Marrying the Bad Guy

“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

The Tenant of Wildfell HallI 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)

Tenant publicity shot - Helen and Arthur Huntingdon

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.

Tenant publicity shot - Helen Huntingdon

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.

Mansfield publicity shot - Fanny Price with Henry Crawford

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?

Mansfield publicity shot - Henry CrawfordUnlike 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.


7 comments on “Marrying the Bad Guy

  1. shaunagh61 says:

    Insightful! The sheer beauty of Austen is that the seemingly suitable or the Prince Charming character may be attractive but not necessarily the best choice.

    • Miss Sneyd says:

      I agree, Jane Austen was a great judge of character! Mary Crawford, Frank Churchill, John Willoughby, William Elliot, and George Wickham are others of her characters that seem charming to begin with, but turn out to not be the greatest choices.

  2. Caroline says:

    This reminds me of a real-life situation: the marriage of Byron to his high-minded, virtuous wife to escape incest allegations. I think Austen was being a bit MarySueish by having the charismatic Henry Crawford fall in love with and propose to Fanny. These things are not likely to happen. Such men always go for lively beautiful charming girls. I could imagine him flirting with but not proposing to her. I never really saw what Arthur Huntingdon saw in Helen.

    Of course it’s possible that these gentlemen were used to having women throw themselves at him, so Fanny’s resistance might attract Henry. If Henry was so used to flirtatious women (and Regency ladies who were important in society were almost always adulterous) then his main attraction to Fanny wouldn’t be her beauty, but her rare innocence. Middle-class women those days were more moral and wanted to keep a reputation intact.

    • Miss Sneyd says:

      I don’t think that Anne Brontë wrote enough to convince us of Arthur Huntingdon’s initial love for Helen. But, then, their courtship is seen through Helen’s eyes, not Arthur’s. Since it is in diary form, we never see directly into his mind or feelings, and perhaps that affects our viewpoint as well. It is a sad omission, since it neglects to convince us of his affection for her. However, it has been a while since I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall — perhaps there are more clues to explaining this subject than I have noticed before.

      Many people do think that it is unnatural for Henry to fall in love with Fanny. I disagree. Richard Jenkyns puts it this way in his book A Fine Brush on Ivory:

      “Some critics have found it hard to believe that a lively, worldly man like Henry Crawford could ever have fallen for a good little mouse like Fanny, but on the contrary, he is exactly the type of man who marries his secretary. It is significant that he is said to be plain: he needs to prove to himself his power of conquest. Henry is vain: he wants power and he wants admiration. He knows that Fanny is pretty and gentle, but he also comes to realize that she is passionate: he has seen this from the warmth and strength of her love for her brother. … But he also wants adoration. His sister sees it at once: ‘I approve your choice from my soul, and foresee your happiness as heartily as I wish and desire it. You will have a sweet little wife; all gratitude and devotion.’ … [T]he irony … is that he has misread: Fanny … is not so simple and artless: she is a tough, severe judge” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 135).

      Henry was not initially attracted to Fanny, but when he gets to know her, he discovers her sweetness, her intelligence, her passion, and her high sense of honor. He is willing to flirt with any attractive girl, but unwilling to commit his happiness to her. Fanny is different. “I could so wholly and absolutely confide in her,” said he; “and that is what I want.” (Ch. XXX). I think also that Henry liked the idea of marrying a “damsel in distress”, so to speak, — of “rescuing” her and raising her up. He tells his sister, “Yes, Mary, my Fanny will feel a difference indeed … in the behaviour of every being who approaches her; and it will be the completion of my happiness to know that I am the doer of it …. Now she is dependent, helpless, friendless, neglected, forgotten. … What can Sir Thomas and Edmund together do … for her happiness, comfort, honour, and dignity in the world, to what I shall do?” (Ch. XXX).

  3. shaunagh61 says:

    I absolutely believed that Henry could fall in love with Fanny because she was different and unattainable. And I love that Austen tells us that Fanny would have finally succumbed to Henry if Edgar had not come to his senses in time and if Henry had not been tempted by Maria. The reader is pleased that Fanny has Edgar as men often don’t change and if in a parallel universe Edgar had married Mary and Fanny had married Henry, Fanny would have had to put up with a womaniser all her life. What I like about Austen is the lessons are there but so is the happy ending so the reader doesn’t have to slash her wrists at the end. And Austen’s irony is such that she knows she is being a bit pollyannish but, hey we know that is the way life should work out, even if it doesn’t.
    (I’m not sure of the etiquette on blogs, am I allowed to ask any readers to look at my blog Austen’s Guide to Happiness?Could someone please advise.)

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