A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
”Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”
So wrote Charlotte Brontë of her sister Emily in her 1850 Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, thereby proving at a stroke that she knew very little about either men or children – and still less about her sister. When looking for adjectives to describe Emily Brontë, the very last one you’d reach for would be ‘simple’.
The Biographical Notice is a breathtaking example of Charlotte trying to re-write history. She was desperate to dispel the accusations of “coarseness” levelled at Emily and Anne, who both wrote novels which were considered totally improper for young women to have penned. Emily was barely cold in her grave before her sister started trying to create an image of an unworldly woman, hidden from the brutal truths of life. In her undeniably beautiful, elegiac and now-famous (or possibly infamous) Preface to Wuthering Heights Charlotte even went so far as to suggest that Emily knew nothing of the realities of the world, sequestered as she was in her gloomy northern parsonage – scarcely aware of what she was doing or what she was creating. She even tried to claim that her sister had only a tenuous grasp of the facts of life.
All I have to say to that is … Tosh.
It’s a fabrication from beginning to end, as a cursory examination of what we know about Emily’s life reveals. She may have spent comparatively little time in “the outside world”, but the outside world came to her, through Blackwood’s Magazine, through the newspapers that the family read assiduously (and aloud) and through the villagers who came to the Parsonage bearing racy tales of local life.
Patrick never made any attempt to protect his children from the grim reality of that life. He discussed everything with them – even when they were very young children – encouraging them to think for themselves and form their own opinions. Emily also knew all that was happening in Haworth and Keighley. She absorbed it like a sponge, filed it away and recycled it. She was, indeed, a very bright and well-read woman – probably the most intelligent of the four siblings who survived to adulthood. Latterly, she ran the Parsonage and looked after her father single-handed, teaching herself German from a textbook propped up on the kitchen table … and she left us a novel which is quite unlike any other in world literature.
Much imitated, never bettered, Wuthering Heights stands alone.
It doesn’t even pretend to be realistic – although parts of it are very real - particularly the physical descriptions of the house and moors and the details of domestic routine – but no teenagers ever spoke the way Catherine and Heathcliff do (and don’t forget how young the central protagonists are – Catherine is 15 when Heathcliff runs away into the storm (he is 16). She’s just 19 when she dies). Emily wasn’t interested in creating sympathetic characters, either. She didn’t care whether her readers liked her characters or not and made no attempt to explain or excuse their actions – which is what stuck so thoroughly in the craw of Victorian society. People in novels who did bad things were supposed to come to a bad end. Catherine certainly did, but Heathcliff? Not really.
Wuthering Heights is frequently described as a gothic romance – usually by impressionable young women and people who have seen one of the many cinematic versions but never actually read the book; but Heathcliff is no romantic lead, nor was he surely ever intended as one by his creator. It’s a mistake to think of Wuthering Heights in those terms – and that’s probably where most of the people who profess to hate the novel come unstuck. They expect one thing and get another.
Heathcliff is a one-off, a force of nature and a truly unsettling creation. Only Catherine, who is mentally unstable herself, could possibly cling to him as a soulmate. Even after her death, she continues to dominate both Heathcliff and the story. She is there in the background all the time and finally it’s Catherine – either a real or imagined ghostly presence – who drives Heathcliff to his exhausted death – as per his own extraordinary request:
And I pray one prayer — I repeat it till my tongue stiffens — Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you — haunt me, then! The murdered DO haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts HAVE wandered on earth. Be with me always — take any form–drive me mad! only DO not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!
Consider these two equally well-known quotes – the first from Catherine, the second from Heathcliff, (following immediately on after the last quote), on the death of Catherine:
Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning or frost from fire … Nelly, I AM Heathcliff …
I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!
That’s not love – that’s obsession. And that – for me – is what Wuthering Heights is really about – the destructive power of obsession, destroying not only those in its grip, but also the people around them – who are sucked into the vortex.
Emily was a superb poet and it shows again and again in Wuthering Heights. It’s been described as a poem in novel form. There’s hardly a spare word in it anywhere … but if you pull the bones of the actual story out of the novel, it’s a totally ludicrous tale. It falls apart. It can’t stand by itself as a straight narrative. What holds it together is the way it’s written - Nelly Dean, the busybody narrator, keeps us all grounded and Emily’s genius keeps us mesmerized.
The second half of the novel – often considered as inferior to the first half by many commentators – in fact balances out the book perfectly. Heathcliff has total vengeance, his sole raison d’être for so many years, within his grasp – but at the last moment, he simply loses the will to follow through. The generational story comes full circle. We begin and end with a Catherine Earnshaw and the house in the possession of the family to whom it historically and morally belongs.
There is little evidence of a writer not in full command of her craft.
Almost uniquely for a Victorian novel, it has no authorial voice. She simply wrote the story, laid out the facts and left her readers to make up their own minds about virtually everything, including whether or not those famous sleepers at the end are actually sleeping quietly:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
Don’t forget who utters those final, beautiful words: it’s the idiot Lockwood – the comic relief – who throughout the book has been completely wrong about everything else …
The superbly atmospheric photograph of Top Withens is by stevec77 on Flickr, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.