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.

Behind Closed Doors

Portrait of Anne Bronte (Thornton, 1820 – Scarborough, 1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 – Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 – Haworth, 1855) Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), caa 1834, 90.2 x74.6 cm.

When at the beginning of the past century more occupations were opened to middle class women, marriage ceased to be their only means of emancipation. They become free to choose the man they wanted, free to get a more specific education that could provide them with a career, free to live the life they wanted and be the architects of their fate. The dawn of a new era.

Yet, if we go back to Regency or Victorian times the word emancipation for a woman could only but coincide with one event in the life of a girl: the catching of a husband. On this purpose girls were taught to be “accomplished”, that is the learning of all those talents like singing, drawing, dancing which were useful to be noticed and appreciated in society, but useless outside those circles. Since a woman dreamed to break free from family ties as soon as possible, there was often no time to wait for a Prince Charming to be met in one ball or another, so if a good offer came, well, it couldn’t but be accepted. 27 years old, still unmarried Charlotte Lucas’ s concern to become a “burden for her family“, meant, above all, her fear to be exposed, unprotected, alone without the presence of a man beside her, that is why she promptly grabs what she believes to be her last opportunity to marry, which comes in the shape of Mr Collins. Odious Mr Collins represents her independence and she is happy with it.

Of course, we cannot know what happened behind closed doors once married: were these women satisfied with their new position of mistresses of house? Is that the life they expected? Did they feel really liberated once left their native homes? If we peruse the gallery of female characters drawn by the three Brontë sisters, we may find some interesting answers to our questions. In Wuthering Heights, just to start with, Emily Brontë ‘s heroine, Catherine Earnshaws, marries for money. She accepts the proposal of a very good man, Edgar Linton, the best catch in the neighbourhood, who offers her wealth, station, his heart. Nonetheless the charming lot won’t be enough to secure their happiness. Catherine’s obsessive love for Heathcliff will make her feel entrapped in a match she has learnt to loathe, till torn between duties and unfulilled desires, she dies. Catherine is actuallly overwhelmed by the weight of Victorian code of behaviour and morality. She is not strong enough to ignore what society required and accept the man she loves, Heathcliff, as her companion, because he is too far beneath her station. She cannot be blamed for that.

Helen Huntingdon, Anne Brontë’s protagonist of the “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, marries for love, but once the first intoxication of the mind and senses vanishes, what remains is the naked truth made of abuse and fear. She will suffer abuse and mistreatment from her husband Arthur, a libertine and lover of London social life, but since she cannot accept it and she convinces herself that she can redeem him – huge common mistake – that is why she closes herself in a marriage in which she is first tyrannized and then abandoned and betrayed, even forced to suffer the presence of Arthur’s lovers at home. Only when she realizes that Arthur is turning her son against her by educating him to alcohol and gratuitous violence, she decides to leave the marital home going against all moral and social laws. This is precisely the crucial point of Ann Brontë’s work. She focuses on the problems of the Victorian era: from the custody of children to the theme of divorce. Anne fits perfectly into that group of dissident intellectuals of the Victorian era who rebel against the hypocrisy of the upper classes and the enslavement of bourgeois respectability.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, marries for love, compassion, as her free choice. It is the most unlikely of the three plots considering the times. Rude, liar, seductive, rich, Mr Rochester offers his love and hand to Jane, a poor governess, omitting to say that he is still married to a woman, Bertha Mason, he keeps secluded in a room. He has got his reasons, of course, she is mad and dangerous. He also claims his right to happiness and in a way, being Jane’s social and economic superior, he thinks he is allowed to behave so. But Jane will accept to marry him only when she feels herself his equal, and of course, after the most important obstacle between them will be removed, that is, his wife, who will die eventually.  Rochester, who will be blinded by the fire, which will destroy his manor house at the end of the novel, becomes weaker while Jane grows in strength and confidence, after having inherited from an uncle, found real connections and even another suitor at hand. She is free to marry a man who loves and  whose faults are no mystery to her, thus contradicting one of Charlotte Lucas’s pearls of wisdom:

“‘ . . . it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’

(Pride and Prejudice)

Jane wanted no surprises. At least no more.