|The following account is taken directly from the latest, and revised, edition (1998) of the Brontë Parsonage Museum 'Guide Book'; written and produced by their Curator and Librarian, Kathryn White and Ann Dinsdale.|
The tenant of the title is Helen Huntingdon, who, under the name Mrs Graham, arrives at the decaying Elizabethan mansion and causes gossip and rumour to spread in the neighbourhood. She arouses the interest of Gilbert Markham, a local farmer, and though she tries to repel his growing love for her, his closeness to her young son eventually makes her treat him in a more friendly fashion. The relationship however is hindered by the opposition and ridicule of his family, and by the figure of Frederick Lawrence, who seems to have an interest in or influence over the mysterious tenant which arouses Gilbert's antagonism. After the pair fight, 'Mrs Graham' thrusts into Gilbert's hands a diary which tells the story of her disastrous marriage.
A serious and pious young girl, she has become fascinated by a young man of bad reputation, Arthur Huntingdon, a Byronic figure of great fascination but also of hardly-concealed moral failings. She marries him, fatally confident that her love will reform him. For a time all goes well, but gradually he resumes his drinking and womanising, and Helen becomes increasingly unhappy. A son is born, but her husband's debaucheries become more frequent and more organised. When he begins to corrupt his son into his own 'manly' habits she decides to flee, and after an aborted attempt, sadistically thwarted by her husband, she finally achieves her aim, fleeing to Wildfell Hall, in the vicinity of her brother, who is Frederick Lawrence.
When Arthur is on his death-bed, Helen returns to him and watches helplessly as he dies unrepentant. After some delays and misunderstandings she marries Gilbert Markham.
The novel was so unsparing in its depiction of drunkenness and debauchery that Charlotte tried to prevent any reprinting of it after her sister's death. Anne's aim, however, was entirely to warn by depicting vice as it really is, unattractive and soul-destroying. Many modern critics have seen parallels in the novel to Wuthering Heights, signalled by the W.H. house name and plethora of characters whose names begin with H, but more importantly in the similar themes covered: drunkenness, corruption of children, mistreatment of woman and so on. They have believed Anne wished to set these things in a proper moral context, something conspicuously lacking in her sister's novel. However that may be, the novel has certainly increased in reputation in our own time. Many find the moralising too insistent, but it is firmly grounded in situation and characters, and the stern tone is mitigated by the discussion of the doctrine of universal redemption.
On first publication, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall sold for the usual price of £1 11s. 6d. (£1 - 57·5p.)95