|A rich Gentleman's snuff box, circa 1775-80,|
courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London
In her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte introduces us to Helen Lawrence, a young woman approaching marriable age. In the 19th Century, the chasm between the rich and the poor was vast, and crossing the distance required truly extraordinary abilities. In order to preserve a family's wealth and position, parents and guardians deemed it essential to marry off their descendants to people of similar social and economic standing. In order to prevent diluting the family's hold on the aristocracy, parents might disown their children, as the mother in Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey discovered when she married a poor English priest. Conventional wisdom also dictated that women must marry as soon as a suitable candidate is found, or risk becoming an old maid. With this aim in mind, Helen's guardians, her aunt and uncle, leave their comfortable country estate behind, and travel to London for "the season."
In London, her aunt and uncle usher Helen through balls, dinner parties, and other social functions. As the season progresses, her aunt and uncle present Helen with two candidates for marriage. Each is much closer to their age than that of Helen, and reflects aspects of their personalities. Her uncle favors the “elderly” Mr. Wilmot, while her aunt applauds the scrupulous morals and sensibilities of (the still much older) Mr. Boarham. But Helen’s heart goes out to another man, of the same social and economic strata as her own, and only a mere ten years older than her. His name is Mr. Huntington.
Helen's aunt cannot understand why Arthur Huntington has struck her fancy. She reminds Helen of their talk before traveling to London. Helen had assured her that she would not fall for a man “deficient in sense and principle, however handsome or charming in some respect he might be.” Her aunt asks if Arthur Huntington is a good man, and Helen answers that he is good “in some respects.” Her aunt asks if he is a man of principle, and Helen responds, “Perhaps not, but it is only for a want of thought.” Helen then goes on to assert that, as he is basically good, she can advise him as to how to make the best moral choices and behavior. His aunt is dubious, as Arthur Huntington is already ten years older than her. Yet despite certain worrying aspects of his behavior, Arthur has rescued her several times from the tiresome Mr. Boarham, caught her imagination with his flair and vitality, and made her laugh. Thus, he has found his way to her heart. When she is not with him, Helen dreams of him, and sketches or paints his portrait from memory.
As Arthur Huntington excites her, Helen forgets that principles and character are forged over time in the furnaces of determined thought and action. Faced with two unappealing prospects, she leaps for an attractive third. Infatuated, she believes that she can overcome any of his deficiencies and make the relationship work for both of them. Instead of rebuffing Mr. Wilmot and Mr. Boarham, and waiting for a more appealing prospect capable of meeting her aunt and uncle’s approval, she believes what her heart tells her. Riding a wave of emotion, she discards her resolutions and marries someone of less than sterling character, believing that her chosen partner will discard his own likes and inclinations, and allow her to reform him. It’s a risky venture, but as they say, the greater the risk, the greater her potential reward. After all, if Helen can work her magic on Arthur, she can have everything, right? Love, wealth, status…and of course, excitement.
Above all, God deliver us for boredom. (Or, in this case, Mr. Boarham).