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.