Gilbert begins his story in fall 1827, when, against his own wishes and the advice of his mother, he follows in his father’s footsteps and works as a gentleman farmer, tending to his father’s land on Linden-Car farm. Gilbert, walking home through his fields, tells himself that, by farming the land, he is a useful member of society and benefiting not only himself and his future children but humanity at large. The day is gloomy and cold but, once in his parlour, he manages a roaring fire and that cheers him up some. He reminds Jack that in the time frame of the story he is telling, he is only 24 years old and therefore not as in control of his emotions as he is now, writing this account.
Gilbert’s occupation as a farmer ties him tightly to nature and its rhythms. The weather often mimics his mood and vice versa, and on this particular day he is contemplating his dissatisfaction with his life. He’d hoped to distinguish himself in a more prestigious and intellectually engaging line of work.
Before he can settle in before the fire, Gilbert takes care to remove his muddy clothes and boots. His mother (Mrs. Markham) is particular about such things. On the stair he meets his sister, Rose, and brother, Fergus. The three of them then join their mother for tea and the children tell her what they’ve been doing with their days. Gilbert was busy with farm duties. Fergus wasted his time baiting badgers. Rose paid a call to the Wilsons, a neighboring family, where she not only ran into Eliza Millward, a lively young woman she thinks would be a good match for Gilbert, but also heard a juicy piece of gossip: that a very reserved single woman in her mid-twenties named Mrs. Graham is renting Wildfell Hall and living there, in its few habitable rooms, with an elderly female servant.
Each member of the Markham family has a role to play. Gilbert is the moody but responsible eldest son; Fergus the fun-loving and irresponsible second son; Rose the kind and pliable sister; and Mrs. Markham the austere and often controlling matriarch. At tea, they form the picture of domestic happiness, but their insatiable interest in their neighbors’ affairs hints at the tedium of life in a small, sleepy village.
According to Rose, both her friend Jane and Jane’s mother, Mrs. Wilson, have visited the woman, but have had very little luck in getting her to open up to them about who she is and why she has moved to Wildfell Hall. They discerned from her dress that she was a widow, but could learn nothing more than that. The plan, then, is for Eliza, known for her powers of persuasion, to accompany her father on a call to Wildfell Hall in hopes of gleaning more information. Eliza’s father intends to offer the young stranger pastoral advice; Eliza hopes to discover the intimate details of the woman’s life. Rose suggests that she and Mrs. Markham call on her as well, and Mrs. Markham agrees, pitying the woman and her lonely state.
As a young woman living on her own, Helen Graham is atypical to say the least. She excites a great deal of curiosity partially because she is defying convention, but also by virtue of her sex. The reverend assumes she is in need of pastoral advice because she is a woman and a mother—he would almost certainly not make the same assumption if she had been a man living in similar circumstances.
Fergus jokes that he can’t wait to hear about what Mrs. Graham puts in her tea and what sort of caps and aprons she prefers. Rose and Mrs. Markham visit the young woman, and report back to Gilbert—apparently Mrs. Graham is largely ignorant when it comes to domestic matters. Mrs. Graham’s ignorance surprises Mrs. Markham, who thinks all respectable ladies ought to have a working knowledge of cooking and other household tasks. It’s fine while Mrs. Graham is alone for her to know little about cooking, but she’ll have to change her ways when she marries again. Mrs. Graham surprises Mrs. Markham a second time by declaring that she is determined to remain single the rest of her life. Mrs. Markham laughs at the young woman’s earnestness, declaring she knows better and that Mrs. Graham is bound to marry again someday.
Fergus’s joke makes women the punchline. He is mocking not only Helen Graham, but the other women in the village who are curious about her, and women in general—whose interests, Fergus suggests, are mundane and brainless. Mrs. Markham’s preconceived notions concerning what a married woman must know fall right in line with Fergus’s joke. Helen’s ignorance of cooking and other domestic duties adds to her outlier status, as does her expressed desire to remain single for the rest of her days.
Rose describes Mrs. Graham as a perfect beauty, contrasting the young woman’s looks with the imperfect, albeit ample, charms of Eliza Millward. After Mrs. Markham leaves the room, she continues to regale Gilbert with details of Mrs. Graham’s person and home. He ignores most of what she has to say, but looks forward to seeing the woman in church the next day. When he does, he finds her features, while attractive, not terribly noteworthy. She is thin, and there is a tightness to her mouth that convinces him she is best admired from afar than loved up close.
In this society women of marriageable age are valued for their abilities as cooks and household managers, but their beauty often proves their most important attribute when it comes to attracting members of the opposite sex. Helen is clearly beautiful, but Gilbert finds her looks unwelcoming, hence threatening.
Mrs. Graham gives him a scornful look that Gilbert vows to make her regret someday. Then, deeming such thoughts unworthy of a man supposedly at worship, Gilbert looks around the church and sees that everyone in the congregation is engaged in the same activity as he: namely in sizing up Mrs. Graham. Even Eliza Millward is sneaking glances at the young newcomer.
Gilbert writes a long description of Eliza Millward for Jack Halford’s benefit. The reverend’s daughter, is, according to Gilbert, more charming than pretty, but her eyes are particularly bewitching, even wicked in their appeal, and he is very much taken with her, despite the fact that his mother deeply disapproves. Mrs. Markham doesn’t consider any woman good enough for her eldest son. Gilbert likens Eliza to a kitten whose moods vary from flirtatious to shy.
Gilbert continues his trend of judging a woman’s worth based on her beauty. It’s significant that, when describing Eliza for Jack, he almost exclusively dwells on her physicality. This hints at both Eliza’s shallow nature and Gilbert’s immaturity.
In the interest of giving Jack an overview of the village of Linden-Car’s main inhabitants, Gilbert continues sketching the characters of the churchgoers around him. Mary, Eliza’s sister, is beloved by her father, children, animals, and old people (Gilbert writes), but is neglected by nearly everyone else. The Reverend Michael Millward is an imposing elderly man convinced that his word is the final one. As children, Gilbert and Fergus used to have to recite their catechism for the reverend, and the memories of those times, combined with the older man’s strict attitude in matters of discipline and social conduct, cemented Gilbert’s awe of him.
Gilbert presumes that Mary Millward, a plain and stout girl, is only loved by the least discerning members of the village. This is in direct contrast to her charming, prettier sister (and is also an assumption later proved wrong). His description of the reverend is likewise telling. The Reverend Millward is in a position of unexamined authority in the village. Perhaps, though, given his unreasonably strict standards, that authority should be questioned.
Mrs. Markham respects the Reverend Millward a great deal, but when Gilbert and Fergus were young, did at times grow exasperated with his tendency to hold even young boys to exacting standards. The reverend is a robust, healthy man who adheres to an eclectic diet specific to his own appetites and needs. Should someone in the parish attempt the same diet and not achieve beneficial results, the reverend is quick to blame the dieter for not sticking to the correct program.
The reverend is obviously an egotistical, hypocritical man. He enjoys his place of power and takes advantage of his parishioners’ trust by advocating for his arbitrary lifestyle as the only healthy one. His hypocrisy suggests that parishioners need to be more skeptical of both male and so-called moral authority.
Gilbert then mentions Mrs. Wilson and her children Jane, Robert, and Richard. Mrs. Wilson, Gilbert says, is an empty-headed gossip. Jane, while beautiful and well educated, is an egotistical fortune-hunter who considers herself far above the working men who have sought her hand. Robert is an unrefined farmer, and Richard is a serious young student hoping to enter college. Finally, Gilbert writes of Frederick Lawrence, a young and wealthy squire and the owner of Wildfell Hall who now lives in a neighboring parish. Jane Wilson clearly hopes to marry Frederick Lawrence someday. He is the only local man rich and sophisticated enough for her tastes.
The fact that Gilbert is unmoved by Jane Wilson’s much-admired beauty suggests that his powers of discernment are not always influenced by a woman’s looks. He scorns mercenary motives and has the ability to see beyond a pretty façade to what lies beneath. Mr. Lawrence, the owner of Wildfell Hall, becomes a crucial character later in the book.
Gilbert closes his first letter to Jack Halford saying that, should he find this initial installment not worth his while, Gilbert will happily cease and desist. His story is a treasure he’d gladly keep to himself.
Should the reader have forgotten that this was an epistolary novel (that is, that what we’re reading is a series of letters), this serves as a useful reminder.