The novel is now in Helen Graham’s hands, and the reader and Jack Halford are, in effect, reading her diary along with Gilbert. It begins with her entry from June 21, 1821, when Helen and her aunt and uncle, Mrs. Maxwell and Mr. Maxwell, have returned to their rural home in Staningley after an eventful visit to London. City life and a certain someone have spoiled country living for Helen. She is restless and bored, and finds consolation only in painting and in her own thoughts and memories.
If the first part of the novel is the tale of Gilbert Markham’s youth, the second is of Helen’s, and she is even younger than Gilbert when her tale begins: 18 to Gilbert’s 24. Like him, she takes solace in her work. That doesn’t mean, however, that their stories will parallel each other. They diverge as often as they come together.
One such memory is of a conversation she had with her aunt the night before they left the country for London, during which the older woman counseled her on the question of marriage. Mrs. Maxwell asks Helen if she intends to marry and Helen answers in the affirmative, saying, though, she thinks it unlikely she’ll ever meet a man that suits her. Her aunt warns her against wishing to marry anyone before he has asked her. She says it’s a woman’s place to wait for the proposal before she is even permitted to acknowledge her own feelings. That said, Mrs. Waxwell hopes Helen will not throw her heart away on an unworthy suitor. She is beautiful and well-connected, and will therefore have her share of offers. It is very important to wait until the right man comes along.
The “London season” was designed to parade aristocratic young women in front of eligible men in the expectation that most of the women would receive at least one offer of marriage before the parties ended and the wealthy families returned to the countryside. A woman’s role in this ritual is to wait to be chosen—she has only the right of refusal, not the option of selecting her partner for herself. That said, Mrs. Maxwell would like Helen to be choose her partner with great care and deliberation. It is an impossible position.
Helen wonders why Mrs. Maxwell is so worried for her, and her aunt says it’s because she’s so beautiful, and beauty has the power to ensnare the worst kind of man. Her aunt has seen that scenario play out again and again, and she does not want that fate for her niece. She advises Helen that she not let her heart get carried away and instead, when it comes to romantic matters, let her head be her guide. Study, then approve, then love, rather than the other way around, Mrs. Maxwell suggests—make sure the man you love is worthy of you first.
Mrs. Maxwell is a wise woman, and her warnings to Helen are well-intentioned, but Helen is eighteen and strong-willed and has ideas of her own. Also, it’s clear from the first half of the novel that romantic love rarely follows a rational trajectory. Passions rather than practical considerations rule the day.
Helen, while at first making light of her aunt’s concerns, does her best to allay them, saying she could never marry a man simply for his charm or good looks. She would only accept a man she could esteem and respect. Mrs. Maxwell hopes she is in earnest, and the conversation ends there. Helen admits to herself later, though, that remembering her aunt’s advice is easier than following it, and she finds herself wondering if her aunt could have ever been in love.
Helen’s promise reads like protesting too much, especially in light of the fact that she acknowledges that actually doing what Mrs. Maxwell prescribes is harder than it sounds. Her suspicion that Mrs. Maxwell was never in love underscores this idea, and hints that Helen herself has already lost her heart.
Helen feels well prepared for her first London season, and begins the series of parties and dances enjoying herself immensely. Soon, though, the novelty wears off and she discovers that the men and women who surround her are shallow, worthless people. She worries that if she spends too much time in their company she might end up like them. She particularly despises Mr. Boarham, an old friend of her uncle’s who seems to want to marry her. She would have liked him fine if he’d let her alone, but since he seeks her out at party after party and is pressed on her by Mrs. Maxwell, she can’t help but hate him.
This is one of the pitfalls of a system that does not allow a young woman the freedom to choose her partner. If what she has to do instead is wait for a man to choose her, the chances are good her suitor will not be to her liking, as is the case with Mr. Boarham.
One evening at a particularly boring ball while Mr. Boarham is doing his best to monopolize Helen’s attention, a young man named Mr. Huntingdon asks her to dance. Lively and fun, he is also the son of one of her uncle’s oldest friends. Helen likes him immediately, partially because he is the opposite of Mr. Boarham. Her aunt, however, disapproves. She has heard that the younger Mr. Huntingdon is a wild youth without principles. Helen laughs her off—she can tell by his eyes that he’s trustworthy. Anyway, she thinks, she’ll probably never see him again. Then, much to her surprise, he calls on her uncle the very next day.
Mr. Huntingdon is as attractive as he is to Helen partially because she is comparing him to Mr. Boarham. If she had the option of selecting a man for herself rather than waiting in crowded ballrooms for a man to single her out, she might not have found Mr. Huntingdon quite as dashing she did.
It’s the first of many calls, and Helen’s uncle grows annoyed with the young man’s persistence. He knows, of course, that Mr. Huntingdon is coming to see Helen. Her uncle teases her about preferring the young Mr. Huntingdon to the old and rich Wilmot and Boarham. Helen does not deny it, and leaves in order to avoid further questioning.
Mr. Maxwell does not take the matter of Helen’s marriage as seriously as his wife does. He finds the affairs of the young amusing. As a woman, Mrs. Maxwell knows just what is at stake.
From her window, Helen sees that Mr. Boarham has come to visit. Soon, her aunt reports that he is there to seek her hand in marriage. Helen is offended: how dare he ask her uncle before asking her? Mrs. Maxwell informs her that Mr. Maxwell told Boarham the decision was Helen’s. Mrs. Maxwell then asks, if Helen intends to reject Mr. Boarham, to tell her the reasons. Helen says she would prefer to reject him and give her reasons afterward, and Mrs. Maxwell, begging her to compose herself, asks Helen if she can deny that Boarham is a sensible and respectable man, because those qualities should not be underestimated. Helen says that while Boarham might be both those things, she simply cannot marry him. In fact, she hates the idea of it. And she wishes him a wife that could love him as she never can.
Helen, stripped of the right to choose her life partner, desires at the very least the right of refusal, and she feels very strongly that rejecting Mr. Boarham is the best course of action. She is confident that it is the right thing to do for him as well. If he ties himself to her, he will have a wife who doesn’t love him, so she hopes that by refusing him, he has a chance to make a more suitable match. Mrs. Maxwell, unmoved by any romantic considerations, wants Helen to marry Boarham for his respectability.
Helen rushes downstairs to refuse Mr. Boarham. Clearly expecting her acceptance, he is shocked and taken aback. He then tries to persuade her to change her mind, telling her that he would not hold her youthful exuberance against her, and that, with a father’s indulgence and a lover’s tenderness, he would work to do everything in his power to make her happy. Helen explains that she has no intention of ever changing her mind. They are, she argues, ill-suited for each other in every way. Boarham wishes she would consult her aunt. Helen tells him she has consulted her aunt, but that in this matter she has chosen to decide for herself. She wonders why a man of his age (he is nearing 40, while she is 18) would even think of someone like her for a wife.
If Mr. Boarham is indeed sensible and respectable, he is also condescending and deluded. He underestimates Helen’s resolve, and, by promising to love her like a father, indicates how their marriage would proceed: the power and authority would all be on his side and she, as his daughter figure, would have to acquiesce. It’s obvious what attracted Boarham: Helen’s beauty. It’s somewhat strange, then, that Mrs. Maxwell would approve the match, considering the warning she gave Helen earlier about engaging herself based on looks alone.
Boarham admits that his love for Helen has given him some sleepless nights, but he was able to reconcile himself to her faults by thinking of how he would guide her conduct in the future, and, when he weighed her virtues against her faults, her virtues won the day. So, since he no longer has any objections to the match, he would love it if she would consent to be his wife. He continues in this vein for some time, and Helen, finally out of patience, tells him to please leave her alone. Eventually he leaves, offended and upset, though Helen can’t see how that could possibly be her fault.
Boarham clearly does not value Helen’s mind enough to listen attentively to her reasons for refusal. He might think that he loves her (despite her many youthful faults), but he doesn’t respect her as an equal and Helen cannot abide such a relationship.