Helen gives credit to God for helping her survive the soul-crushing ordeal that is her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon, but she is able to leave Grassdale Manor and her abusive husband behind thanks to the paintings she sells to a London art dealer. Later, at Wildfell Hall, she supports herself and little Arthur with the proceeds from her art, and hard work helps soothe her frayed nerves. As an upper-class woman able to support herself financially, Helen is very much an exception to the rule, as most women at the time were financially dependent on their husbands or fathers. The expectation for women of her class was that they were to marry and raise children—their work consisted mainly of meal planning and the management of servants. However, the novel shows that when one’s home is not a sanctuary but a house of horrors—as Grassdale Manor is to Helen—hard work can provide a much-needed escape from the painful reality of one’s conditions.
When Helen is still very much in love with Arthur, she uses her talents to sketch his portrait and to finish a painting of two lovesick turtle doves. She isn’t a serious painter yet, nor does she need to be to support herself. But when her marriage unravels, she needs a career to fall back on and a future she can look forward to, not just for herself, but for her child. As she matures, so does her work. She turns away from childish portraits and sentimental scenes, focusing instead on landscapes. She is literally painting a home for herself, crafting a new world where she and little Arthur can finally live in peace.
Men often try to get in the way of Helen’s efforts to paint this blissful place. It’s no coincidence that men are forever interrupting her when she is hard at work: she must flee social obligations and scenes of varying degrees of merriment and drunkenness in order to paint, and potential suitors, including Walter Hargrave and Gilbert Markham, often walk in on her and disturb her concentration. In this way the men, even the well-intentioned Gilbert, represent the system of laws and social norms that aimed at keeping women subordinate. The most extreme example of this is, of course, when Arthur, having read a portion of Helen’s diary, throws her paintings and supplies into the fire. He hopes to break both her spirit and her physical means of escaping him (the work she was intending to sell), and keep her dependent on him forever. Helen doesn’t give up, though, and eventually she does work her way to freedom.
Other characters also benefit from hard work. Whenever Gilbert Markham finds himself agonizing over his hopeless love for Helen, he turns to his farm for consolation, and the work is usually sufficiently challenging to distract him at least for a time from heartbreak. And at the end of the novel, Gilbert signs the farm over to his hapless brother, Fergus, and this newfound employment helps Fergus grow into a responsible and contributing member of society.
Idleness is therefore shown to be the enemy of a peaceful mind. Arthur and his friends illustrate this point well, doing very little with their time beyond drinking and partying it away. Sometimes they spend their hours in sport, hunting at their own or someone else’s country estate. Usually, however, they waste it in gambling and drunkenness, and none of these activities promotes happiness and stability. Arthur dies with nothing to show for himself but regret, sin, and debt. Ralph Hattersley, by contrast, becomes a successful horse breeder. His success is only possible when he leaves behind an empty existence of purposeless partying for the rewards of work and family.
Once again Brontë’s neat endings for her characters, rewarding the hardworking and punishing the lazy, show the relatively straightforward lesson she imparts to her readers about the benefits of work—yet this lesson is somewhat complicated by a social system dictating that members of the upper classes spend their lives in leisure. For Helen, her work is visual art, giving her the chance to create a new and bright future for herself out of paint, canvas, and a mature vision of the world around her. Regardless of vocation, Brontë suggests, humans are happiest and at their most fulfilled when they are striving to produce a work of lasting value.
Work and Idleness ThemeTracker
Work and Idleness Quotes in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
You’re not fit to associate with ladies and gentlemen, like us, that have nothing to do but to run snooking about to our neighbours’ houses, peeping into their private corners; and scenting out their secrets, and picking holes in their coats, when we don't find them ready made to our hands—you don’t understand such refined sources of enjoyment.