So, now to the Rock Star of the Bronte novels, according to Guardian journalist Imogen Russell Williams: Wuthering Heights. I’ll talk more about Russell Williams’ contentious claim that Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre ‘divide humanity‘, as well as Virginia Woolf’s characteristically poetic response to the two novels, but first, to Wuthering Heights!
In 1820 Patrick Bronte, an Irish clergyman, moved with his wife, five daughters and son to Haworth, a remote township high in the Yorkshire Pennines – and it was from this wild landscape that his daughter Emily would distil Wuthering Heights, one of the most extraordinary novels in all of English literature. The Bronte parsonage was on the edge of town, flanked by a moorland wilderness. Its desolation was heightened by the tolling of funeral bells and the mason’s chisel cutting gravestones in the churchyard that surrounded the parsonage on three sides. Death was ever-present in Haworth – the average age of death was 25 years, due largely to the town’s dismal sanitary conditions – and within five years of their arrival, the Bronte children had suffered the deaths of their mother and two eldest sisters (aged 11 and 10).
The remaining four children, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne, were cared for by their mother’s sister, Aunt Branwell. They grew up in relative isolation, creating their own entertainment. From an early age, they invented stories set in an imaginary land, Angria, which they recorded in miniature books in tiny writing so their aunt and father couldn’t read them.
Emily and Anne broke away from the Angrian stories when Emily was about 13, and invented their own fantastic world – Gondal – which was dominated by powerful, capricious women. Emily’s few surviving diary entries show her as much preoccupied with the imaginary world of Gondal as she was by the world around her. In 1845 she wrote:
‘the Gondals still flourish bright as ever I am at present writing a work on the First Wars – Anne has been writing some articles on this and a book by Henry Sophona – We intend sticking firm by the rascals as long as they delight us which I am glad to say they do at present.’
The three Bronte girls rarely walked in the village. As Charlotte’s friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell noted, they ‘never faced their kind voluntarily, and always preferred the solitude and freedom of the moors’. Emily was particularly attached to her moorland home, and would sink into melancholy and homesickness when parted from it. Her few absences from Haworth, to study or teach, were brief, mostly cut short. When Emily was six she spent several months at Clergy Daughters’ School; aged 17 she went away to school for three months; in 1838 she became a teacher for six months. Her longest absence from home began in February 1842, when she went to Brussels with Charlotte to study at the Pension Heger. There she studied French, German and advanced piano, and her musical talent was particularly praised by their teacher, Monsieur Heger. When Aunt Branwell died the following October, Emily returned home to Haworth – and there she remained until her death six years later in December 1848, aged 30.
Following the publication at the sisters’ expense of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in 1846, Emily sent out the manuscript of her novel Wuthering Heights to publishers. It was accepted and published in December 1847, two months after the publication of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre.
Unlike Charlotte, Emily did not base her novel on the events of her own life, and her vision was intense, focused laser-like on two houses, two families, and the moors, from which small range she spun a whole world. The principal narrator of Wuthering Heights, Mr Lockwood, remarks:
‘I perceive that people in these regions acquire over people in towns the value that a spider in a dungeon does over a spider in a cottage, to their various occupants; and yet the deepened attraction is not entirely owing to the situation of the lookers-on. The do live more in earnest, more in themselves, and less in surface change, and frivolous external things.’
He could be describing Emily’s own way of living – for what she might have lacked in breadth of experience, she made up for in depth.
In the opening pages of Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte raises spectres, Lear’s mad ravings on the moor, salivating dogs, dripping blood and an impassable snow storm, evoking the atmospheric tumult – or ‘wuthering’ – that will haunt the pages of her only novel. One of the most striking features of Bronte’s book is its tortured landscape, which manifests not only as rocks and stunted trees and grey overarching skies, but is alive in its human inhabitants, most notably Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. ‘Tell her what Heathcliff is,’ urges Catherine, ‘- an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation; an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone.’
The desolation of the Yorkshire moors is exactly what the world-weary Mr Lockwood is seeking when he rents Thrushcross Grange from Mr Heathcliff as the novel opens. Lockwood notes with pleasure that ‘In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s heaven’; and his heart warms to the withdrawn and suspicious countenance of Heathcliff, his new landlord.
But, despite his desire for isolation, Lockwood persuades Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, to keep him company while he shivers long evenings by the fire. Nelly then relates an extraordinary tale of wild love and hate, a tale of torment that begins with the arrival at Wuthering Heights of a ragged gypsy child named Heathcliff, ‘dark almost as if it came from the devil’.
So powerful is Bronte’s story that the names Catherine and Heathcliff now stand for passionate, demented love – and their fierce obsession remains one of the most disturbing and exhilarating of all literature.
‘Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same,’ declares Catherine. They love with a religious fervour, pitched at the extremes of life and death, on the edge of madness. ‘Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!’ cries Heathcliff. ‘Oh God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!’
But it is the corrupt child of this love – Heathcliff’s poisonous hatred nursed over years – that drives Bronte’s novel, his bitter resentment that fills its pages. The relentlessness of Heathcliff’s vengeance born of his love – wrought on Hareton Earnshaw, Catherine Linton, Linton Heathcliff – is chilling, its dark violence almost palpable.
The power of Emily’s creation was felt by her sister Charlotte, who wrote: ‘Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is.’
While Wuthering Heights, published under the pseudonym ‘Ellis Bell’, did not receive the immediate acclaim of Jane Eyre, contemporary critics found much in it to praise. A reviewer in Atlas from 1848 said of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights respectively: ‘The work of Currer Bell is a great performance; that of Ellis Bell is only a promise, but it is a colossal one.’
Charles Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins, whose bestselling novels The Woman in White and Moonstone appeared in the 1860s, was a great admirer of Wuthering Heights. Like others after him, including Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Collins was influenced by the innovative and structurally complex double narrative of Wuthering Heights. Its story, told by two curious bystanders, is an early example of the use of multiple narrators. With the publication of A. Mary F. Robinson’s biography of Emily Bronte in 1883, Emily’s ‘colossal’ talent began to be more widely acclaimed.
There have been at least 14 film versions of Wuthering Heights, including the extraordinary looking 2011 version directed by Andrea Arnold (starring James Howson as Heathcliff and Kaya Scodelario as Catherine), a 1939 film directed by William Wyler (starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon), French and Japanese versions, and an MTV musical. The Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, who believed that ‘desire is the one true motor of the world’, was haunted all his life by the mad untrammelled love unleashed in Bronte’s novel and captured it in his 1954 adaptation Abismos de Pasion, filmed in Mexico.
The English singer Kate Bush, who shares a birthday with Emily Bronte (30 July), based her hit 1978 song ‘Wuthering Heights‘ on Bronte’s novel, which she wrote under a full moon.
I first read Wuthering Heights at 15 and it immediately became my favourite novel. I’ve read it many times since and I always see something new in it, read it as if for the first time. But I also love Jane Eyre, which is so different – especially in its first person narrative and the way this connects us so intimately with Jane – and yet it too tells an irresistible story of passionate, abiding love.
As for Imogen Russell Williams’ claim that you can’t be BOTH a Jane Eyre AND a Wuthering Heights person – you’re either a Librarian OR a Rock Star – I think she’s wrong. I know lots of people who love both Bronte novels, even if they love one more. I guess I know lots of rocking Librarians and bookish Rock Stars.
So what about Virginia Woolf? Librarian or Rock Star? Stay tuned for my next Jane Eyre v Wuthering Heights post.