“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” — Genesis 2:24
I recently had a discussion which turned to the subject of the foolishness of marrying a man, however charming and seemingly reclaimable, in the hope of reforming him. An element of a great deal of romantic fiction is the heroine marrying (often with the desire to reform) the “baddies” — the charming scapegrace, dashing highwaymen, Byronic heroes, &c. In Georgette Heyer’s novels, for example, we are often called on to admire wicked men (a case in point is her novel The Black Moth).
In contrast to these, two novels come to mind: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. In the latter, the heroine, Helen, marries Arthur Huntingdon, a reckless and profligate young man. She believes that he is good, but has been led astray by bad companions. She hopes that she can reclaim him — if indeed he needs it. She tells her aunt,
“I should not wish to guide him; but I think I might have influence sufficient to save him from some errors, and I should think my life well spent in the effort to preserve so noble a nature from destruction. He always listens attentively now when I speak seriously to him (and I often venture to reprove his random way of talking), and sometimes he says that if he had me always by his side he should never do or say a wicked thing, and that a little daily talk with me would make him quite a saint. It may he partly jest and partly flattery .… If I do think there is any mixture of truth in it, it is not from confidence in my own powers, but in his natural goodness.” (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Ch. XVII)
Helen’s aunt warns her, “That sounds presumptuous, Helen. Do you think you have enough [sense and principle] for both; and do you imagine your merry, thoughtless profligate would allow himself to be guided by a young girl like you?” But Helen insists, “till people can prove their slanderous accusations, I will not believe them. And I know this, that if he has committed errors, they are only such as are common to youth, and such as nobody thinks anything about; for I see that everybody likes him”. She lives to bitterly repent her error. Arthur behaves for a while, but then descends into drunkenness and, eventually, adultery.
In Mansfield Park, the heroine, Fanny Price, is desired to marry Henry Crawford, an unprincipled, selfish man. Fanny has watched him toy with the happiness of two of her cousins — gaining their affections simultaneously and then dumping first one and then the other. Does this sound like a man you would want to entrust your happiness to? And yet, Henry Crawford is very charming. He becomes more and more gentle, serious, and considerate, and he falls genuinely in love with Fanny. Because of what she has seen him do, Fanny distrusts him. When she tells her cousin Edmund that Henry’s disposition and character are such that she does not think they are suited to one another, Edmund protests that Henry only lacks a little seriousness — and that his wife might supply. Fanny, however, understandably shrinks from the task of reforming her husband. “I would not engage in such a charge,” cried Fanny, in a shrinking accent; “in such an office of high responsibility!” (Mansfield Park, Ch. XXXV). She is proved right. Henry’s “reformation” proves to not be genuine, or at least not complete.
The point is that there are no guarantees that the person you marry will change. If only Fanny had married Henry, we might think, he would have been happy and good forever… perhaps. But, the marriage could have been at the sacrifice of Fanny. What if, having gained her, he had still regressed?
Unlike Arthur Huntingdon’s, Henry’s relapse does not involve the misery of his wife, for Fanny continued to resist him. Yet many, including Jane Austen’s own sister, wish that Henry could have married Fanny. Jane Austen so well portrays Henry’s charm and the temptation to marry a woman to a man because he needs her for his reformation. Despite Arthur’s telling Helen that “a little daily talk with [her] would make him quite a saint”, neither he nor Henry Crawford really admit to themselves the need for repentance. Admitting oneself to be wrong is, I believe, the first step to changing for the better.
From our first introduction to Arthur Huntingdon, however, we suspect his “goodness”. Perhaps this is mainly because we do not meet him until after we have already met the hero, Gilbert Markham — a man who has gained Helen’s affections and whose character requires no change before he will be a suitable husband and father to her young son. (Remember that, in order to be good for a husband, a man must be good for a father too. The man you marry will be the father of your children.) I think that Anne Brontë’s novel is a good portrayal of the reasons against marrying a man in the hope of reforming him and Jane Austen’s is an excellent portrayal of the temptation to do so.
Publicity Shots from the 1996 adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with Tara Fitzgerald as Helen and Rupert Graves as Arthur Huntingdon.
Publicity Shots from the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park with Billie Piper as Fanny Price and Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford.