The novel is framed as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend and brother-in-law about the events leading to his meeting his wife. A mysterious young widow arrives at Wildfell Hall, an Elizabethan mansion which has been empty for many years, with her young son and servant. She lives there in strict seclusion under the assumed name Helen Graham and very soon finds herself the victim of local slander. Refusing to believe anything scandalous about her, Gilbert Markham, a young farmer, discovers her dark secrets. In her diary, Helen writes about her husband's physical and moral decline through alcohol, and the world of debauchery and cruelty from which she has fled. This novel of marital betrayal is set within a moral framework tempered by Anne's optimistic belief in universal salvation.