Vulpes Libris

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.

Wuthering Heights – A Tale that Grew in the Telling?

Twisted hawthorn 1 “Sir – I request permission to send for your inspection the M.S. of a work of fiction in 3 vols.  It consists of three tales, each occupying a volume …”  (Letter from Charlotte Brontë to the publisher Henry Colburn – 4th July 1846)

If you’re not familiar with the history of the Brontë family and their novels, those two simple sentences, written by Charlotte in 1846, probably won’t strike you as remotely intriguing.

Victorian novels were, after all, frequently published in three volumes, each of approximately 300 pages, and then bound together into a single edition  This was in order to maximize profits – sell the novel first in instalments, then publish the whole thing in one book.  That way you get to sell it twice.  (The photo below right is a typical 19th Century ‘three volume novel’ split into the three equal-length sections).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Charlotte’s suggestion that three separate tales could be published thus was therefore hardly out of the ordinary.  Even knowing that the three works of fiction Charlotte was touting were her own The Professor,  Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey might not start any hares in your brain – unless you’re familiar with the length of each of those books.

The Professor was never published in Charlotte’s lifetime, but when it was finally presented to the eagerly awaiting reading public by her lifelong publishers Smith, Elder, it ran to some 250 pages.

Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were eventually published together, in one three-volume edition, in 1847.  And this is where it gets interesting.

Take a look at that book I showed you before – only this time from the business side:


It is, in fact, Smith, Elder‘s 1889 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey (the latter being relegated, rather ignominiously, to ‘ETC’).  Spot the deliberate mistake.  Two novels, three volumes.  You don’t have to be a genius to work out that one of those novels is occupying two volumes – and that novel is, of course, Wuthering Heights.  In the first edition – published by Thomas Newby – the two volumes of Wuthering Heights stretched to 348 pages and 416 pages respectively while Agnes Grey accounted for a mere 363 pages.

“But”, I hear you cry “ … why would Charlotte have tried to sell The Professor, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey to publishers as ‘three tales, each occupying a volume’ if Wuthering Heights was longer than the other two put together?”

Exactly.  The answer is that we don’t know, but there is one very obvious explanation:  that she didn’t, and that in July 1846, Wuthering Heights was in fact much the same length as the other two books.

As anyone who has read Wuthering Heights will know, it’s very much a book of two halves, and the point in the narrative where one half ends and the other begins is the death of Cathy.  (To avoid confusion, I’ll stick to the standard practice of calling the elder Catherine ‘Cathy’ and her daughter ‘Catherine’).  Reverting once more to the photographs above – the yellow marker is the beginning of Wuthering Heights, the blue marker is the beginning of Agnes Grey and the pink marker is the beginning of Chapter XVII In Wuthering Heights  – after the death and burial of Cathy.

It is perfectly possible, with a minimum of re-writing, to ‘lift’ the whole of the second generation story out of the book and still leave the main narrative intact, ie: Cathy and Heathcliff’s mutual obsession ends with her premature death and Heathcliff perishes miserably, tormented by her real or imagined ghost.  If you run that storyline through your head a few times, adding in the death of Hindley’s wife, his abuse of both Hareton and Heathcliff, Heathcliff’s abuse of Isabella, Hindley’s despairing death from booze and a broken heart …. etc, etc, … it would have been an unremittingly gloomy tale.

Did someone – perhaps Thomas Newby himself – suggest to Emily that it needed cheering up a tad?  A bit of redemption and hope for a better, brighter future for someone at the end?  A few primroses in the porridge, a splash of sunshine?  It’s possible.  Equally, (especially as she wasn’t given to accepting the advice of others graciously), she may have come to the conclusion all by herself and, being Emily, also added in  a nice dose of child abuse, a catastrophic forced marriage for Catherine and a whole heap more misery – along with the primroses and sunshine.

Whatever happened, it is entirely possible that, between July 1846 and its eventual joint publication with Agnes Grey in December 1847, Wuthering Heights doubled in length.  But unless someone miraculously discovers the original manuscript (and what a find THAT would be …) we’ll probably never have a definitive explanation for the discrepancy, just as we’ll never know for sure whether Emily really had started – and possibly even completed – a second novel when she died in 1848 at the age of 30.

As with so much about Emily Bronte’s short and enigmatic life, what we don’t know is almost more fascinating than what we do.

Source materials:  I’m indebted to Edward Chitham’s excellent “The Birth of Wuthering Heights”  and also his joint work with Tom Winnifrith:  “Bronte Facts and Bronte Problems” – both now unfortunately out of print and as scarce as hen’s teeth.

12 comments on “Wuthering Heights – A Tale that Grew in the Telling?

  1. annebrooke
    March 14, 2012

    Fascinating article, Moira – I didn’t know any of this before! 🙂

  2. Harriet
    March 14, 2012

    How fascinating! Just the kind of literary mystery I love. Wouldn’t it be great to find that early version!

  3. Chris Harding
    March 14, 2012

    Interesting. It was all new to me as well. I suppose I just assumed the tale I know and love was the way Emily always envisaged writing it.

  4. Hilary
    March 14, 2012

    Loved this, Moira – the more so because it has posed me a bibliographical puzzle to get stuck into after I’ve finished today’s Sudoku and failed to duff you up at Scrabble, and I like nothing better. I shall have fun comparing formats and paginations from 1847 to 1889.

    Poor Anne – to be forever Etc. That is a great shame for Agnes Grey, and a surprise to me that that pairing was still being published 50+ years after the first publication.

    This is a fascinating literary puzzle – thank you!

  5. victoriacorby
    March 14, 2012

    Fascinating, thanks for this.

  6. elizabethashworth
    March 14, 2012

    That’s a fascinating theory and a perfectly plausible and logical one. Interesting!

  7. icyhighs
    March 15, 2012

    Great piece, and I think I actually prefer the shorter version. Ol’ Em must have had quite a conflicted time before putting out the (slightly) more sunshiny version.

  8. kirstyjane
    March 21, 2012

    Little intelligent to say, but I thoroughly enjoyed this — and yes, the theory does sound pretty solid, doesn’t it?

  9. Pingback: Mulgrave Castle – Harriet Twine The Saucy, Victorian Detective. | loonyliterature

  10. Kath Jones
    February 25, 2013

    I have a copy of the Smith Elder edition as in the picture in the above text. Is it worth anything? It’s not in a good condition – the cover is loose at the spine. I think I picked it up in a charity shop some years ago.

  11. Moira
    February 27, 2013

    Hello Kath,

    I’m afraid the book isn’t worth a huge amount … probably about £20 to £25 if it’s in good shape, but no more than about £5.00to £10.00 in the condition you describe. But – having said that, it’s almost certainly worth more than you paid for it! And it’s lovely to have something that was produced so close in time to the Brontes themselves, I always think.

  12. Pingback: “My Brontë is better than your Brontë”– The Great Vulpes Libris Brontë Slapdown. | Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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