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 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...
(The entire section is 3,976 words.)