’s Christian Association. Her paper, especially prepared for women, set out the differences between helpmeets who ‘chiefly gave their hearts to the keeping of others’ and a hinderer, who, ‘was a dreamy thinker, whose thoughts led to nothing but thinking, no working’.

‘A Great Man’s Helpmeet’

A press feature in 1897 on Mrs Thomas A. Edison, the wife of the inventor, is headed, ‘A GREAT MAN’S HELPMEET’. It is stated that Mrs Edison is, ‘in the highest sense of the term, a helpmeet to her famous husband, and the great inventive genius esteems his wife’s advice of greater value than that of the shrewdest lawyer or most intimate friend.’ She is an ‘almost perfect wife and mother’.

Mrs Thomas A. Edison

Kings and Queens

In his 1936 Declaration to the Privy Council on his succession to the throne, King George VI stated, ‘With my wife as helpmeet by my side, I take up the heavy task which lies before me.’ Twenty-five years earlier his father, King George V had used the same term in his own Declaration when referring to Queen Mary.

‘Mother’s Helpmeet’

In 1947, the Fifeshire Advertiser featured advice for mothers on the topic of giving vitamins to infants, under the heading of ‘Mother’s Helpmeet’.

Biblical interpretations

I was not aware of the term’s biblical origins which others have expanded upon, prompting different interpretations of the Bible and much debate on its true Christian meaning. Heather Farrell, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, writes a blog, ‘Women in the Scriptures’ (with a sub-heading, ‘The greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus Christ’). Her post on, The real meeting of the term “Help Meet”, concludes that Eve was Adam’s complete spiritual equal and that women ‘have been given a stewardship that is uniquely theirs and which is every bit as important as men’s stewardship’.

I often find comments on a post just as interesting as the post itself. Amongst the comments on Farrell’s post is a declaration that the equality of women we see today, ‘is a direct result of the firearm, particularly the small, concealable revolver.’ Another comment declares that women are never equal to men, that the relationship is complementary and, ‘One leads the other follows, one is dominant the other is submissive, one penetrates the other is penetrated, one is the authority the other is the subordinate.’

Perhaps ‘interesting’ is the wrong word in this instance. Even if I were Christian (which I’m not), I’d still find these views abhorrent and disturbing.

More regressive

From a brief investigation it does appear that the modern use of the term ‘helpmeet’ has been commandeered by the Christian creed. Farrell’s take on equality between men and women is certainly rooted in her Christianity as she asserts that, ‘Each woman, regardless of her ability to give birth, is a saviour to mankind when she loves men and nurtures a child closer to Christ.’

This association is further extended by Debi Pearl’s 2004 book, Created to be his Help Meet, in which she writes about God’s design for a woman, as a ‘properly-fitted helper’ (in 2012 her husband, Michael wrote, Created to Need a Help Meet). A Christian fundamentalist, Debi Pearl declares, ‘There is no loss of dignity in subordination when it serves a higher purpose. God made you to be a help meet to your husband so you can bolster him’, and, ‘God stands with you when you stand by your man, but you will stand alone if you insist on standing by your rights.’

The book, which contains case studies, advice giving responses to letters, and biblical reflections, is not necessarily representative of the diverse Christian communities across the U.S. and beyond. With nearly 1,000 reviews on Amazon.com (at 28 June 2019), it is described as toxic, dangerous, confusing, a holy grail, tough, raw, truthful and challenging.

A review by the Christian blogger Tim Challies (a pastor at the Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario) describes Pearl’s book as, ‘one of the harshest, angriest books I have read on this side of Richard Dawkins and this critical spirit is displayed in insulting language, in lack of sympathy, and in the passing of harsh judgments.’

Castigation

I was unaware until now that the term ‘helpmeet’ is today being used to castigate women in the name of patriarchy and the Christian God. As Liberman might say, the use of this novelty is this case is not beautiful.

Although one of Pearl’s line did make me smile. In writing about Eve as God’s birthday gift to Adam, she says, ‘My husband, who is a learned student of the Word, assures me that Eve was indeed a birthday present, as seen by the fact that they were both wearing their birthday suits.’ (cue emoji).

Pearl then encourages her reader to greet their husband when he wakes up in the morning with an ‘inviting smile and a welcoming body’. A wife, according to Pearl, is created by God as a helper to suit the needs of her man, to make him complete and not to seek personal fulfilment parallel to him. A failing marriage in Pearl’s book is almost always put down to the wife, whatever the circumstances, and it is the wife who must change her game . For example, if the reader suspects that her husband is having an affair, she must use her feminine wiles to win him back,

‘Write love notes he will find when he gets to the office. Don’t ride him with suspicion. Don’t play detective and follow him around. But do call his work with a giggle in your voice, and give him fair warning that you expect “some loving” when he gets home, then giggle and ask him if he is blushing … Make sure you are looking radiant and delightfully in love.’

As I read on my smile disappears.

I reach for Jane Eyre, thinking if that’s what being a helpmeet means, I’d much rather, like Jane, resist the iron shroud of marriage with a man who, ‘regarded one but as a useful tool.’

Jane may in the end marry Mr Rochester with a love that is strengthened now she can really be useful to him (now he is blind), but in their partnership they are, ‘ever together … as free in solitude, as gay in company.’

As Kindred spirits.

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