Emily Brontë’s 199th birthday is a good time to sweep away the fluff of romantic notions that shroud her only novel, and to examine her genius.
In a paradox not unusual to this milieu, a ‘paranormal romance’ quadrupled the sale of a classic that is impossible to categorise as either gothic, or social commentary on life on the Pennine moors, or tale of obsessive love, or one of revenge. Twilight, a set of four vampire-human romance novels by Stephanie Meyer, first released in 2005, inadvertently pushed the sales figures of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Bella, the female-human protagonist of Twilight, compares her love for the vampire Edward with Catherine’s passion for Heathcliff in Brontë’s 1847 novel. The publisher Harper Collins reissues Wuthering Heights with a cover that includes the line: ‘Bella and Edward’s favourite book’. The novel’s sale escalated from 8,551 annually in Britain (pre 2005) to 34,023, if the figures of Nielson Bookscan are to be believed.
Bella’s reference to Wuthering Heights in the context of her feelings for her werewolf beau – while beneficial as a sales and marketing strategy to ensnare new readers – reveals a common oversimplification of the book’s thematic sweep. It classifies Wuthering Heights as a love story set in the moors.
Perhaps the author’s 199th birthday – she was born on July 30, 1818 – is a good time to sweep away the fluff of romantic notions that shroud her only novel, and to examine her genius. Her birthday is also a fitting occasion to reflect upon the fact that the architect of such a vehement piece of work was a dull letter writer, but could bake bread that was deemed exceptional. She was shy, the biographers declare, and yet, she prompted statements like the one Constantin Héger, her schoolmaster in Brussels, made: “She should have been a man – a great navigator…her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty.”
The narrative of Wuthering Heights thunders and quakes like a squall across the heath; it glows like the immense fires blazing with coal, peat and wood in the hearth; it stupefies the reader with its dead rabbits, its rolled-up gipsy curs and other heathen companions, its insolent demands for love in unlikely places. Its structural scaffolding is held together by two narrators – Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, and Ellen (Nelly) Dean, his housekeeper, who is also witness to three generations of Earnshaws at Wuthering Heights, their dwelling on the moors, exposed at all times to the tumult of the north winds. Lockwood, who impetuously and inaccurately assess his landlord Heathcliff as “A capital fellow!’ establishes the fictive present, but it through Nelly Dean, recalling the past, that the destinies of the Earnshaws and the Lintons are revealed; their delusions and miseries tumble out, as unstoppable as the curses that emanate from the deranged eldest Earnshaw child, Hindley.
Brontë’s choice of non-linear storytelling, her use of flashback and fragmented conversations to tell this tale of savagery and tender devotion, is perhaps as unique as her choice of lead characters: Heathcliff and Catherine. Other nineteenth-century female authors (Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot) deployed simpler narratives and preferred conventionally attractive protagonists. But Brontë, through Nelly Dean’s recollections, introduces Heathcliff as “a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk: indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s; yet when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand.” The foundling is an ‘it’; he is assigned a gender only after the Earnshaws christen him ‘Heathcliff’.
The adult Heathcliff is more exotic than romantic; when he returns to Thrushcross Grange after a period of being away, Nelly Dean describes him as much-altered from his former, degraded self:
“A half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified: quite divested of roughness, though too stern for grace.”
Dark, vindictive and smoulderingly Byronic, Heathcliff is never quite the ‘hero’ who returns to claim Catherine, his “heart’s darling,” who is married to peevish Edgar Linton. He returns to claim Wuthering Heights; he returns to right the wrongs of his childhood, to destabilise bastions of power and seize control of the very place where profanities like “gipsy,” and “imp of Satan,” and “beggarly interloper” were hurled at him.
Catherine too, is hardly the archetypal Victorian heroine. As a six-year-old, she “could ride any horse in the stable,” and asks for the unlikely gift of a whip when her father Mr. Earnshaw makes a trip to Liverpool. As a young woman, she is inclined to pinch, slap and terrorise with her foul temper, anyone who comes in her way or resists indulging her moods. Nelly Dean recalls:
“She, supposing Edgar could not see her, snatched the cloth from my hand, and pinched me, with a prolonged wrench, very spitefully on the arm.”
Volatile, wayward and malevolent, Catherine displays neither delicate disposition nor manners. Wild like the heath that grows on Wuthering Heights, and happiest when roaming the moors with her Heathcliff, she is also astute in discerning that to marry him would be to plummet in society: She confides in Nelly Dean:
“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same…”
The forthrightness of this declaration is perhaps what bestows upon Wuthering Heights the convenient tag of a love story. It is also what drew filmmakers like William Wyler to make the 1939 film, with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Catherine. There is Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation of the novel as well, in which youthful Heathcliff, played by Solomon Glave, is black, and the brutality with which he is treated by the Earnshaws is rendered as racial conflict. Its 1958 operatic version by Composer Carlisle Floyd opens with a prologue that shows Heathcliff as master of Wuthering Heights, and shifts to the past, when he was an orphaned urchin living at the mercy of the Earnshaws. In an interview to Time magazine, the composer said of the book, “I realised it’s very badly written; I could use almost no Brontë dialogue.” An MTV musical in 2003 has songs by Jim Steinman, and turns Heathcliff (renamed Heath) into a rock star, who is referred to as Faux-Bro by Hindley (renamed Hendrix).
In the novel, it is only after Catherine’s admittance to loving Heathcliff with a force as primal and eternal as the rocks beneath the wilderness of the moors that there is a discernable thematic shift. Wuthering Heights is no longer about an elemental and untainted love; it gushes forth with a fierce tale of revenge and exoneration, and moves towards an unsure bid for the restoration of quietude.
Early reviews of the novel were, predictably, abrasive. Henry Chorley, who wrote for the Anthenaeun from 1830 to 1868, described it as a “disagreeable story”. Commenting on Wuthering Heights, the home, he wrote that it is “a prison which might be pictured from life…let us hope (the author) will spare us further interiors so gloomy as the one here elaborated with such dismal minuteness.”
Wuthering Heights appeared in London in 1847 in two volumes that were part of a three volume set that included Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. Both sisters were first published by Thomas Cautley Newby as Ellis and Acton Bell – the male pseudonyms they acquired to conceal their femininity. Charlotte, Emily and Anne were also published in 1846, in a volume of poems titled Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. It was Charlotte who had “accidentally alighted on a MS volume of verses in my sister Emily’s handwriting,” and discovered that they had “a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating.” It was Charlotte who devised a plan to have them published, along with poems by herself and Anne.
It is only fitting then, that Emily, the fifth child of Patrick Brontë, a clergyman, and Maria Branwell Brontë, who died of cancer in 1821, should receive an everlasting tribute from her unwavering champion, Charlotte, who wrote of her sister in a Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell: “Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”
Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.