The novel is written as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham, to an old friend, detailing a particularly interesting time in his youth.
When the reclusive and beautiful young widow - Helen Graham - takes up residence in old Wildfell Hall, along with her young son, Arthur; the local residence all become deeply curious about her. But none so much as Gilbert Markham. Graham begins a cautious courtship of Helen, easily begun by his natural fondness for the young Arthur, and a close friendship slowly blossoms between the two of them.
Rumours about Helen start to creep around the neighbourhood, and some locals speculate that little Arthur somewhat resembles Mr Lawrence, who is Helen's landlord and Gilbert's nearest friend. But Gilbert steadfastly refuses to believe any gossip about his dear Helen. Then late one night as he finds himself drawn back to Wildfell Hall, and he sees Helen and Mr Lawrence embracing and exchanging fond words. Gilbert suddenly begins to consider the local gossip seriously.
The real truth of the entire situation comes out, when Helen asks Gilbert to read her diary. Which details the countless miseries of her marriage, explaining why she chose to elope with her child rather than continue with her unfaithful, drunken, abusive husband.
With this novel Anne Bronte was certainly treading new and dangerous ground. It was a big sucess on first publication, but after Anne's death her sister Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre) prevented it from being republished. The 'problem' with the novel was apparently it's daring realism, firstly in the portrayal of Helen's abusive alcoholic husband. And then Helen herself, who defys all convention by actually leaving her husband, and furthermore becomes and independent woman, supporting herself and her child as an artist.
In my estimation tho, the daring of the novel is not entirely about Helen's actions, but it's her character that makes the topic so radical. Because Helen always remains such a pure and innocent character. She perseveres in her unhappy marriage for so long, remaining dutiful and always forgiving her husband's trespasses. And it's only her fear for her son's own character, as he comes under the influences of his father, that makes her think of eloping. Not for her own sake, but for Arthur. And despite all of her husband's infidelities, she herself remains true to her marriage vows, even after her elopement. Thus the real appeal of Helen as a feminist figure, is that whilst defying all convention, she also remains such a sympathetic, good christian character, and entirely free from blame.
Anne's novel is probably the most revolutionary of all the bronte works, and yet I've enjoyed all of the bronte novels I've read so far. And all of them seem to carry a taste of feminist expression in them. It's such a shame that there was such jealousy and rivalry between the sisters, as they're all brilliant authors in their own right.