Becoming a Tenant


It is dawn. In the darkness three silhouettes are on the run: Helen Graham, her son and a trusted servant. They aim at leaving behind a life made of vexations suffered from an egoist self-conceited man, Helen’s husband, to face all the troubles of an uncertain future. Their destination is Wildfell Hall, Helen’s family house. Helen Graham is the protagonist of Anne Brontë’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, a novel which can be considered in all respects a feminist milestone, as the authoress’ s intent is clearly that of vindicating the necessity of women’s emancipation, a “real” one.

At the time of publishing, that is 1848, the word emancipation for a woman still coincided with marriage: a girl left her patriarchal structured family to emancipate herself and join another one, whose prevailing role naturally pertained to the husband. It was truly a peculiar way of emancipating oneself from our modern point of view, particularly, if we consider that before the Women’s Property Act of 1870, once married, women lost their rights on their properties, profits, they had no legal custody of their own children and could not sue or divorce. Therefore, emancipation meant actually leaving a cage to fly lightly into another one, hopefully on the wings of love. “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” warned a more realistic Charlotte Lucas and she was right, as too often those girlish Prince Charming fantasies crashed against the reality of that long awaited “emancipation”. That “unpalatable” truth had to be made known and Anne did it, in her own way.

Helen Graham, in fact, is one of those women who married for love. Being her reason blurred by her feelings, she is blind to her beloved  Arthur’s tricks and wicked nature and she is determined to have him despite her family’s warnings. Pretty soon, once clouds disappear and Helen recovers her better judgement, she understands that under the ruins of what she believed marriage was, nothing remains but abuse and fear. She is bullied and mistreated, in fact, by her husband Arthur, but only when she realizes that their only son has begun to be the object of his ill-treatments too, she decides to leave the marital home going against all the moral and social laws of the time and take refuge at Wildfell Hall, her brother’s house. She will become, hence, a “tenant”, that is displaced. The word tenant reinforces, in fact, the concept that society did not conceive a place for a woman without a man by her side. Those places were all filled by men. Helen is well aware of that, in fact, she introduces herself in the new neighbourhood as a widow, thus providing herself with an acceptable justification for her present situation to the eyes of strangers.

Life was not what Helen had hoped to be and her story was that of many other girls: painful truths often untold for shame or fear. Anne meant to give voice to those silent cries, but, naturally, that voice at those times had to belong to a man to be heard, that is why, just like her other sisters, she published her works using a male pseudonym. The novel was a hit, but popularity often attracts bitter criticism too and this was exactly the case. That is why she felt compelling to add a preface to the second edition of the novel, where she claimed that it was time somebody revealed the truth. That was her mission:

“…when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest?” (Preface. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall)

To those who had censured her choice of language, which was regarded shocking, if not brutal, she replied that  “if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts” the young of both sexes who were about to experience marital life would suffer less misery, they would be more prepared, rather than being left “ to wring their bitter knowledge from experience”. If somebody questioned the truthfulness of her characters she answered that they were not a product of her imagination: “I know that such characters do exist” and for this reason she felt her duty to speak the “unpalatable truth” in order to warn women, but also to incite them to be aware of their full potential.

Before marriage, for example, Helen knew exactly who she was: an artist. Once she becomes Mrs Huntingdon, thus accepting her new role of wife, she rarely refers to herself in such a way. That is why the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband represents not only the first conscious reaction against Victorian strict moral rules, but it also gave hope that things could be changed, would have changed one day, if all those silent voices had eventually found the courage to speak all together, fight together, in order that their daughters and granddaughter would have no longer been just “tenants” in this world.


11 thoughts on “Becoming a Tenant

  1. Wow! You made my day and night, my dear Stefy. That is an amazing discovery for me. The preface from above reminded me of the thought of Hanna Arendt on Eichmann: a poor servant! Thank you and love you ever. 🙏💖💖

  2. I confess to “Liking” even before I’ve even read your post – just because I am so excited that you appreciate Anne Bronte’s greatness as novelist and feminist, Last time I checked, she is still sadly underrated in English mainstream education and among Oxbridge graduates. Anne is still patronised, always treated as inferior to her sisters, as if there was no room for a third independent female mind in the Bronte marketplace. I have always suspected that she was degraded as a matter of convenience because she was perceived as less “difficult” and more conventionally “feminine”, both as writer and person, than her elder sisters. She used to be trailed as the pretty, gentle one, so it followed she couldn’t be capable of writing a serious novel, only a commercial, quaffable, romance.

    • I found this novel truly amazing, above all for the courage to deal with such topics in the Victoria era. The point is that, even her sister Charlotte was one of those who underrated this novel, which she considered an entire mistake. Charlotte didn’t even consent “The Tenant” to be published again, after Anne’s death.

  3. This was such a courageous book to write, and Anne now seems to getting her due for it! I only find myself wishing it had not been wrapped up in the masculine framing story. I’d rather have Helen’s point of view, all the way through.

  4. I shall be reading this after Wuthering Heights, Stefy, but your critique here reinforces my impression that, despite all the attention given to the prolific Charlotte, her sisters were more revolutionary than she ever dared to be. Like Emily’s novel, Anne’s touches on women’s lack of property rights as part and parcel of male abuse, and I feel affronted that their heroines were subjected to it and by the fact that nearly two centuries later not enough has been done to address the injustice.

    Incidentally, I found this a great discussion on the law regarding property rights at the time Wuthering Heights was published, if you haven’t already come across it:

    • I have exactly the same opinion. Charlotte was such a prude with Anne and her “Tenant” (the title is just genius) that forbade another publication of the novel after Anne’s death.
      Thank you for the link, I’ve already sent it to my students. Great !

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