Although this novel is unique in Victorian fiction because of its feminist themes, it nevertheless illustrates the gender inequalities of Victorian England while at the same time, rejecting those inequalities. Helen (Mrs. Graham) does many things in this novel that a nice Victorian woman would never do – argue with her husband, slam the bedroom door in her husband’s face, hatch a secret plan to leave her husband, plan to support herself, etc. While she was a scandalous example of a Victorian woman, rebelling against the role that her society had assigned to her, she was still trapped in a society in which women were relegated to second-class (or less) citizens, good for having babies and catering to their husbands.
Helen starts out as a typical Victorian woman. She falls in love with a scoundrel and womanizer, but marries him in spite of her Aunt’s advice to the contrary, believing she can reform him. She puts up with her husband Arthur’s womanizing for quite some time, however. He leaves her to go to London for months at a time, and she is left at home to entertain herself. Even after she gives birth to a son, he continues in his wild ways. She is expected to remain at home and be the dutiful wife while he carries on to such an extent that he becomes ill from so much drinking and carousing. When Helen catches Arthur in the act of kissing her friend Annabella, she must still ask for his permission to leave him with her son, and he refuses. They are estranged, but they continue to live together because Helen has no means to support herself. When Arthur takes Helen’s diary and reads it, thus discovering her plan to leave him, he takes all of her money and destroys her artist tools with which she was going to support herself by painting. She cannot support herself and her little boy on the small amount of “allowance” that Arthur gives her. Helen must get help from another man, her brother Lawrence, in order to leave her mentally abusive husband. When Helen finally does get enough nerve to leave Arthur after he starts to have a bad influence on her son, she must disguise herself as a widow – which is more respectable than being a fleeing wife. When Helen moves to Wildfell Hall (her childhood home) to be next to her brother Lawrence, Gilbert Markham falls in love with her, but is constantly worrying about their difference in social class – she might be beneath him. In fact, his fiancee is also not good enough for Gilbert, according to Gilbert’s mother. Helen eventually inherits money from her uncle and becomes a wealthy widow after her abusive husband Arthur finally dies. Gilbert is still in love with her, and goes to visit her thinking she has remarried Mr. Hargrave (who has loved Helen in the past), but he concludes that the difference in their social stations ultimately must prevent him from marrying her. When Gilbert finds out that Helen is now wealthy, they eventually wind up getting married, again illustrating that in Victorian society, if Helen had remained poor, Gilbert would no doubt have not married her in spite of how much he loved her.