This is the first Anne Bronte novel I have read. I’ve read Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights (which I hated), and Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre (I liked it) and Shirley (I liked it).
I must say I was pleasantly surprised. It was very long and religious – not for a modern audience – but still I finished it.
Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia …
The novel is divided into three volumes. In the first part, narrated by prosperous farmer Gilbert Markham, a mysterious widow, Mrs. Helen Graham arrives at Wildfell Hall, a nearby old mansion. A source of curiosity for the small community, the reticent Helen and her young son Arthur are slowly drawn into the social circles of the village. Initially, Gilbert Markham casually courts Eliza Millward, despite his mother’s belief that he can do better. His interest in Eliza wanes as he comes to know Mrs. Graham. In retribution, Eliza spreads (and perhaps originates) scandalous rumours about Helen.
With gossip flying, Gilbert is led to believe that his friend, Mr. Lawrence is courting Mrs. Graham. At a chance meeting in a road, a jealous Gilbert strikes (with a whip) the mounted Lawrence, who falls from his horse. Unaware of this, Helen refuses to marry Gilbert, but gives him her diaries when he accuses her of loving Lawrence.
Part two is taken from Helen’s diaries and describes her marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. The handsome, witty Huntingdon is also spoilt, selfish, and self-indulgent. Helen marries him blinded by love and resolves to reform Arthur with gentle persuasion and good example. Upon the birth of their child, Huntington becomes increasingly jealous of their son (also Arthur) and his claims on Helen’s attentions and affections.
Huntingdon’s pack of dissolute friends frequently engage in drunken revels at the family’s home, Grassdale, oppressing those of finer character. Both men and women are portrayed as degraded, with Lady Annabella Lowborough shown to be an unfaithful spouse to her melancholy but devoted husband.
Walter Hargrave, the brother of Helen’s friend Milicent Hargrave, vies for Helen’s affections. While not as wild as his peers, Walter is an unwelcome admirer: Helen senses his predatory nature, something revealed when they play chess. Walter tells Helen of Arthur’s affair with Lady Lowborough. When his pack of friends depart, Arthur pines openly for his paramour and derides his wife.
Arthur’s corruption of their son — encouraging him to drink and swear at his tender age — is the last straw for Helen. She plans to flee to save her son, but her husband learns of her plans from her journal, and burns her artist’s tools (by which she had hoped to support herself). Eventually, with help from her brother, Mr. Lawrence, Helen finds a secret refuge at Wildfell Hall.
Part Three begins after the reading of the diaries when Helen bids Gilbert to leave her because she is not free to marry. He complies and soon learns that she returned to Grassdale upon learning that Arthur is gravely ill. Helen’s ministrations are in vain. Huntingdon’s death is painful, fraught with terror at what awaits him. Helen cannot comfort him, for he rejects responsibility for his actions and wishes instead for her to come with him, to plead for his salvation.
A year passes. Gilbert pursues a rumour of Helen’s impending wedding, only to find that Mr. Lawrence (with whom he has reconciled) is marrying Helen’s friend, Esther Hargrave. He goes to Grassdale, and discovers that Helen is now wealthy and lives at her estate in Staningley. He travels there, but is plagued by worries that she is now far above his station. He hesitates at the entry-gate. By chance, he encounters Helen, her aunt, and young Arthur. The two lovers reconcile and marry.
I didn’t like it enough to spend too much time on it, but here are some other reviews.