The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins with a gentleman farmer, Gilbert Markham, promising his brother-in-law, Jack Halford, a letter detailing Gilbert’s youthful exploits. The letter comprises the first half of the novel.
Gilbert writes of his years living on Linden-Car Farm with his mother, Mrs. Markham, his sister, Rose, and younger brother, Fergus. One day in autumn, Rose tells the family about a new arrival in the village, a young mother in mourning named Helen Graham, who has moved into the gloomy Victorian mansion of Wildfell Hall with her five-year-old son and an elderly female servant. Everything about Helen Graham is intriguing to the villagers of Linden-Car. When Gilbert sees her in church the following Sunday, he thinks her beautiful but stern, not nearly as attractive as Eliza Millward, with whom he has an on-going but not necessarily serious flirtation.
Mrs. Markham hosts a party soon afterward, and the major players in Gilbert’s story are all in attendance—Rose and Fergus Markham; the Wilson family, including the materialistic Jane; Eliza Millward, her sister, Mary, and father, the Reverend Michael Millward; and Frederick Lawrence, a wealthy young man and Helen’s landlord at Wildfell Hall. Helen is not there, and talk eventually turns to her unusual stance on the consumption of alcohol. She is vehemently against drink of all kinds. The Reverend Millward argues that she should trust in God and consume wine and beer in moderate amounts. The assembled company agrees, and only Frederick Lawrence defends her.
Helen and Gilbert meet for the first time at tea at Linden-Car Farm and spar over how best to raise a child. Helen admits she shelters her little Arthur from the harsh realities of the world, but she says she does so to preserve the boy’s character. Gilbert suggests that she should instead expose him to the ways of the world in small amounts, the way a gardener would gradually introduce a fragile tree to the elements. Later, Helen invites Gilbert and Rose to visit her at Wildfell Hall, where Gilbert discovers that Helen is an accomplished painter. While Helen is out of the room, Gilbert comes across a portrait of a very handsome young man. When Helen returns, she is angry with Gilbert for looking through her work without asking permission, and he feels rebuked. Returning home late for tea, Gilbert then earns another scolding, this one from his mother. Mrs. Markham gives her opinion that a woman’s role is to serve the men in her household—a man’s role is to serve himself.
Despite their relationship’s rocky start, Gilbert and Helen slowly form a friendship, built mostly on their mutual appreciation of literature and the beauties of the natural world. On an excursion to the seaside, his regard for Helen only grows stronger. Later, on the walk home with Eliza (Helen is in a carriage), Eliza seems to understand that Gilbert has transferred his affections and is quietly depressed.
Later, at another Linden-Car Farm party, Eliza joins Jane Wilson in spreading a rumor that Helen might not be a widow after all, but the mistress of Frederick Lawrence—who might also be little Arthur’s father. Gilbert is furious and finally sees Eliza for what she is—a petty and malicious woman intent on smearing Helen’s good name.
Gilbert is one of two inhabitants of Linden-Car who thinks highly of Helen. The other is Frederick Lawrence, and, against his will, Gilbert grows suspicious of Helen’s relationship with her landlord. One night, after Gilbert and Helen have a passionate discussion about the future of their friendship, Gilbert sees Helen and Lawrence walking arm-in-arm in the Wildfell garden together. Gilbert despairs, and assumes that all the rumors are true. A few days later, Gilbert runs into Frederick and, in a jealous rage, strikes him repeatedly with his whip, leaving him bleeding and stunned in the middle of the road.
Frederick survives the attack but grows ill with fever. Helen, meanwhile, has made several attempts to reach out to Gilbert. He rebuffs them all until, fed up with the gossip surrounding Helen and eager to know the truth for himself, he heads to Wildfell Hall to confront her. Helen is happy to see him and oddly relieved to hear that his displeasure with her is founded on his perception that she and Frederick are lovers. She hands him her diary, begging him to read it and vowing that it will make everything clear.
Gilbert takes the diary home and devours it immediately. He informs Jack that the letter will now consist of Helen’s diary entries, which he transposes for Jack’s benefit. The novel is then in Helen’s hands, and her entries begin at Staningley, the estate of her aunt and uncle, Mrs. Maxwell and Mr. Maxwell. It is June of 1821, and Helen is eighteen years old and recovering from her first London season. She recounts a conversation she had with Mrs. Maxwell about marriage (before going to London). Mrs. Maxwell warned Helen about the dangers of attaching herself to the wrong man, and advised her to let her head rather than her heart guide her when it came time to choose a husband. Helen laughed her aunt off, saying she would never consider marriage to an unworthy man.
Helen is not without her fair share of suitors in London. Older men,in particular seem to attach themselves to her, namely the dull Mr. Boarham and Mr. Wilmot. Boarham even proposes to her, and Helen rejects him, much the consternation of Mrs. Maxwell. In the meantime, she has made the acquaintance of a lively and handsome young man, Mr. Arthur Huntingdon, who is everything the older suitors are not, namely fun and vibrant and handsome.
Soon Mr. Huntingdon is paying regular calls on Helen and the Maxwells, and, later, Mr. Maxwell invites him to Staningley for a shooting party. Helen cannot wait to see him again. Among the group of visitors who assemble at Staningley for the shooting party are Annabella Wilmot, Mr. Wilmot’s flirtatious niece, and Milicent Hargrave, Annabella’s much meeker cousin. Helen takes an instant liking to Milicent, but she is no fan of Annabella, especially because it seems that Mr. Huntingdon is quite taken with her. Annabella, however, seems intent upon securing the love of Lord Lowborough, a downcast young man with an aristocratic title but little wealth.
Helen quickly falls in love with Mr. Huntingdon, a fact he soon discerns when he comes across a sketch of himself among Helen’s paintings. Helen is mortified, and, the next night, when Mr. Huntingdon ignores her in favor of Annabelle, Helen flees the room weeping, only to have Mr. Huntingdon follow her and demand that she admit her feelings. Eventually she does, and he asks her to marry him. Helen does not agree right away. He must appeal to her uncle, and she needs to speak to her aunt.
Mrs. Maxwell is deeply disturbed by the news of Helen’s engagement and does not hesitate to tell her so. Helen is alarmed to find out that Milicent disapproves of the match as well. Even Annabella Wilmot, now engaged to Lord Lowborough, says she thinks the engagement a mistake. Helen and Arthur ignore all the advice of their friends and marry at Christmas time.
Helen’s next diary entry concerns their honeymoon, which, she admits, was not all she had hoped it would be. Arthur refused to take her out much in society, saying her appearance by his side would cause his former lovers no end of jealousy. Helen worries that perhaps she made a mistake in marrying Arthur, but when they settle at Arthur’s estate, Grassdale Manor, she is again at peace with her choice. For a short time, they are happy together, but Arthur eventually grows bored with country life and begins to torment Helen with stories of his many mistresses. Helen resents this and worries constantly about his drinking habits. They quarrel, and Arthur threatens to leave her for London. She persuades him to take her with him. The trip, like their honeymoon, only serves to underscore the many ways they are not suited for each other. Arthur wants only to throw parties and drink with his friends. Helen grows exhausted and eager for the quiet of Grassdale. She returns home without Arthur, who, claiming he has business he needs to sort out in town, remains behind, assuring her it will only be for a short time.
Months pass and, despite his many promises to come home soon, Arthur is still in London. He writes many affectionate letters to Helen, but she grows increasingly unhappy with each day that goes by. While Helen awaits Arthur’s return, she receives word of Milicent’s engagement to Ralph Hattersley. The news takes Helen by surprise, and she worries about her friend’s prospects for happiness.
Arthur finally comes home, feverish and weak from months of debauchery. Helen nurses him back to health, but wishes he would take better care of himself. Soon, he is ready for company and they invite a group of friends to Grassdale. The group includes Lord and Lady Lowborough, Mr. Grimsby, and Milicent and Ralph Hattersley. The visit is unpleasant for Helen, who at one point catches Arthur kissing Lady Annabella’s hand tenderly. She and Arthur argue about the moment’s significance, and Helen realizes that her husband’s views on fidelity and devotion do not match hers.
A year goes by and Helen is now a mother. She gave birth to little Arthur at Christmastime, and she now finds the bulk of her joy comes from tending her young son. She is alarmed, though, by the fact that Arthur seems unable to bond with the boy. Arthur soon leaves her again for London, where he remains for four months. In his absence, Helen learns to take comfort in the company of her son and the time she spends with Rachel, her servant and friend, and Esther Hargrave, Milicent’s younger sister. Helen often finds herself in the company of Walter Hargrave as well. It’s clear from the beginning that Walter is smitted with Helen and is furious with Arthur for neglecting her. Still, Helen cannot bring herself to like Walter, especially when he hints at the possibility of Arthur’s infidelity.
Two years pass in much the same way. Arthur comes home from London, late, sick, and in ill humor with everyone, and Helen, no longer timid, upbraids him for his drinking and bad behavior. Both husband and wife grow to dislike each other, and during yet another fall shooting party, Helen overhears Arthur and Annabella talking openly about their love for each other. Helen is nearly paralyzed by the confirmation of the affair, but places her faith in God. Maybe, with time and patience, she can repair her marriage. When she confronts Arthur about the affair, however, he casually brushes off her heartbreak.
Soon the two are living as strangers. Helen survives another of Arthur’s London jaunts and is even forced to read Annabella’s love letters to her husband. All affection and regard is wearing away, and everything is made worse by the fact that Arthur is having a poisonous effect on their son, influencing little Arthur to drink wine, curse, and condemn his mother. Desperate to remove little Arthur from the toxic environment created by his father, Helen begins to make plans for her escape.
Much to Walter Hargrave’s displeasure, those plans do not include him. Over the years, he has made several attempts to win Helen’s favor, even going so far as to propose they become lovers. Helen spurns him again and again, and turns instead to her brother Frederick. She writes to him and asks if she might take a few rooms in their old family home—Wildfell Hall—should her situation with Arthur grow unbearable.
It doesn’t take long for that time to arrive. Arthur employs a young governess, Miss Myers, to take over little Arthur’s education. Helen had hoped to teach the boy herself, in hopes of countering his father’s bad influence. Further, Miss Myers is deeply unqualified. When Rachel informs Helen that Arthur and Miss Myers are sleeping together, Helen decides finally to leave her husband. She and Rachel flee Grassdale with little Arthur, heading for the village of Linden-Car and Wildfell Hall. Helen, posing as a widow to avoid scrutiny, cannot suppress the joy she feels upon setting off on her own.
Helen’s last few entries concern the work she and Frederick do to Wildfell Hall to make it habitable, and her often tense run-ins with villagers like Mrs. Markham and the Reverend Millward. Gilbert is convinced that her final entry, in which she writes of meeting the beau of the parish, is about him, but he doesn’t know if he’ll ever find out.
The novel is again told from Gilbert’s point of view. The diary has both comforted and disturbed him. He is glad to know that Helen is guiltless, but now he understands that she is not a widow. She is still married, and therefore not free. He rushes over the Wildfell Hall to reconcile with her, and he and Helen have an intensely emotional conversation about their future. Gilbert wants them to still be intimate, good friends at least, but Helen says that is not possible. They must remain apart, hoping to meet someday in Heaven.
Gilbert reluctantly agrees to leave her alone and goes to visit Frederick Lawrence. Helen’s brother is not happy to see him, but soon forgives him. The two men become close friends, bound by their mutual love of Helen. It is through Frederick that Gilbert finds out that she has gone back to Grassdale Manor to tend to Arthur, who is deathly ill. It seems his most recent stint in town has completely disabled him, and Helen, ever the faithful wife, returns to serve as his nurse.
Gilbert learns of Helen’s life at Grassdale through letters she sends to Frederick. In those letters, she writes of Arthur’s at first gradual and then rapid decline. Her only hope for her husband is that he will make his peace with God before he dies, but Arthur is too weak and unresolved to repent. He dies in agony and Helen faints with exhaustion.
It seems to Gilbert that his and Helen’s path is finally clear. Now that she is free of Arthur, they can finally marry. But obstacles keep presenting themselves. Gilbert is hurt that Helen’s letters never mention him, and he fails to send a message to her through Frederick out of pride. It’s only when Eliza Millward informs him that Helen is to be married to Walter Hargrave that Gilbert gets up the nerve to go in search of her. What he finds when he gets to the village church is a different marriage altogether, that of Frederick Lawrence to Esther Hargrave. Gilbert continues his journey, stopping by Grassdale Manor, but Helen isn’t there. She’s at Staningley with her aunt. The driver who takes him to Staningley informs Gilbert that Helen is now an heiress. Mr. Maxwell died and left her his entire fortune. Gilbert gets out of the carriage before it reaches Staningley, now convinced that Helen will never marry him. She is rich and will now want nothing to do with a lowly Linden-Car farmer.
While Gilbert slumps, depressed, against a tree, another carriage rolls up, carrying Helen, Mrs. Maxwell, and little Arthur. Helen asks Gilbert to come with them to Staningley, and Gilbert agrees unhappily. When Helen and Gilbert are finally alone, Helen asks him why he is acting so downcast. Have his feelings for her changed? He tells her that his feelings are the same; it’s the circumstances that have changed. Helen reaches out a window and plucks a rose, attempting to hand it to Gilbert. Confused by the gesture, Gilbert backs away, and Helen, greatly upset, throws the rose out the window, telling him that it was her heart he just tossed aside. Gilbert comes to his senses, runs out, grabs the rose, and proposes to Helen. She accepts.
Gilbert and Helen go on to marry, have children of their own, and live happily on the estate at Staningley, where Jack Halford and Rose are soon expected for a long visit with their children.