About this Recording
NAX39712 - BRONTE, E.: Wuthering Heights (Unabridged)

Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights


‘Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know. I scarcely think it is.’

So wrote Charlotte Brontë in her 1850 preface to the second edition of her sister Emily’s novel. By then the author of Wuthering Heights was dead. The first edition, published in 1847, had sold poorly and received indifferent reviews. To Victorian readers the book was a shocking and unacceptable depiction of uncontrolled passion and cruelty. Clearly its intensity disturbed even Emily’s sister, although both writers shared a fascination for Gothic Romanticism.

Had its small readership known at the time that the author was a woman, the shock would have been yet greater; but not until both Emily and her younger sister Anne had died did Charlotte reveal the truth: namely, that Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell, the supposed authors of the poems which the three sisters published together in 1846, were the pen names of Charlotte, Emily and Anne respectively. Since female authors were not then treated with the seriousness granted the opposite sex, they had decided that assumed names were essential.

Born in 1818, two years after Charlotte and a year and a half before Anne, Emily was the fifth of six children; but two of her elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, fell ill while away at school and died in 1824. The three remaining sisters and their brother Branwell were all educated by their father Patrick, an Anglican church rector who had been born into a poor, illiterate Irish family. He encouraged his remarkable children to read widely, and to write, which they did by way of escape from the hardships and sufferings that they endured.

Their mother died three years after giving birth to Emily. Her replacement was their aunt, a deeply religious woman who brought up the children with a zeal and fervour which was inimical to Emily in particular.

Although she went away to study on several occasions, Emily much preferred life at the family home in Haworth where she could enjoy her privacy and, above all, write (so long as she was free from household work, doing the finances, and caring for her father). In 1824 she and Anne tried to start a school in the home but little interest was shown and the project collapsed.

Emily was the most reserved and least social of the Brontë children. She normally kept her writings to herself, although as a girl, with her younger sister Anne, she never grew weary of creating stories about the land of Gondal and its inhabitants. This was a fantasy world which exercised their rich imaginations as if in preparation for their later literary endeavours.

When the time came for it, Emily was reluctant to publish. At first she reacted with fury when Charlotte read her poems and suggested it. When Wuthering Heightsdid come before the public, the publisher, keen to profit further from the success of Jane Eyre, tried to suggest that Charlotte had written it. So uninterested was Emily in fame and recognition that she could not bring herself to travel to London and make it clear who the real author was.

Wuthering Heightsgives the lie to the clichéd advice which young writers are often urged to bear in mind: ‘Write about what you know, what you yourself have experienced’. There is scant evidence to suggest that Emily had a Heathcliff in her life, though this did not hamper her in creating the tempestuous relationship between him and Catherine. How did a mere rector’s daughter manage such a thing?

Of course, it was down to her imagination. This brought her characters to life with an intensity not to be found in the kind of superficial romantic fiction which was as popular then as it is today. When we read the story, we do not question its reality. For the Victorians, however, it lacked a fitting sense of morality: the villains of the tale should have been punished more than the author allows. The function of literature was not just to entertain but to elevate and guide.

But Emily Brontë, although influenced by other authors, went her own way, exploring the darkness within her characters in a fashion that looks forward to twentieth-century writing. She presents a point of view that is complex rather than clear and unambiguous; she eschews direct authorial comment and refuses to tell her readers what they should think or to echo what they did think. She would surely have concurred with her elder sister’s words in her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre: ‘Conventionality is not morality. Selfrighteousness is not religion…There is a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action, to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.’

In the 1840s economic depression was severe. Such was the condition of factory workers that fear of social upheaval was aroused in the hearts of the middle and upper classes, among whom there were some who experienced, and sometimes demonstrated, charitable feelings towards the wretched and needy. Unfortunately, once help had been extended and some of those who had been the objects of their condescension were no longer so abject, nay, were even in danger of climbing up the social ladder, there was even more disquiet.

Heathcliff embodies these anxieties. He begins life as a homeless orphan but manages to acquire the money and trappings of a gentleman without learning how to behave like one. What would happen if the lower classes en masse forgot their station and demanded serious social change? This, of course, is inconsequential: Wuthering Heights has little if anything overtly political about it, and any social criticism is implied rather than directly expressed.

A bare account of the story of Heathcliff’s love for Catherine Earnshaw, her marriage to Edgar Linton, and the revenge that Heathcliff derives from marriage to Edgar’s sister Isabella might appear to be merely the stuff of sentimental romance. It would hardly serve as sufficient preparation for Brontë’s uniquely imaginative creation, which rises above the melodramatic towards the severe simplicity of ancient tragedy. The intensity of the love between the two main characters is expressed by Catherine in a powerful speech which famously concludes: ‘I am Heathcliff! He’s always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.’ Their souls, she says, are made of the same stuff. By contrast, ‘Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.’

Heathcliff is more a force of nature than a mere man. Catherine’s defence of her attitude to him is based on what is in essence a religious yearning: the desire for communion with another order of reality. With Heathcliff she becomes part of something greater than herself; without him she feels less than her full self. Catherine loves her husband, Edgar Linton, but Heathcliff is as necessary to her as her own blood.

The world of the Lintons claims superiority to the dangerous, elemental world represented by Heathcliff and the love he shares with Catherine, though in the end the former proves trivial, exclusive and superficial. But Emily Brontë is not declaring that a choice be made between them; she appears to be searching for some kind of unity between a civilising contemplative permanence and the vitality of natural impulse.

One very striking aspect of the Romantic tendency is a fascination with mortality, a fascination which at its most philosophical is a craving for release from the temporal. The lovedeath of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is not morbid, though some have characterised it that way; for such lovers, in a world where union may be either socially impossible or tinged with the prospect of dwindling into domestic banality, death instead holds out the promise of release into an eternal state of blissful commingling. So it is for Catherine and Heathcliff. Death presents itself both as something against which the protagonists struggle with passionate energy and as a deeply evocative representation of peace.

In the temporal world the lovers come together and, with a mixture of ecstasy and suffering, observe their love burgeoning; but it is almost too much for the human frame to bear. In so far as it remains merely external, uninformed by the spiritual intuition arising from their consuming metaphysical passion, the external phenomenal world appears empty and desolate. So death begins to appear inevitable, not just as it is for other mortals but as ‘a consummation devoutly to be wish’d’. It is not merely an escape from but a flight towards.

Although her poetry is accorded an honoured place in the history of English Romanticism, Wuthering Heightsis the work for which Emily Brontë is most remembered. In the short time left to her after its composition she produced very little, and not long after the death of her brother Branwell she herself died. In the following year Anne died too, leaving only Charlotte, who published Emily’s masterpiece in an edition which corrected the mistakes ignored by the first publisher.

Wuthering Heightshas become one of the most popular of all English novels, inspiring adaptations for both the small and the big screen (not to mention at least one rather unlikely but very popular hit song and a brief Monty Python parody).

Notes by Maurice West

Close the window