Gilbert Markham, a young gentleman farmer, is immediately interested when a strange tenant comes to Wildfell Hall. Mrs. Graham, as her neighbors know her, is young and beautiful, and her demand for seclusion arouses great curiosity among the local gentry. She is particularly criticized for the way in which she cares for her small son, Arthur, whom she will not allow out of her sight. Gilbert’s mother declares the child will become the worst of milksops.
On his first visit to Wildfell Hall, Gilbert learns that Mrs. Graham is a landscape painter of considerable ability and that she is concealing her whereabouts from her former friends. Her air of secrecy arouses both his curiosity and sympathy. Avoiding the attentions of Eliza Millward, the vicar’s daughter, for whom he until then showed a preference, Gilbert spends much of his time in the company of the young widow. He accompanies her and young Arthur on long walks to find scenes for Mrs. Graham to paint. His friends attempt to discourage his attentions to the tenant of Wildfell Hall. There is a rumor that she is having an affair with Frederick Lawrence, her landlord, and Lawrence himself assures Gilbert that he will fail in his attentions to Mrs. Graham. When he tries to tell her of his growing affection, Mrs. Graham insists that Gilbert regard her simply as a friend.
After the vicar, Mr. Millward, accuses the widow of improper conduct, Gilbert visits her, declares his love, and wins from her a promise that she will reveal her secret to him. Later that night, however, he overhears Mrs. Graham in a mysterious discussion with her landlord that leads him to suspect that the rumors about them are true. Gilbert thereupon resolved to have no more to do with her. On his next encounter with Lawrence, Gilbert strikes his rival and wounds him severely.
When Gilbert meets Mrs. Graham a short time later, she gives him a copy of her journal to read. The journal, beginning in 1821, tells the story of Helen Graham’s life for the past six years. It opens with an account of her meeting with Arthur Huntingdon, whom she loved despite her aunt’s claim that the young man was wild and wayward. Her aunt, with whom she made her home, took her away so that she could see no more of the objectionable Huntingdon, but by a miscalculation, the unwelcome suitor was invited to their summer home for partridge hunting. Helen married Huntingdon that autumn, only to find, shortly afterward, that her husband’s true character was exactly as her aunt described. He was a drunkard, a man incapable of high principle or moral responsibility. She began to be contemptuous of him, and he responded with growing indifference toward her. Every year, Huntingdon spent several months in London, always returning weakened by dissipation. At home he held long hunting parties for his dissolute companions. Despite Helen’s hopes, the birth of their son did nothing to change his way of life.
When Helen’s father died, she was greatly disturbed by her husband’s callous attitude toward her grief. The scenes of drunken debauchery continued in her home, and one day she discovered her husband making love to Lady Lowborough, a visitor in their house. When she demanded a separation for herself and her child, Huntingdon refused. To keep the affair from becoming known to others, Helen at last decided to stay with her husband.
Fearing that Huntingdon was corrupting their son and alienating his affections from her, Helen finally began to make her plans to escape. During that time she had to fight...
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off a would-be lover of her own, Mr. Hargrave, who was determined to win her. She hoped to find refuge in a place where her husband could not find her and legally take her child from her. Her pride kept her from appealing to her brother or to her uncle and aunt. After Huntingdon learned of her plan from reading her journal, he had her watched constantly, and he refused to let her have any money in her possession.
Her position became unendurable, however, when Huntingdon brought his mistress into the house on the pretext of providing a governess for young Arthur. Helen determined to ask her brother to let her occupy rooms in the old and now unused family home. She made her escape without money or resources, taking only her son with her.
The journal ends with Helen’s arrival at Wildfell Hall. Reading this account, Gilbert realizes that Frederick is the brother mentioned several times in the diary. He at once seeks out Helen to renew his suit; despite his entreaties, however, she insists that they should not see each other again. Gilbert goes to see her brother, whom he treated so harshly at their last meeting. The reconciliation between the two men is prompt and sincere.
A short time later, the whole community learns the secret of the tenant of Wildfell Hall. Huntingdon falls from his horse, and his wife, learning of his serious condition, goes to his house at Grassdale to look after him. Frederick tells Gilbert that Huntingdon received her ungraciously but that she is determined to stay with him out of a sense of duty.
Despite her care, however, Huntingdon secures a bottle of wine and drinks it in defiance of his doctor’s orders. His indiscretion brings on a relapse that ends in his death.
Several months later, Gilbert hears that Helen’s uncle died and that she went to live with her aunt at Staningley. More than a year passes before he dares to go to her. He finds her at Staningley, and the welcome of young Arthur is as joyous as Helen’s is warm and gracious. She and Gilbert are married a short time later.