Greg Wright: Let’s salute the Yorkshire visionary who inspired female entrepreneurs

15 April 2016    .......    The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth.    Picture by Tony Johnson
15 April 2016 ....... The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. Picture by Tony Johnson
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VISIONARIES are usually ridiculed by their contemporaries.

But without bold thinkers who walked tall in the face of scorn, we wouldn’t have any of the rights we take for granted.

Today, Britain’s economy is powered by a glorious legion of SMES - small-and-medium-sized enterprises - and micro businesses that were established by women.

I’ve met dozens of female entrepreneurs who have built up businesses that have brought jobs and investment to Yorkshire. At the start, they were armed with nothing more than vision and sheer guts.

Many of these small firms add colour and flair to what could otherwise be a bland corporate landscape. It’s impossible to imagine a thriving economy without driven, focused female entrepreneurs.

But there was a time when the concept of a woman asserting her right to be financially independent was regarded as a threat to the fabric of society.

Anyone supporting this view faced vitriolic abuse. As the number of self-employed women continues to rise, we must pause and remember a quiet revolutionary from Yorkshire.

A short walk from Scarborough Castle, you will find the last resting place of Anne Bronte, who stunned Victorian society by arguing that a woman had the right to leave an abusive husband and earn her own living.

Anne Bronte ought to be the patron saint of all self-employed women. Her novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was branded “coarse and brutal” when it first appeared in 1848, and it retains the power to shock. In the novel, Anne’s heroine Helen Huntingdon, leaves her abusive husband to protect their young son, and goes into hiding as a tenant at Wildfell Hall. Helen is determined to become financially independent, so she, in effect, establishes a micro-business to support herself as a single mother.

At Wildfell Hall, she earns a living as an artist. In many Victorian novels, ruin awaited any woman who had the temerity to leave the marital home. But Helen doesn’t crumble. She flourishes. This vision of an independent woman overcoming heavy odds to support herself financially was a challenge to the social conventions of the early 19th century.

Anne, who died shortly after the novel was published, suffered a severe posthumous punishment. A chorus of critics dismissed her as the least talented of the Brontes. Today, we have a more enlightened estimation of the novel and its author. Anne’s views have become mainstream.

A study from Oxford Economics and notonthehighstreet.com found that Yorkshire is leading the charge in female labour force participation, with many business women, like the fictional Helen Huntingdon, earning a living in the creative industries.

Simon Belsham, the chief executive of notonthehighstreet.com, estimated that around 9,000 small creative firms are now based in Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire. A significant number are run by women working from home. Technology is breaking the rigid grip of old working patterns.

Mr Belsham added: “These businesses are highlighting the huge change underway in the UK workforce; a transformation that is seeing more women in work, and more people turning to self- employment and flexible working as they shun the traditional 9 to 5 model.”

When Anne wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she could not have foreseen the radical changes that were coming . But by offering a powerful fictional role model, she provided inspiration for future generations.

As the novel’s 170th anniversary approaches, we should salute its role as a defence of a woman’s right to be economically independent, and take pride that it was written in Yorkshire.

As the Bronte society has shrewdly observed, Anne’s apparent mildness hid a fury for justice.