Helen makes a tragic choice when she marries Arthur Huntingdon—a decision based on infatuation rather than logic. But Helen is not the only character who throws herself away on an unworthy partner; time and time again in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, young people commit themselves to impractical and ultimately destructive relationships that rob them of years of peace and tranquility. Older and wiser people like Helen’s aunt, Mrs. Maxwell, understand the potential for an infatuation to determine the course of a person’s life, which is why she tries in vain to talk Helen out of marrying Arthur, and why Mrs. Markham attempts to dissuade Gilbert from forming any serious plans to marry Eliza Millward. In depicting a number of unfortunate alliances, Brontë points to the dangers of romance, and more specifically the dangers of deciding to bind oneself to another person for life (especially considering her society’s restrictions on divorce and notions of women as property) based on romantic attraction alone. Were young people to marry for more rational reasons, their unions and adult lives would be much happier. The book, then, serves as a warning to the naïve and inexperienced. Choose unwisely in the matter of love, Brontë suggests, and you could be doomed to a lifetime of loneliness and regret.
Helen is attracted to Arthur for the very qualities that eventually end up alienating her from him. She finds him charming, lively, and carefree. Over time, though, she discovers that he’s actually an immoral alcoholic with no patience for productive employment. He wants only to be drinking and carousing with his friends, and, when such fun is not to be had, he mopes around the house, lazy and directionless. Mrs. Maxwell had warned Helen that such a fate could be hers if she let her heart rather than her head guide her choice of a mate. “First study; then approve; then love,” Mrs. Maxwell advised. “Let your eyes be blind to all external attractions, your ears deaf to all the fascinations of flattery and light discourse—These are nothing—and worse than nothing—snares and wiles of the tempter, to lure the thoughtless to their own destruction.”
Helen learns the wisdom of her aunt’s words the hard way. Helen’s love for Arthur soon turns to hate, and hate eventually gives way to indifference. Helen and Arthur have nothing of substance in common. They shared only an initial attraction, and that is not enough to make them suitable life partners. Arthur, in turn, grows to despise Helen. He resents her goodness and is bored by her piety and devotion to little Arthur. Brontë does not seem to be suggesting that such a sad state is inevitable—but rather, that this outcome is the result of selecting one’s life partner based on shallow considerations like looks, riches, status, and charm.
Lord Lowborough marries Annabella Wilmot without the benefit of understanding the young woman’s true character. He proposes to her because he is bewitched by her beauty and charm, and she accepts the proposal because she wants his title. It isn’t long before her unkindness and her ongoing flirtation with Arthur Huntingdon make Lord Lowborough’s life a misery. In many ways, their marriage parallels Helen and Arthur’s. Lowborough, doing his best to live a good life after years of alcohol and opium abuse, marries a beautiful woman completely unsuited to his character. When he finds out about his wife’s adulterous relationship with Arthur, he considers ending his life.
But given that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is in some regards a cautionary tale, the just characters are suitably rewarded in love, while the unjust are punished. Lord Lowborough is a good man at heart and, like the rest of the novel’s morally upstanding characters, he eventually experiences the redemptive side of romantic love. Freed from Lady Lowborough, who moves to town to pursue a life of pleasure, Lord Lowborough finds happiness with a plain but worthy woman. Millicent Hargrave, too, eventually receives her reward. Her husband, Ralph Hattersley, decides to leave behind the irresponsible and irreverent companions of his youth and devote himself to Millicent and their children. The couple is thereafter happy and prosperous. Esther Hargrave resists her mother’s pressure to marry Mr. Oldfield and is rewarded with the love of Frederick Lawrence. Mary Millward becomes the beloved wife of the studious Richard Wilson.
Helen, of course—being the protagonist and most angelic of all the novel’s characters—is fittingly given the most desirable fate. Not only does Arthur conveniently die just as Gilbert’s love for her reaches its zenith, but Helen inherits her uncle’s sizeable fortune and ends up partnered with a loving husband who gives her a second chance both at conjugal love and the joys of motherhood.
Likewise, the novel’s unsympathetic characters—Arthur, Eliza Millward, Jane Wilson, Lady Lowborough, Mr. Grimsby, and Walter Hargrave—eventually get their come-uppance. Eliza marries a tradesman and grows increasingly petty and malicious, Jane Wilson ends up as a spinster, Lady Lowborough is abandoned by her lover, Grimbsy dies in a drunken brawl, and Hargrave is hated by his wife, his tenants, and his workers alike.
By rewarding the good and punishing the wicked, Brontë’s treatment of romantic love is perhaps overly simplistic. Everyone’s fate is sealed neatly, the story wrapped up in a tidy bow, and Gilbert and Helen are left to live happily ever after with their children on their vast estate. Brontë does suggest, however, that a certain amount of moral fortitude is required to achieve such earthly bliss. It is rare that women like Helen Graham and Milicent Hargrave get a second chance at happiness. Instead of banking on such unlikely outcomes, a young person should make a smart choice from the beginning.
Love and Marriage ThemeTracker
Love and Marriage Quotes in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
“No matter, my dear,” said I; “it is what every respectable female ought to know; and besides, though you are alone now, you will not be always so; you have been married and probably—I might say almost certainly—will be again.” “You are mistaken there, ma'am,” said she, almost haughtily; “I am certain I never shall.” “But I told her, I knew better.”
Then you must fall each into your proper place. You’ll do your business, and she, if she’s worthy of you, will do hers; but it's your business to please yourself, and hers to please you.
Because, I imagine there must be only a very, very few men in the world, that I should like to marry; and of those few, it is ten to one I may never be acquainted with one; or if I should, it is twenty to one, he may not happen to be single, or to take a fancy to me.
It is not indeed, to be supposed that you would wish to marry anyone, till you were asked: a girl's affections should never be won unsought. But when they are sought—when the citadel of the heart is fairly besieged, it is apt to surrender sooner than the owner is aware of, and often against her better judgement, and in opposition to all her preconceived ideas of what she could have loved, unless she be extremely careful and discreet.
First study; then approve; then love. Let your eyes be blind to all external attractions, your ears deaf to all the fascinations of flattery and light discourse—These are nothing—and worse than nothing—snares and wiles of the tempter, to lure the thoughtless to their own destruction. Principle is the first thing, after all; and next to that good sense, respectability, and moderate wealth. If you should marry the handsomest and most accomplished and superficially agreeable man in the world, you little know the misery that would overwhelm you, if, after all, you should find him to be a worthless reprobate, or even an impracticable fool.
I have consulted her; and I know her wishes coincide with yours; but in such important matters, I take the liberty of judging for myself; and no persuasion can alter my inclinations, or induce me to believe that such a step would be conducive to my happiness, or yours—and I wonder that a man of your experience and discretion should think of choosing such a wife.
I have such confidence in him, aunt, notwithstanding all you say, that I would willingly risk my happiness for the chance of securing his. I will leave better men to those who only consider their own advantage. If he has done amiss, I shall consider my life well spent in saving him from the consequences of his early errors, and striving to recall him to the path of virtue—God grant me success!
There is no help for him now; he is past praying for. Besides, she may keep up the deception to the end of the chapter; and then he will be just as happy in the illusion as if it were reality.
She is a daughter of earth; you are an angel of heaven; only be not too austere in your divinity, and remember that I am a poor, fallible mortal.
How little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried—doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!
But it is now January: spring is approaching; and, I repeat, I dread the consequences of its arrival. That sweet season, I once so joyously welcomed as the time of hope and gladness, awakens, now, far other anticipations by its return.
“A man must have something to grumble about; and if he can't complain that his wife harries him to death with her perversity and ill-humour, he must complain that she wears him out with her kindness and gentleness.”
“But why complain at all, unless, because you are tired and dissatisfied?”
“To excuse my own failings, to be sure. Do you think I'll bear all the burden of my sins on my own shoulders, as long as there's another ready to help me, with none of her own to carry?”
“I do not insult you,” cried he: “I worship you. You are my angel—my divinity! I lay my powers at your feet—and you must and shall accept them!” he exclaimed impetuously, starting to his feet—"I will be your consoler and defender! And if your conscience upbraid you for it, say I overcame you and you could not choose but yield!”
“It gives me little consolation to think I shall next behold you as a disembodied spirit, or an altered being, with a frame perfect and glorious, but not like this! —and a heart, perhaps, entirely estranged from me.”
“No, Gilbert, there is perfect love in Heaven!”
“So perfect, I suppose, that it soars above distinctions, and you will have no closer sympathy with me than with any one of the ten thousand angels and the innumerable multitude of happy spirits round us.”