Helen and Arthur’s relationship in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a tense and tragic struggle between two polarized archetypes: the rake, who seeks the destruction and ruination of a woman purely to delight in conquest, and, what in modern terms is called a ‘mother-saviour’ who pursues the reformation and salvation of a man by her own hands or influence. In her woman-as-saviour role, Helen stands in opposition to Arthur Huntington’s persona of the hunter. Very early in their marriage Arthur’s attempts to prey on Helen’s emotional and spiritual existence and be in total dominance of her being, more powerful than even God, are thwarted by Helen’s equally passionate and determined intention to be as submissive and long-suffering with Arthur as Christ during his crucifixion. Helen’s messianic purpose begins to overpower Arthur’s predatorial one. Rather than being the rake who overwhelms his victim he becomes the lost sheep, or fallen angel who can only be redeemed by her.
Helen’s desire to save Arthur is expressed in hyperbolic religious terms to her aunt when the young niece is defending against her guardian’s disapproving observation that “the worse [Arthur] is…the more you long to deliver him from himself” (167). “[H]e that ‘is able to subdue all things to himself, will have all men to be saved’” (168), Helen replies, casting herself in the image of Christ. The fact that Helen’s desire to reform and improve Arthur is strengthened by “the worse he is” makes it a kind of exact reverse of the erotic aspiration of the rake who, the more pure a girl is and the more she resists his manipulations and charms, the greater is the prize of her ruined virtue. For Helen, the worse Arthur is, the greater her triumph in redeeming him. Helen as redeemer has a matronly aspect to it. Her desire to correct and reform that which is errant or sinful in human nature is not reserved for her husband but affects her relationship with her son as well, particularly evident in her efforts to ensure he does not become an alcoholic like his father. She keeps the young Arthur close to her, something she cannot manage with his father because, like Mr. Huntingdon, Helen is disappointed in her expectation of influence and power over her spouse.
Helen’s archetypal presence in the novel is not only that of a mother-saviour, a matronly queen of heaven or even angel, as Mr. Huntingdon often calls her during courtship. Helen is also a witchy creature, and, indeed, Mr. Huntingdon calls her “witch” as well (173). The novel begins with Helen alone among strangers. She is a woman with no man to speak for her and thus has all the eyes and ears of society on her, waiting to witness and adjudge her presentation of herself: a position recalling a witch-trial in which an alleged witch would have her life and body publicly exposed in an inquiry. Helen is an outsider, rather unlike the paragon of conventional Victorian womanhood as presented by Gilbert—namely his mother, an “honoured lady” who is introduced to us “seated in her arm chair at the fireside” having “swept the hearth, and made a bright blazing fire for our reception” (43). Helen, however, is too independent and passionate to be a model of meek, submissive Victorian womanhood. Her independence also has witchy allusions in the chapter called “The Miniature” wherein she casts a likeness of Mr. Huntingdon into the fire just to spite him—reminiscent of the classical witch Medea killing her children to punish her anti-hero Jason and defend her dignity.
From mother-saviour to witch to her final literary archetype of a woman of independent means, Helen consistently rebuffs all attempts to subdue her or even relate to her outside of the roles and definitions she creates herself. She does this on a personal level with Arthur Huntingdon, then socially as the tenant of Wildfell Hall, with powerful feminine archetypal energy.
P.S. In the mythological Elysium fields Medea is the wife of Achilles, one of the greatest of heroes whose weakness, it could be argued, is the result of maternal inadequacy. Does Helen have such an Elysian fate or does Carlyle’s perceived lack of heroes pertain to this novel as we have been discussing in class?