The wild, difficult genius of Emily Bronte
Should we admire Wuthering Heights? The first reviewers of Emily Brontë’s dark tale of obsessive love called it “baffling” and “disjointed”. To its fans, the novel is a work of genius.
Young lovers run across a stormy, windswept moor. A ghost claws at the window of a remote, dilapidated farmhouse. Cathy Earnshaw, the capricious teenage heroine, passionately declares, “I am Heathcliff!”
In the 200 years since Emily Brontë’s birth, these iconic scenes from her only novel, Wuthering Heights, have inspired TV and film adaptations, operas, and even a song by Kate Bush. The tale of intertwined families in the Yorkshire moors is often called one of our greatest love stories, with its Byronic hero, Heathcliff, topping polls of the most romantic heroes.
But is this reputation deserved? Brontë’s Heathcliff is a brutish man who abuses his wife and hangs her dog. Cathy, meanwhile, is self-centred, manipulating those around her to the destruction of their lives and hers.
Many reviewers took a strong dislike to the book when it was published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. “Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights,” said one magazine. Another wondered how the writer did not commit suicide “before he had finished a dozen chapters”.
Despite its fame, the book is still sometimes attacked for its unlikeable characters and complex narrative structure. Academic John Mullan describes it as the “clumsy first novel of a genius.”
After Emily’s early death at the age of 30, Charlotte Brontë tried to defend her sister. She presented the book as “hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools”, but expressed doubt that it was “right or advisable” to create a being like Heathcliff. This presentation of Emily as an isolated girl lost in her imagination has clouded her reputation ever since.
But new evidence is emerging that suggests otherwise. We now know that Emily was a skilled with a gun, travelled to concerts, and even invested her own and her sisters’ money in the railways.
The 200th anniversary of her birth has sparked an outpouring of love, including from journalist Ron Charles who writes that her “fire” still “roars across the centuries.”
Should we admire Wuthering Heights?
Let me in!
Of course, say some. Wuthering Heights is one of the most wild, beguiling, powerful stories in history. Yes, film adaptations have encouraged the misleading view of Heathcliff as a brooding romantic lead, obscuring his true violence, but art doesn’t have to be about nice people to be a success. Its brilliance will long endure.
No, it’s a mess, argue others. The structure is untidy and confusing, the characters are vile, and the subject matter is unremittingly grim. We can’t doubt Emily Brontë’s poetic skill, but compared to Jane Eyre, her sister’s masterpiece, it is an amateurish and melodramatic work by a writer who was unable to fulfill her potential.
- Should we admire Wuthering Heights?
- Is Wuthering Heights better than Jane Eyre?
- Watch Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights music video. What does she do to capture the spirit of the book? Write one paragraph explaining your thoughts.
- Read the first chapter of Wuthering Heights. Write a two page essay on your first impressions of the characters, including Mr Lockwood, Heathcliff and Joseph?
Some People Say...
“My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious.”Charlotte Brontë
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Emily was the third Brontë sibling, younger than Charlotte and brother Branwell, but older than Anne. The siblings were raised at a parsonage in the Yorkshire town of Haworth, where they wrote and enacted adventure plays. Each of the sisters wrote at least one novel, with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre achieving the most success during their lifetime. Emily died of tuberculosis aged 30.
- What do we not know?
- What Emily Brontë was like as a person. There has been a lot of speculation about her character since her death, partly fuelled by Charlotte’s description of her sister as very shy and dreamy. One of her teachers described her as very intelligent but strong-willed, and others have attempted to diagnose her with various disorders from agoraphobia to Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.
- Given to sudden and unexplained changes in mood and behaviour.
- Only novel
- She did, however, write lots of poetry. The only poems by Emily Brontë that were published during her lifetime were included in a slim volume which also contained poems by her sisters Charlotte and Anne.
- Can be used to refer to a male hero who is dark, mysterious and brooding. The term is derived from the romantic poet Lord Byron and his works. Emily had read Byron and other romantic poets such as Percy Shelley.
- A false name. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë published under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in order to disguise their gender, which they feared would change perceptions of their work.
- Narrative structure
- The story of Wuthering Heights is told by Mr Lockwood, but many of the events, which date back 30 years into the past, are recounted to him by the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, as he recovers from illness in bed. The story therefore has several different frames.
- Exaggerated or overemotional.