Helen Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wilfred Hall was a tale that took place in the early 1800s. This novel was written by the English author Anne Brontë, but was published under the pseudonym of Acton Bell, in 1848.
This was during the time in which women had very few rights outside of the home. Most women at that time went from their father’s home to their husband’s home, and the only rights that they were allowed was the ones that were granted to them by their father, brother(if adult) or husband.
Since women had no legal standing in society, they were not allowed to own property nor were women able to sue for divorce. The husband retained all rights in the marriage, and he could do pretty much whatever he liked. During this era, women cannot sue for divorce, or get out of a bad marriage, regardless of the way they may be treated.
According to the story, a mysterious young woman appears one day at an Elizabethan mansion by the name of Wildfell Hall. Now this home had sat empty for many years prior to her arrival. The woman is said to be a widow, and has brought with her a young son and a servant. She lives in the old hall in the strictest seclusion and solitude. She is going by the assumed name of Helen Graham. Unfortunately, due to her mysterious nature, the townsfolk start vicious rumors about her character. But this does not stop a young farmer from finding out for himself. Gilbert Markham discovers her secrets and still displays interest in her.
Although the story is the epitome of marital betrayal, the author has a firm belief in universal salvation.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is thought of by many to be one of the very first serious feminist novels ever written. Many years later, it was noted that when Helen escaped from her abusive husband, she not only violated the social morays of the time, but was considered to have went against English law during that time as well. Women had little to no rights or any type of independent legal standing up until the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1870. Until this law was passed, women were not allowed to enter any sort of legal contracts, or own any type of property, outside of with their husbands. A woman could not petition for the custody and control of her children nor even file for divorce.
In the novel, Helen is depicted as an independent and courageously, brave woman, way ahead of her time. She has a thirst for autonomy, rather than “buckle under to the male authority figures” of the time. The woman’s role was to care for a man, do what he wanted, and follow whatever orders he gave, regardless of how he treated her. Helen followed the conventional belief system at the beginning of her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon, and was a good wife. She found herself so busy taking care of her husband that she did not have the time to follow her own pursuits, such a painting. Helen used to enjoy painting very much, but according society’s rules, only the man could do as he pleased, and Helen’s needs/pursuit of happiness came last after her husbands wishes.
She was misled at the start by romantic notions of love and duty. Like many women, even today, Helen believed that she could change her husband’s behavior for the better. But when his drinking got out of hand, he allowed the alcoholism to take over his life, and he became increasingly abusive to her, Helen finally had enough and left him.
The prevailing morals of the era were seriously challenged when the novel was released for publication. When Helen slammed the door in her husband’s face after he continued to abuse her, this was so shocking to society at the time, that some critics felt the material in the book should not be allowed in the hands of young girls and women. Although, interestingly enough, there were a few critics who actually found the novel to be refreshing and entertaining. Many people considered this to be a feminist novel,
The heroine of our story was uncharacteristically forthright and spirited, and not afraid to speak out frankly to the men in her life she came in contact with. This was quite a contrast to her close friend Milicent who was pretty much ignored or treated like a doormat by her husband. Helen leaves her abusive husband, and takes her young son with her. as she does not want her son to grow up like his father.
There are several themes that run throughout the novel; alcoholism, animal abuse, unhappy marriage, emotional abuse and physical abuse. These ideas were not uncommon for the time period in history, but the actions and behavior of Helen then, are glaringly apparent in that prim and proper society.
We see glimpses of the ever present struggle between good vs. evil, as it is pointed out how those who conform to society are accepted, while those who do not are treated poorly and seem to experience unpleasant events and circumstances. Our heroine, Helen one must admit, is a woman of uncommon courage and bravery for stepping outside the norms of society. We also see how difficult it must have been for her as the people treated her shabbily and spread vicious rumors and gossip about her character, just because she did fit the mold society expected of her.
It is easy to go along with the crowd or the group, it is an entirely different matter to stand up for your beliefs and convictions, especially when you have to stand alone. Helen was a pioneer for the rights of women everywhere, whether she was aware of it or not. Her bold, unheard of actions only proved that women did not have to downtrodden by their husbands, and they had a chance to make decisions for themselves.