Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and Rupert Graves in the 1996 BBC TV adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

The main female¬†protagonist of Anne Bronte’s most successful novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is Helen Huntingdon. Helen’s life story, including¬†her provincial upbringing, the birth of her son and her escape from an abusive and volatile¬†marriage to Lord Huntingdon,¬†is revealed through a series of letters which are exchanged between farmer Gilbert Markham, Helen’s newest friend¬†and his brother-in-law.

Anne’s book begins with Helen’s arrival in¬†a new village. She quickly¬†becomes the¬†subject of local gossip; how can a single woman with a child be living alone in Wildfell Hall? Is she a widow? Is she a runaway? Or is she a disgraced woman? Local farmer Gilbert Markham takes a liking to Helen and refuses to believe that she is a scandalous woman; he quickly befriends and falls in love with her. During the time¬†Gilbert spends pursuing Helen, she slowly reveals the reasons behind her arrival at Wildfell Hall: Helen has run away!¬†Helen¬†tells Gilbert how she fell in love with Lord Huntingdon and enjoyed some happy months as his wife. Within one year of marriage, however, she revealed that Lord Huntingdon had¬†begun drinking heavily, left her for months on end to attend wild parties in London, and even engaged in an affair with one of Helen’s female friends. These occurrences left Helen heartbroken, penniless, and in need of escape. One night whilst Mr Huntingdon was asleep, she ran away with her son to Wildfell Hall. The remainder of the book examines Gilbert’s reaction to Helen’s story¬†of escape.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is special because it is written from a woman’s perspective. Although one of the many female characters in the story, Helen is by far the most important¬†character within the book. Through Helen’s character, Anne Bront√´ brought to light a series of social injustices that women and girls suffered as a result of hierarchical, sexist Victorian society. Helen raised awareness of domestic violence, alcoholism, and proved that even against all odds, women could escape oppressive relationships and live happily ever after!

-Chloe Simm
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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