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. Cathy Earnshaw, the capricious teenage heroine, passionately declares, “I am Heathcliff!”
In the 200 years since Emily Brontë’s birth, iconic scenes like this 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 a brutish man who abuses his wife and hangs her dog.
Many reviewers took a 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.
Despite its fame, the book is still sometimes attacked for its unlikeable characters and complex narrative structure.
After Emily’s early death at the age of 30, Charlotte Brontë tried to defend her sister, presenting the book as “hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools”. This presentation of Emily clouded her reputation.
But we now know that Emily was a skilled with a gun, travelled to concerts, and even invested her money in the railways.
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. It may not be very romantic, 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 amateurish and melodramatic.
- Should we admire Wuthering Heights?
- 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.
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.
- What do we not know?
- What Emily was like as a person. One of her teachers described her as very intelligent but strong-willed.
- Given to sudden and unexplained changes in mood and behaviour.
- Only novel
- She did, however, write lots of poetry.
- 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.
- A false name. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë published under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.
- Narrative structure
- The story of Wuthering Heights is told by Mr Lockwood, but events that occurred in the past are recounted to him by the housekeeper, Nelly Dean.
- Exaggerated or overemotional.