74 pages 2 hours read

Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1848

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Summary and Study Guide


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the second and final novel written by Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the youngest of the three celebrated Brontë sisters. The novel was published in 1848 under Anne’s pseudonym, Acton Bell. Unlike Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey (1847), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an immediate sensation and stirred strong reactions to its subject matter, which touched on adultery, marital separation, alcohol use disorder, and domestic abuse. After her death, Anne’s reputation languished in comparison to that of her two sisters, but in the later 20th century, feminist scholars hailed the novel’s themes of gender equality and female independence. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has since earned a place as a classic of English literature.

This guide uses the Penguin print edition published in 1979.

Content Warning: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and this guide contain references to alcohol use disorder, substance addiction, suicidal ideation, and domestic abuse.

Plot Summary

In a letter addressed to J. Halford, Gilbert Markham, the son of a gentleman farmer, declares he will share the chief events of his life before they met. In letters that give way to direct narrative, Gilbert describes how in 1827, when he is 24, a young single mother, Mrs. Graham, moves into nearby Wildfell Hall, a large house in their Yorkshire neighborhood that has been abandoned for some time.

Gilbert’s family and others of the neighborhood are intensely curious about Mrs. Graham’s reclusive ways and protectiveness towards her young son, Arthur. Gilbert is initially piqued by Mrs. Graham’s cool manner toward him, but as they become acquainted, he comes to admire the sober, self-possessed young woman who supports herself by selling her paintings in London. His companionship with the more mature Mrs. Graham leads Gilbert to outgrow his shallow infatuation with the rector’s daughter, Eliza Millward, even though Mrs. Graham does not encourage his attentions and insists she will not remarry.

Gilbert realizes he is in love with Helen Graham when the young people of the neighborhood enjoy a picnic excursion by the sea. Gossip circulates that questions Mrs. Graham’s relationship with the local young squire, Frederick Lawrence. Gilbert defends Mrs. Graham from the rumors, which he suspects are being spread by a jealous Eliza and the proud Jane Wilson, who wants to win Mr. Lawrence herself. When Gilbert can no longer hide his feelings for Mrs. Graham, she promises to tell him about her past. Before they speak, Gilbert sees her walking with Lawrence, who puts his arm around her as she leans on him.

Gilbert is crushed at this betrayal and his manner toward both of them turns cold and abrupt. When Lawrence approaches Gilbert one day while they are riding, Gilbert angrily strikes Lawrence, who falls from his horse. Wanting to prove his conclusions about her are wrong, Helen gives Gilbert her journal and asks him to read it but to not share with anyone what he learns. Gilbert, writing to his friend, says he will relate the contents in whole.

Thus begins Helen’s journal, dated 1821. Helen is 18 and in love. In her journal, she describes how, on a visit to London with the aunt and uncle with whom she lives, she met and fell in love with the handsome, charming Arthur Huntingdon. Her uncle invites friends to their country home, a party that includes Huntingdon, and Helen is ecstatic. Huntingdon discovers Helen’s feelings and teases her by flirting with Annabella Wilmot, but he assures Helen he is in love with her, and Helen’s aunt catches them in an embrace. Helen insists she wants to marry Huntingdon despite her aunt’s warnings that he is not a man of strong principle. Helen believes she can be a redeeming influence on her husband.

Soon after she agrees to marry him, however, Helen learns about aspects of Huntingdon’s character that make her doubt his integrity. He pokes fun at his friend, Lord Lowborough, who struggled to overcome addictions to gambling, alcohol, and opium. Once they are married, Helen confides in her journal that she finds Huntingdon selfish, vain, thoughtless, and unkind. He teases her with stories about his previous love affairs and has no real interests of his own. Helen’s efforts to chastise and guide him lead to quarrels rather than his reformation.

When Helen has a son, her husband complains about her devotion to the boy. Helen loves her husband and feels it is her duty to see to his comfort and care, but the task is increasingly difficult as he becomes capricious, scornful, and mocking towards her. Huntingdon makes trips to London or to other house parties while leaving Helen at home to manage the house and estate. When he invites friends to stay at Grassdale, Helen is insulted to find that her husband still flirts with Annabella, even though she married Lord Lowborough.

Huntingdon’s other friends, Hattersley and Grimsby, encourage excessive drinking and rowdy behavior, and Helen writes in her journal of violent scenes where a drunk Hattersley strikes and shakes his wife Millicent, Helen’s friend. Walter Hargrave, Millicent’s brother, tries to ingratiate himself with Helen by reporting on her husband’s bad behavior. Helen tries vainly to keep Huntingdon from drinking too much, but he no longer cares for her opinion or her affection.

Helen is devasted to learn that Huntingdon is having an affair with Lady Lowborough. When she confronts them, neither shows remorse for their adultery. For Helen, from that day forward, she is a wife in name only. Huntingdon’s behavior has destroyed her love for him. He taunts her by showing Helen love letters that Lady Lowborough writes. Helen is aggrieved by the pursuit of Walter Hargrave, who wants her to run away with him and is angry when she refuses. She wishes to remove her son Arthur from his father’s increasing alcohol addiction and corrupting influence. Helen’s first attempt to leave her husband is thwarted when Huntingdon reads her journal and learns of her plans.

When Huntingdon brings in a governess who is really his mistress, Helen takes her son and her loyal servant Rachel to Wildfell Hall, a family property where her brother Frederick has agreed to let her stay. The journal ends with Helen’s report of meeting various new neighbors.

Gilbert resumes his letters to Halford, describing his emotional reconciliation with Helen. Now that he understands what she has gone through, he loves her more than ever. Helen insists that they cannot see each other but might write letters after she leaves. Shortly thereafter, Gilbert is astonished to hear that Helen has returned to her husband to nurse him while he is ill. Helen’s letters to Frederick, which he shares with Gilbert, describe how she tries to persuade Huntingdon to repent of his ways, but he dies in agony and fear of going to hell.

Then, Helen’s uncle dies as well, and Gilbert feels it would be improper to approach her while she is mourning. When Eliza Millward shares a rumor that Helen is to be married, Gilbert rushes off to find that Frederick has married Esther Hargrave, Walter’s sister. Gilbert wishes to see Helen, but when he learns she has inherited her uncle’s estate, he fears that their situations are too different now and she would do better to forget him.

As Gilbert stands outside the gates of Staningley, young Arthur notices him, and Helen invites him inside. Gilbert explains that he refrained from contacting her out of pride that she is too far above him in station. Helen insists they are equals in spirit, as long as he loves her. Gilbert concludes by dating his letter 1847 and reminding Halford that he and Helen have had many happy years together, have several healthy children, and look forward to a visit from Halford and Gilbert’s sister, Rose.