Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘“Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights”‘ is so exhilarating and rich with insights into the temperaments and writing styles of sisters Charlotte and Emily Bronte, as authors of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, that it deserves a post of its own. On the basis of Woolf’s Bronte piece – published in 1925 in The Common Reader – I’d say Virginia Woolf was a Rock Star.
Although, like most people I know, Woolf was neither pure Wuthering Heights-loving Rock Star nor pure Jane Eyre-loving Librarian, but a mix of both. A bookish Rock Star.
As I’ve said, the Rock Star/Wuthering Heights v Librarian/Jane Eyre divide was cooked up by Guardian journalist Imogen Russell Williams in her provocative article from September 2010 called ‘How the Brontes divide humanity‘ in which she wrote:
‘This reminded me of my long-held pet theory about the Battle of the Brontes: everyone who’s read both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights is passionately devoted to one book but nose-holdingly repelled by the other. If you want to be particularly contentious, you can divide those who satisfy the basic entry criteria into two types – those drawn to demure, bookish Miss Eyre and those for whom the pyrotechnical hanky-panky between Cathy Earnshaw and black-browed Heathcliff is paramount – and call them Librarians and Rock Stars.’
Contra Russell Williams’ pet theory, in my experience, everyone who’s read both books is passionately devoted to one, but never repelled by the other. They usually love the other too – sometimes almost as much. Virginia Woolf is no exception.
Woolf opens her essay with a discussion of Charlotte Bronte, noting that she was someone who ‘had no lot in our modern world’. And so when we turn to Jane Eyre, we might imagine a novel as antiquated as Bronte’s parsonage on its distant Yorkshire moor. But we would be wrong.
‘So we open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from our minds … So intense is our absorption that if some one moves in the room the movement seems to take place not there but up in Yorkshire. The writer has us by the hand, forces us along her road, makes us see what she sees, never leaves us for a moment or allows us to forget her. At the end we are steeped through and through with the genius, the vehemence, the indignation of Charlotte Bronte.’
In a brilliant analysis of Charlotte’s genius, Woolf compares her to Jane Austen and Tolstoy, and to Thomas Hardy (although he is ‘more akin to Charlotte Bronte’ than the other two are), and finds that compared to these writers ‘She does not attempt to solve the problems of human life; she is even unaware that such problems exist; all her force, and it is the more tremendous for being constricted, goes into the assertion, “I love”, “I hate”, “I suffer”.
‘For the self-centred and self-limited writers have a power denied the more catholic and broad-minded. Their impressions are close packed and strongly stamped between their narrow walls. Nothing issues from their minds which has not been marked with their own impress. They learn little from other writers, and what they adopt they cannot assimilate.’
Speaking of Charlotte and Hardy, Woolf says that ‘both with labour and the most obstinate integrity, by thinking through every thought until it has subdued words to itself, have forged for themselves a prose which takes the mould of their minds entire; which has, into the bargain, a beauty, a power, a swiftness of its own.’ For me this evokes the power of such prose with extraordinary insight.
‘There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things, which makes them desire to create instantly rather than observe patiently … It makes them poets, or, if they choose to write in prose, intolerant of its restrictions. Hence it is that both Emily and Charlotte are always invoking the help of nature. They both feel the need of some more powerful symbol of the vast and slumbering passions in human nature than words or actions can convey.’
And then Woolf turns to Wuthering Heights. Her sense of Emily’s genius is profound. ‘Wuthering Heights is a more difficult book to understand than Jane Eyre, because Emily was a greater poet than Charlotte.’
‘When Charlotte wrote she said with eloquence and splendour and passion “I love”, “I hate”, “I suffer”. Her experience, though more intense, is on a level with our own. But there is no ‘I’ in Wuthering Heights. There are no governesses. There are no employers. There is love, but it is not the love of men and women. Emily was inspired by some more general conception. The impulse which urged her to create was not her own suffering or her own injuries. She looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel – a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely “I love” or “I hate”, but “we, the whole human race” and “you, the eternal powers …” the sentence remains unfinished. It is not strange that it should be so; rather it is astonishing that she can make us feel what she had it in her to say it all.’
For lovers of Wuthering Heights – for Rock Stars – the truth of Woolf’s closing words about Emily Bronte are enough to move us to tears: ‘Hers, then, is the rarest of all powers. She could free life from its dependence on facts; with a few touches indicate the spirit of a face so that it needs no body; by speaking of the moor make the wind blow and the thunder roar.’
Such is the power of Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights. Confounding.