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Something Terrific: Emily Brontë’s 200 Years

Sally McInerney
Shadow self, Morongla Creek 2009

The Sneer

There’s sneering in the work of Shakespeare and Beckett and Brecht. Charles Darwin famously described that contemptuous expression as dog-like, revealing our animal descent, a ferocious curling of the lip ‘uncovering the canine tooth on one side’. And there are no sneers in literature as memorable as these two:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive…– ‘Ozymandias’, P. B. Shelley

Mr Heathcliff was there – laid on his back…he was dead and stark!…I tried to close his eyes – to extinguish, if possible, that frightful, life-like gaze of exultation…They would not shut – they seemed to sneer at my attempts, and his parted lips, and sharp, white teeth sneered too!  – Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

Transpose creeping desert sands with peaty Yorkshire moors. Overlay Shelley’s antiquity with Brontë’s more recent times. Juggle Ozymandias and Heathcliff, two male mononymities, purveyors of colossal wreckage who sneer, life-like even in death. And ask: what is Ozymandian Heathcliff mocking with such disdain? WHAT IS his problem?

Like Shelley’s sculptor, the novelist Emily Brontë knows her character. She arouses our sympathy for the ‘sullen, patient child; hardened perhaps to ill-treatment’ and leaves his origins obscure, so that the dirty, ragged, black-haired boy who ‘repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand’, might have been lost, orphaned or abandoned, ‘a little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway’. ‘Considered in the interpretive context of imperialist history’, Susan Meyer remarks , ‘Heathcliff suddenly looks…collective’. While Meyer’s point about the novel’s imperialist coordinates is important, I disagree with her assumption that it’s Heathcliff’s ‘energies of resistance’ which drive the narrative and that it is primarily his story being told. Those energies emanate from all the characters. The atmosphere of Wuthering Heights quivers with unrest.

In adulthood Heathcliff does his utmost to dominate and Brontë seems to caution us to read his passions well. Which is not to say she likes him. Her novel is critical of boys and men who say ‘precious little’, croak or mumble indistinctly, bully people, or drink themselves to death. At the end of a narrative rife with protest, where the women especially strive to be articulate, Heathcliff’s final sneer is an absurdity. And it’s as if, having created this menacing man, Brontë felt responsible for him. In the manner of authors as dispatchers, she went to great lengths to wrestle him to the ground, kill him off, get him buried, turn him into a relic. By then she also knew a thing or two about death.

Haworth Churchyard. Photo: Simon Warner

Birth and Death and Wuthering Heights

1818.In that year the illustrious novelist Walter Scott discovered a box of lost Crown Jewels hidden in Edinburgh Castle and was rewarded with the title of baronet. Percy Bysshe Shelley pseudonymously published his sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ and Mary Shelley anonymously published her novel Frankenstein, which was influenced, her husband notes in the Preface, by the physician Erasmus Darwin’s experiments. Frankenstein was reviewed that year by Walter Scott. Wars of independence and colonialism were being fought around the globe. Karl Marx was born in Germany and would one day be a great reader of English literature. He was deeply affected by P. B. Shelley’s radicalism, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones was his favourite novel, he considered Scott’s Old Mortality a masterpiece, and by the early 1850s he was lauding Wuthering Heights for its condemnation of the middle classes. In 1818 Darwin’s grandson Charles was nine years old, a directionless boy (his father thought) who consumed Byron, loved books, and would go on to ‘read and reread until they could be read no more’ the novels of Scott, Jane Austen and Mrs Gaskell. He read Jane Eyre; we can assume he’d also read Wuthering Heights and would have recognised the author of this story of ferocious generational struggle as a kindred spirit. It’s not known if Emily Brontë ever saw a copy of The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), which foretold On the Origin of Species (1859); I like to think she did. And if not that book, then perhaps other works of scientific discovery, Georg Forster’s classic A Voyage Round the World (1777), or George Anson’s Voyage Around the World in the Years 1740-1744 (1748), as it’s known there was a copy in the library at nearby Ponden Hall to which the Brontës had access, or indeed anything by or about the Arctic explorer Sir William Edward Parry, whom Emily chose as one of her earliest heroes in the games she played with her siblings. Her Gondal poems were set in fantasy lands in the North and South Pacific, conceiving for the southern island bright Eden skies, palm trees alongside cedars and beeches, and ‘tropic prairies bright with flowers’. The Brontë Parsonage Museum has a family copy of Goldsmith’s Modern and Ancient Geography, with Gondal place names added to the index, most likely by Emily. In her own imagination she was well travelled. Her French teacher thought that she possessed the disciplined mind and superior will of a great navigator.

The teacher’s comment is especially perceptive, because sometimes the opposite is claimed: that Emily Brontë was cut off from the world and a dreamer and that her novel is an ahistorical fantasy. This Emily conundrum continues to fascinate us. Perhaps she was all those things and more. The writer Joyce Carol Oates insists that above all Wuthering Heights ‘is a history…with exquisite detail, of civilization itself’. And the theorist Terry Eagleton argues similarly, that like her sisters – ‘educated women, trapped in almost intolerable deadlock between culture and economics’ – she was historically aware. If Brontë was not Dickens nor Thackeray nor Gaskell, nonetheless she was a writer with her finger on the pulse of the era that formed her, spanning from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, her parents’ lifetime and her own.

Pointedly her novel opens with that pivotal date, 1801, and the narrator’s comment: ‘I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour I shall be troubled with’. The landlord is Heathcliff, born in the early 1760s,  romantic hero to some, trouble to others, and surely one of literature’s most infamous property owners and domestic tyrants.

Another notable date, 1500, and the name Hareton Earnshaw are inscribed ‘above the principal door… among a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys’, linking the story (and its superseded masculinities) to even deeper roots. John Sutherland calls such markers an ‘eerie chronological exactitude’ and C. P. Sanger regards them as remarkable ‘symmetry in a tempestuous book’.

The narrative cuts with clarity, the setting and people seem very real to us, until a mist sets in, or an awkwardness or cruelty occurs, or a question hovers unanswered and ghostlike above the text. And in an instant pots and pans and lisping children, wolfish dogs, lovers in frantic caresses or enemies in deadly embraces morph into something that we strain to recognise.

In responding to Brontë’s work – always with a mix of what we know and what we sense –we’re enticed by a fine web of directions and connections: there are couples, co-descendants, concurrences of time and place, memories, names, and strong echoes from literature, including the work of both the Shelleys and Byron and Scott. And within this network there are pitfalls. Wuthering Heights is a book of clear and hidden trails. To orientate ourselves we have to be alert. Like the credulous narrator Lockwood, who goes rambling in unknown territory in the thick of a snowstorm, we often ‘run the risk of being lost in the marshes’, a fate which Heathcliff warns, befalls even ‘people familiar to these moors’. And though we think we see the people, the farmhouse, the snowstorm – because they’re well depicted – we realise very quickly that it’s also a larger idea we’re being offered, of weather and place and family and degrees of familiarity (of locals, of strangers) and most potently, of kinds of affinity. Wuthering Heights examines kinship (I want to say: as closely as Darwin looked at barnacles and earthworms, but that sounds a bit far-fetched). In Wuthering Heights presumptions of intimacy carry as much risk – of being lost to oneself or to others – as wandering in inclement weather on the marshes and moors which in winter are like ‘one billowy, white ocean, the swells and falls not indicating corresponding rises and depressions in the ground’ (like text on a page and the act of reading). And when Emily Brontë’s characters fall into misinterpretations – of one another and of just about everything – as readers we follow them, making similar assumptions and mistakes along the way, again like Lockwood, who guesses that the Mrs Heathcliff he meets must be his landlord’s wife (she is his fractious daughter-in-law), or that he is looking at a cushion full of cats (a ‘heap of dead rabbits’). Cross-eyed with confusion, Lockwood is our fall guy, but not the only one. Bleeding, bruised, scratched, ‘dripping with snow and water’ and (we learn later) pregnant, Heathcliff’s wife Isabella tells the housekeeper Nelly that she’s escaped from Wuthering Heights and couldn’t count the number of falls she’s had (including of course, the big mistake of falling for Heathcliff). The most poignant image of a fall is Catherine’s account of her dream of being thrown out of heaven and waking up joyously ‘on top of Wuthering Heights’, which leads into her argument with Nelly about love, climaxing with her ‘I am Heathcliff’ speech, the emotional and philosophical and political heart of the book.

Born on 30 July 1818 in Thornton near Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Emily Brontë was the second youngest of Maria née Branwell and Patrick Brontë’s six children. In 1820 the family moved to nearby Haworth, where her father became the perpetual curate. Her mother had been ill and in great pain and died in 1821. Later her daughter wrote: ‘I see around me tombstones grey/ Stretching their shadows far away/…And my eyes cannot hold the tears/ That memory hoards from vanished years;/ For Time and Death and Mortal pain/ Give wounds that will not heal again…Ah mother, what shall comfort thee/ In all this endless misery?/ To cheer our eager eyes a while/ We see thee smile; how fondly smile!/ But who reads not through that tender glow/ Thy deep, unutterable woe?’ (I See Around Me Tombstones Grey, 1841).

Aged six, Emily briefly attended school, but she was largely educated at home by her father (who taught her Latin) and her aunt, and self-educated. Her eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth died in 1825, aged 11 and 10. This early series of bereavements branded the lives and works of all the Brontë siblings but as suggested by Stevie Davies and Edward Chitham, it seems to have affected Emily most profoundly. Her familiarity with death brought extremes of grief, insecurity and rage, which required both control and expression. It must also have brought depression. Virginia Woolf, who lost her mother when she was 11, associated her debilitating life-long depressions with unstoppable feelings of grief. Mrs Ramsay (To the Lighthouse) is Woolf’s largest and most unforgetable character and a fictional portrait of her mother, as Brontë too can be said to have let the idea of motherhood loose in Wuthering Heights. She shows us how it shaped the two Catherines as (absent) mother and daughter, Isabella and her orphaned son, motherless Heathcliff and Hareton, and Ellen Dean, the all-round surrogate. It’s likely that losing her mother and sisters caused the death of something in Emily while also creating an intimacy with the dead. And the intense homesickness she felt whenever she was away for too long, must have been due to a fear of reliving those childhood ruptures.

But she tested herself, and in her early 20s, for less than a year, held a position as a teacher in Halifax, when she also wrote some of her best poems, and in 1842 travelled to Belgium with her sister Charlotte, to perfect their knowledge of French and German. They wanted to gain financial independence – as Charlotte put it, ‘to take a footing in the world’ – and planned to open a school. Emily hoped that ‘our debts will be paid off, and we shall have cash in hand to a considerable amount’. But this scheme failed, was revived, and failed again. When their aunt died, leaving each of the sisters a small inheritance, there was less urgency to earn a living.

Emily was an accomplished pianist, with a preference for Beethoven, and an impressive artist, though few examples of her work remain. From a young age, the Brontë siblings wrote stories and poems. Elizabeth Gaskell thought their juvenilia ‘the wildest and most incoherent things… creative power carried to the verge of insanity’. Literary figures, heroic explorers and military leaders fascinated them to the point of obsession. Literature was private myth where boundaries, particularly male and female social codes, could be challenged or ignored. And in the fantasy kingdoms of Gondal and Angria which they invented as children, the Brontës ‘loved with brute passion, committed adultery and incest, bore illegitimate children, mouldered in dungeons, murdered, revenged, conquered, and died unrepentent’ (Moers).

The three surviving sisters never quite abandoned their childhood selves, even as they undertook more serious literary projects. They were busy and ambitious. On her 27th birthday Emily describes her contentment but also her hopes for greater patience: ‘less fidgetness that I cannot do all I wish’. And then came the turning point. Charlotte later described how ‘One day in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of verse, in my sister Emily’s handwriting.. .not at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they also had a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating’. It was an unwelcome intrusion which was soon allayed and resulted in the pseudonymous publication of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in 1846, and in 1847 the appearance of their groundbreaking novels, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey. In September 1848 their unhappy brother Branwell died and Emily’s health declined. In November, in a letter to her publisher, Charlotte described the moment she read a review of their novels to her sisters and commented, ‘What a bad set the Bells must be! What appalling books they write!…Ellis [according to the reviewer] the “man of uncommon talents, but dogged, brutal, and morose”, sat leaning back in his easy-chair drawing his impeded breath as best he could…it is not his wont to laugh, but he smiled half-amused and half in scorn as he listened.’ Emily died of consumption in December 1848, Anne died in 1849 and Charlotte in 1855.

When the Brontës’ early imaginings of irrepressible curiosity and adventure were carried over into their novels, they found their most expressive form – of passion and protest – in Wuthering Heights. Its narrative pace is heart-pounding, urgent, there’s a relentless tearing apart and restitching of the social fabric. As readers we’re mesmerised by this restlessness. We’re giddied high and low – thoroughly wuthered – and in that state we’re never sure if the novel’s gist is numinous or grounded, colossal or provincial, knowing or naïve, or if Brontë’s people are good or bad. And where, in all of that, the author stands. The consensus seems to be that she stands with those who stand alone.

Judging by her close observations of nature, and the genealogies, affinities, chance variations and recursions woven through Wuthering Heights, it’s reasonable to suggest that if she’d had the chance, Brontë might have been drawn to new theories of scientific discovery and evolution. And judging by the transgressions that rise to the surface of her writing and the sparks that fly, her future work could also have concerned itself with radical political ideas. The critic F. R. Leavis called her work ‘a sport’ which John Sutherland points out is ‘a term used by geneticists to indicate life forms outside the main evolutionary line. A freak, or deviant phenomenon’. Charlotte, in one of her most revealing biographical fragments about her sister, wrote: ‘In some points I consider Ellis somewhat of a theorist: now and then he broaches ideas which strike my sense as much more daring and original than practical; his reason may be in advance of mine, but certainly it often travels a different road. I should say Ellis will not be seen in his full strength till he is seen as an essayist’.

Referring to their growing success as writers, Charlotte believed her sister died ‘in a time of promise’. It’s also true that Emily Brontë died in the year of revolutions, on the cusp of great social change. Had she been able to return to her notebooks and poetry, she might have told the full story of her exiled heroine Geraldine (Augusta Geraldine Almeda, A. G. A.), who lived with ‘her beauteous child’ in a remote cave, apart from her people…people who came alive at night, like figures in a dream, or revolutionaries:

‘Twas night, her comrades gathered all
Within their city’s rocky wall;
When flowers were closed and day was o’er
Their joyous hearts awoke the more.

The Heights

In 1857, conflating Brontë and her novel, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote: ‘Emily impresses me as something terrific’.

More solidly than any other author and book in literature, the life of Emily Brontë and the interpretation of Wuthering Heights have been inseparable, two stories that are almost always considered as one. It’s as if ‘Emily Jane Brontë came into the world in order to write her one remarkable book and then to die’, Miriam Allott wrote. While J. Hillis Miller seemed to think trepidatiously that Emily is Heathcliff: ‘This obscure spinster, so it seems, saw human life as the arena of a ceaseless conflict of wills to power. She was unwilling to settle for less than top dog’. The critical reception of Wuthering Heights has seesawed between such adulation and suspicion.

When it was first published, Wuthering Heights was a shocker. Reviewers were alarmed and sickened by its force, thin-skinned readers warned others against it and called for it to be burnt, thick-skinned ones argued – and the argument goes on – about what it was, this rude and rough and gripping tale, brutal, savage, immoral, this devastating novel that had fallen into their hands like an alien, like its devilish protagonist Heathcliff, a foundling.

When readers’ tantrums eased, critical criteria improved. Some thought it was a truthful story. Others called it strange but fascinating. Most agreed it was original. Already by 1848 the label of genius had appeared. And of course it was assumed that this genius, the author Ellis Bell, was a man. An anarchist? they wondered. A hermit? Perhaps even a kind of simpleton? The poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw Wuthering Heights as ‘hell with English names’. At the centre of this commotion, the book achieved instant fame.

Initially, critical insecurity was hung up on two points: questions of the author’s identity and questions of Heathcliff’s humanity, neither of which were apparent. It was hoped that answers to these questions would make the book more comprehensible and less of a threat.

Speculation around Ellis Bell only intensified when the three Bell brothers were revealed (by Charlotte) as the Brontë sisters. Surely, people insisted, these women had not experienced the extremes of emotion and cruelty expressed in their work? Surveying the first fifty years of readers’ responses to Wuthering Heights, one critic said it was ‘as if a temporary madness had befallen the literary world’. And indeed, as late as the 1890s, the literary historian Leslie Stephen still rejected the book’s excesses and deplored its ‘feeble grasp upon external facts’, calling it ‘a kind of baseless nightmare’.

Oddly the nineteenth-century response to Wuthering Heights often alluded to mountains. Angus Mackay regarded Emily’s genius as a ‘Matterhorn which no Whymper has yet appeared to scale’ and T. Wemyss Reid recommended that Wuthering Heights ‘needs a certain distance to enable the eye to realize the proportions of a Matterhorn or Mont Blanc’, because to be too close to genius is, as a rule, to be unable to appreciate it. And so perhaps Leslie Stephen, a mountaineer who had climbed the most challenging alpine peaks including Mont Blanc, was thinking of difficult ascents where a feeble grasp could easily end in nightmare. In any case, a few decades later his daughter Virginia Woolf contradicted him. She was aiming for different kinds of summits. In reading Wuthering Heights, she wrote, we reach the ‘summits of emotion not by rant or rhapsody but by hearing a girl sing old songs to herself as she rocks in the branches of a tree; by watching the moor sheep crop the turf’, by believing this place and these people are real, even as they transcend reality. For Woolf, ‘no boy in literature has a more vivid existence’ than Heathcliff and the two Catherines ‘are the most lovable women in English fiction’. With ‘gigantic ambition’ Brontë ‘looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book.’

The Myth

After Emily’s death, Charlotte wrote a Biographical Notice and Preface for a new edition of Wuthering Heights, claiming her sister ‘did not know what she had done’ and encouraging readers to blame the novel’s strangeness and intensity on its author’s isolation and unworldliness. It meant that critics like George Henry Lewes were no longer baffled by Heathcliff’s criminality, because ‘such brutes we should all be… were our lives as insubordinate to law; were our affections and sympathies as little cultivated, our imaginations as undirected… and herein lies the moral of the book’.

Charlotte described Emily as reserved, resolved, unobtrusive, and unique, a ‘home-bred country girl’ with a forceful imagination, who was ‘stronger than a man, simpler than a child’. It was unwise, she thought, to create beings like Heathcliff, but what could she do, there he stands, ‘colossal, dark, and frowning, half-statue, half-rock’.

Subsequent biographers found it hard to contradict Charlotte Brontë, the author of Jane Eyre and Villette and Shirley and an eyewitness like no other. Perhaps it’s true that Emily Brontë’s ‘life and personality are monolithic and tend to be biographer-proof’ (Hewish), but the cultish fascination, inspired by Charlotte, continues to grow.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857)

When she became friends with Charlotte Brontë in 1850, Elizabeth Gaskell was the celebrated author of Mary Barton (1848).They visited each other and corresponded and after Charlotte’s death, Patrick Brontë invited her to write a biography of his daughter. He had always been kind and polite towards Gaskell. But she never forgot that during her first visit to the Parsonage she had detected another side to him: ‘I was sadly afraid of him in my inmost soul: for I caught a glare of his stern eyes over his spectacles at Miss Brontë once or twice which made me know my man’. Charlotte had also told her that every morning he put a loaded pistol in his pocket, which prompted this thought from Gaskell: ‘There was this little deadly pistol sitting down to breakfast with us, kneeling down to prayers at night to say nothing of a loaded gun hanging up on high, ready to pop off on the slightest emergency’. Charlotte too had opinions about men. She thought they ‘are strange beings…the mode of bringing them up is strange’ and she doubted they deserved the privilege of being ‘turned loose on the world as if they, of all beings in existence, were the wisest and least liable to be led astray’. She was talking about her dissipated brother Branwell, once a talented boy favoured by their father, but he had squandered his privileges and education, while his sisters sewed his shirts and were deeply concerned for him. Hearing this, Gaskell came to regard Branwell in his bitterness, delusion and self-inflicted ruin, as a model for Heathcliff. But she did not reveal all the information to which she was privy and some have accused her of fictionalising Charlotte’s life. In fact, ‘with all its silences, large and small, The Life of Charlotte Brontë is profoundly expressive’ (Uglow).

Gaskell’s book is a collective biography. She defines the sisters individually and as a distinct group whose ties are based on mutual experience and trust and her digressive approach takes us into some of the most tangled parts of the Brontë story, such as the extreme shyness of all three sisters. Charlotte is so ‘frightfully shy’, Gaskell told another friend, that she ‘almost cries at the thought of going amongst strangers’. But she noticed that Emily shared this trait less passively, more deliberately, she was guarded rather than shy. Interpreting Branwell’s portrait of his sisters, Gaskell makes much of Emily being ‘on the deeply shadowed side’ of the group, a strong and mysterious person who occupied her own world.

During their walks on the moors, to explain the excesses of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte had told her friend harrowing stories of Yorkshire’s uncivilized past and the hidden secrets of its isolated ancestral houses, where over many generations families developed deep loyalties, and enmities, and a mistrust of strangers. Gaskell believed that Emily’s imagination became a kind of host for the murderous lawlessness that had happened around her, and to write about it was her only defence.

We learn from Gaskell that in the Brontës’ childhood game of ‘Islanders’, Emily had picked the poet and novelist Walter Scott, his son-in-law and biographer J. G. Lockhart, and Scott’s grandson Johnny for her ‘characters’. And presumably, since Scott and Lockhart were keen promoters of German poetry and prose, they also led her to writers like Schlegel, Hoffmann, Schiller and Goethe. Critics have found echoes in Brontë’s novel of a novella by Heinrich von Kleist called Der Findling (1811), The Foundling, as well as a close resemblance between Wuthering Heights and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ghost story Das Majorat (1817), The Entail, which is set in a castle on the remote Baltic shores of East Prussia. And while Yorkshire isn’t Weimar, it is rewarding to read Wuthering Heights alongside Goethe’s Wahlverwandschaften (1809) – Elective Affinities or Kindred by Choice in English – to discover that these two nineteenth-century masterworks on kinship are tantalisingly akin.

Gaskell presents an image of Emily as someone who studies hard, even while performing household tasks, who is devoted to her home, loyal to her family, loves animals, judges situations instinctively and expresses child-like delight at small things, like an exchange of wit or a present of apples. Tall and attractive, with a liking for purple dresses and Spanish combs, logical, with a keen business sense, and wilful, she wielded an ‘unconscious tyranny’ over her sisters. Dying, she rejected help and continued to work while barely able to breathe. This Emily follows her own laws. To Gaskell she seems like ‘a remnant of the Titans’, a descendant of ‘the giants who used to inhabit earth’.

Mary Robinson’s Emily Brontë (1883)

Emily Brontë’s biographers are a captivating lot with interesting lives of their own. Agnes Mary Frances Robinson was born in Warwickshire in 1857, brought up in London where her family mixed with the Pre-Raphaelites, and educated in Belgium, Italy and at London University. For almost a decade she lived and travelled with the writer Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), whom Henry James described as a ‘tiger-cat’ and Virginia Woolf adapted as Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. Robinson married the Jewish scholar James Darmesteter, after whose death – swapping prominence in French literary society for scientific circles – she married Emile Duclaux, director of the Pasteur Institute. She was a poet, novelist, critic and translator; she died in France in 1944.

Robinson further embellishes the monumentalist tradition begun by Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell. Her Emily is a genius in a domestic prison who wears ‘with picturesque negligence her ample purple-splashed skirts’ and her eyes flash with humour or indignation.

She took the Brontës’ literary works as biographical documents and absorbed primary and secondary material, gossip and critical opinions, without questioning the sources. This Emily closely resembles the character of Shirley in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the eldest sister Maria Brontë is Helen Burns of Jane Eyre, and Brussels, where Emily and Charlotte studied in 1842-43 is described as it is in Villette. Wuthering Heights and the figure of Heathcliff are amplified as Emily’s coming to terms with her brother Branwell’s ‘vulgar tragedy’, a saint facing a devil, and her sisterly kindness and angerless sorrow and the writing of the novel are a triumph of good against evil.

There is also sainthood in Robinson’s image of Emily Brontë in her final hours, when she insisted on dressing herself and combing ‘her hair in its plenteous dark abundance’, the only part of her ‘not marked by the branding finger of death’. But ‘the comb slipped from her feeble grasp into the cinders’ and too weak to pick it up she watched it begin to burn. Robinson writes: ‘I have seen that old, broken comb, with a large piece burned out of it; and have thought it, I own, more pathetic than the bones of the eleven thousand virgins at Cologne, or the time-blackened Holy Face of Lucca’.

Robinson reads Wuthering Heights as a purely emotional and intellectual work, the singular product of a heightened – even an impersonal – imagination. Emily is the theorist Charlotte had invoked, someone with the ‘power of drawing conclusions’ that gave Wuthering Heights a logical structure, a plan ‘thought out with scientific exactness, no line blurred, no clue forgotten, the work of an intense and poetic temperament whose vision is too vivid to be incongruous’. And Emily Brontë’s capacity for detachment explained the sexless passion of her novel and the purifying fire of her poetry. Her silences are a sign of genius. In her untiring application to housework, her fierce method of disciplining her dog, her encounters with Branwell, in her resistance (as opposed to Charlotte’s submission) to their irascible teacher Monsieur Héger, and above all in the courage with which she managed her illness and approaching death, in all this she showed superior strength, with which she also faced her greatest challenge: her own paradoxical nature. Being someone who is both patient and terrible, warm-hearted and aloof, her peculiar dualism of mind and body meant that ‘two lives went on side by side in her heart…[and] each self was independent of the companion to which it was linked’. To this superwoman mix, Robinson added the notion of Emily Brontë as someone with a strong ‘impulse to reveal wrongs and sufferings’, a ‘dissenter’.

Robinson looked for psychological markers: Emily’s position in the family, early influences, social pressures. She considers the legacy of a mother who had been independent in her youth, delicate in health, and possibly unhappy in her marriage, enduring pregnancies, childbirths and illness. And of a father who was a ‘handsome, inflammable Irish curate’, nervous in his duty of raising six children. The deaths of Elizabeth and Maria, with Charlotte taking charge of her younger siblings, Emily drawing close to Anne, her love of wildness and the moors. We take Robinson’s point that this was no conventional path to growing up. While Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell prepared the ground for Emily Brontë’s future image, Mary Robinson built the temple. There she situated Wuthering Heights as one of literature’s greatest works.

In the early twentieth century the fanciful Yorkshire novelist Halliwell Sutcliffe was part of a trend to identify Emily Brontë with Heathcliff, as Nature’s ‘foster-daughter’ and ‘a creature of the moors’ who knew the secrets ‘of things old and unalterable’. And in that guise she was ‘neither man nor woman’ but ‘above and beyond us’ and ‘the bravest and sweetest soul that ever saw the truth and wrote it down’.

In the 1920s Marjorie Bald was awestruck by Emily Brontë’s ‘shapeless chaos’ of human thinking. For Bald she is an author incredulous of the enormity of her own work, an issue tackled most hyperbolically by  Phyllis Bentley in the 1940s. In the 1950s Muriel Spark had Emily Brontë emerge as normal, intelligent and ambitious: a thinker. And a decade on, John Hewish tried to divert our attention to her texts. But on its own the literary never held much interest. In the 1970s, Maureen Peters challenged our biographical precepts with ideas of Brontë’s masculinity and repressed lesbianism.

Winifred Gérin’s Emily Brontë: a biography (1971)

To be close to the Brontës’ home and environment, Winifred Gérin moved to Haworth, where ‘at all seasons and in all weathers walking Emily’s moors’, she felt she gained a special insight and wrote books on all the family. But Gérin’s sources were no different to those available to other biographers and like Robinson she developed a flair for combining biographical and literary facts, so that the novel’s Nelly Dean was interchangeable with the Brontë’s housekeeper Tabby, and almost as one Catherine and Emily yearned for social freedom as they roamed the countryside.

Gérin’s Brontë was ‘driven in on herself’ as a child, ‘nourished on the sheer romance of Scott’s novels and Byron’s poetry’ as an adolescent, and had her sympathies ‘kindled’ by forces of nature, a visionary and metaphysician whose novel is an allegory of spiritual passion. Emily learns to shoot and studies the stock market, goes shopping with Anne in York and thinks of earning a living as a writer; she gathers her material from family gossip, local history and her experience as a teacher in Halifax, as well as books and magazines. At the same time she enacts a kind of mystical drama, a conversation with an ouside force, a higher power, the Absolute. Gérin focuses on Brontë’s paradoxical character, which Robinson saw as integrated but Gérin regards it as discordant and self-destructive.

Juliet Barker’s The Brontës (1994) and Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith’s The Oxford Companion to the Brontës (2006)

Barker’s large and conscientious biography has been called indispensable and so magnificent that it’s ‘hard to imagine it ever being surpassed’. Though for Susan Eilenberg it is an ‘uneasy work’ which challenges previous biographies by undoing, with meticulous attention, any hint of rumour, misinterpretation and mystification, and in its earnestness ‘makes for embarrassing reading’. John Sutherland agrees: ‘Every reader interested in the Brontës should read Barker’s corrective work, whose dullness is strategic. It serves as a biographical coolant.’ These judgements also show the sometimes tetchy atmosphere in which Brontë studies are played out.

In an excellent essay on Emily in The Oxford Companion to the Brontës, which describes her earliest impressions of the power of nature, we glimpse her as a six-year old on a walk with her siblings, when a storm broke and they witnessed the spectacular eruption of bog on the moor, with mud and peat and water spurting into the air and sweeping down the valley towards them. The Companion also stresses that she ‘showed the same interest in politics, current events, and literary debate…as her siblings’, which led to incorporating this knowledge in their games and juvenilia, with Emily and Anne showing ‘an early preference for realism over romanticism’. And their twin-like childhood alliance was strengthened by the creation of new stories that became the breakaway Gondal saga, a rejection of the dominance of Charlotte and Branwell. ‘Gondal was a world of windswept nature, wild passion, broken alliances, vengeance, imprisonment, and death, a world from which Emily could draw sustenance and creative energy’. On the whole the Companion’s essay refrains from judgement, but I detect a biographical shudder and have the feeling that Emily’s eccentricity, manifesting as both strength and shyness, slightly unnerved the authors. Why? If Emily stood up to her father and brother and disciplined her dogs, if she appears to have dominated Charlotte and Anne, if she seemed ‘uncompromising in human relations’ and displayed ‘an innate aversion to conventional social intercourse’, if she ‘seldom answered the Parsonage door and was the only Brontë not to teach Sunday school’, this is consistent with the kind of space she required and the intellectual rebellion she developed. Alexander and Smith do concede that ‘throughout her life, Emily fought tenaciously to preserve the liberty to be herself, a condition she saw as essential for survival’.

This raises questions. Was Emily, despite her fierce family loyalty, outgrowing the group, and given health and wealth and impetus, would she – like many of her characters – have bolted? Was her death ‘willed’ or hurried along, as even Charlotte seems to have suggested? Was it a dash for freedom?

And these questions bring into focus what John Sutherland has called ‘obstinate fasting’. Another biographer, Katherine Frank, has gone so far as to suggest that today the Brontë sisters – Emily most of all – would be diagnosed as suffering from Anorexia Nervosa. On the other hand, Emily Brontë’s eating habits and her misanthropic manner may well be over-stated. It is important to remember that she loved cooking and loved her family and a few years before her death had written that she wished they could always be as happy and healthy as she felt at that time.

Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet – Three Lives in Nine Objects (2015)

A proponent of Heideggerian Thing Theory, Lutz tries to ‘coax out what the thing might have witnessed’. She acknowledges it is an activity fraught with the dangers of over-reading and ‘making history personally nostalgic’. Nonetheless, she likes to crawl into and inhabit the Brontë novels – ‘I have even felt, somehow, known by their heroines, as if they might recognize me when I enter their spheres’. And she tries to get close to the Brontës themselves, to sniff the objects they owned, finding their old books ‘had a certain scent…a fleshy smell’ and those covered in sugar wrappers ‘still smell sweet’.

Lutz takes us on a tour which kicks off with books, often re-bound, and inscribed with marginalia and bits of diary, the ‘grimy palimpsests of heavy use’, and the books that belonged to their mother which were salvaged from a stranded ship and so ‘had salt stains on them and smelled briny’. And the very tiny books the Brontës began making as consolation after their sisters’ deaths. Tiny, we’re told, because paper was scarce and expensive, but also because smallness appeals to children even as they imagine themselves as giants. In the Brontë household, books signified both shared and solitary reading.

Second there’s the anecdote about the Brontës’ housekeeper Tabby asking Emily to stop ‘pitter pottering’ and ‘pillapotate’, which introduces us to their domestic life of sewing and cooking. Third we’re told about sticks, boots and guns, the walking gear worn or carried on their daily rambles, which testify to the strong sense of place they – especially Emily – experienced, wrote about and inspired in their readers. Lutz’s fourth essay is about the Brontës’ animals and Emily’s skirmishes with ‘untamed nature’. The fifth essay is headed Fugitive Letters and discusses how they kept or divulged their secrets, a topic which continues with a discussion of desks and writing spaces and ‘the sisters’ predilection for hiddenness’ in the sixth essay, including the likelihood that after Emily’s death, Charlotte destroyed the draft of her sister’s new novel. ‘For a Brontë enthusiast, each leftover in these desks, no matter how enigmatic and insignificant, seems to shine out with meaning’. Seventh on the list are the memento mori of coils of hair and the comb that fell into the fire the day Emily died. Eighth are the scrapbooks and botanical collections of plants brought back from their walks. And the ninth essay gathers up a miscellany of so-called Migrant Relics, objects that fans and tourists collect, or that were sold off and dispersed.

Hot apple sauce and well-swept floors

Critics agree that Wuthering Heights is a classic, but have long been in a twist about its genre. It’s been tried out as romance or realism, romantic realism, psychological realism, gothic naturalism, historical romance, poetic fiction, dramatic fiction, fictional ballad, spiritualism, autobiography, and mixed genres like Revenger’s Tragedy with a dash of Bildungsroman. Discussions have raged, not just about the author and her book’s personal and literary sources, nor its genre, but whether it has a perfect or imperfect plot, whether its characters are characters at all or maybe symbols, moral or immoral or above morality, who destroyed whom and from whose point of view, real, unreal or hyper-real.

With the exception of Q. D. Leavis, there’s been a steady fascination with Heathcliff, culminating in Mary Visick’s sighing wish: ‘if only Heathcliff were less of a bully’. If only.

On the other hand, many believe Wuthering Heights is a work of formal and moral ambiguity, with an inexhaustibility of meanings and an inordinate amount of confusion due to its disruptive, freedom seeking heroine Catherine Earnshaw.

But critics love the ambiguities, the immateriality, the ineffability of the work. They revel in it. Lord David Cecil, of the storm and calm school of interpretation, lost himself in the novel’s cosmic forces. Sir Frank Kermode suggested that each reader completes the textual ambiguities differently. And who can disagree. Though the formalist Percy Lubbock would have disagreed, believing there are enough textual clues to determine a reliable method of interpretation. In another room Georges Bataille had the Brontës’ characters violating laws of reason. With Kathleen Tillotson calling in to say of course the book bypasses morality, it is spiritual.

In the Romance and Realism debate (and I’m using these terms loosely) – keeping in mind the ghost-child at the window, stunted firs and howling winds and dogs like hounds of hell, a demon-lover (Eagleton’s ‘Hegelian essence’, Davies’ ‘weak and humiliated…damaged man who shoots lapwings and grouse’) who snarls and growls and strikes his forehead with rage and vows revenge – Wuthering Heights has been most often identified as possessing that awesome genius of place where time eerily stagnates, making a strong case for it to be classified as Romance.

But if Wuthering Heights is a classic of Romanticism, then it’s a highly unusual one, in which the heroine confronts the hero’s and readers’ expectations by identifying herself with him, leaving everyone to guess the full meaning of this identification, while at the same time – in the same breath – rejecting him as a husband, and ultimately overshadowing and outarguing and outrunning him, though that takes two Catherines, mother and daughter, not to mention Isabella, who smashes and burns her wedding ring. From within each of the fragments of this cracked love story, Brontë takes Romanticism to its extreme and moves her book beyond the conventions of this genre. Wuthering Heights is argumentative, ironic, and if anything, it is a fierce critique of Romanticism.

For apart from geographic peculiarities, the novel’s sense of place is invested in sacks of corn, pipes and tobacco, porridge and tea and Christmas cake, dirty children, soap and water, harvests, birth, education, death, money, legal matters. A farmhouse not a castle. A household. Physicality, familiarity, tactile relationships. Hot apple sauce and well-swept floors. Wuthering Heights ‘was written by a woman who was naturally messy but appreciated the need for the work of tidying’ (Davies).

Early in the narrative, the word ‘provincial’ is pushed to the fore, as the name of ‘Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling’, wuthering being ‘a significant provincial adjective’. But then we’re shown how extravagantly the local enshrines the universal, much like Robert Macfarlane’s description of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, ‘a parochial work in the most expansive sense’ where the universal is ‘induced from an intense concentration of the particular’. Brontë and Shepherd had a lot in common, not least their love of walking in rough places, (what Macfarlane calls) an ‘unpious pilgrimage’ that links small to large.

Again And Again and Again

Wuthering Heights is a hive of reproduction and repetition and strenuous renewal and (going backwards) repudiation, in time, in space, between individuals, families and social classes, as inscription on houses and in books. The word again appears over a hundred times and the word against, as a reversal or rebuff of repetition, appears almost as frequently and sometimes we come across both words in close proximity to one another. Again is often associated with longing, such as the adult Cathy’s wishing ‘I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free’, or irritation, as in Heathcliff’s gruff warning: ‘A guest who is not in danger of coming again, is always welcome here’.

The end of the book is like the beginning of another. It indicates a forward leap, with the younger generation moving beyond their brooding parents’ pain. It is epitomized by the younger Cathy teaching her cousin (and future husband) Hareton to read, because his education had been neglected by his father Hindley and his surrogate father Heathcliff.

‘“Con-trary!” said a voice, as sweet as a silver bell – “that for the third time, you dunce! I’m not going to tell you again – recollect, or I pull your hair!”’. This striving to overcome an appalling inheritance is described in Freud’s essay ‘Recalling, repeating and working-through’ (1914). It is a ‘destiny neurosis’ – a kind of ancestral doom, compulsive, convulsive, daemonic and deadly – which Cathy and Hareton are in the process of shedding. They are becoming ‘contrary’, (in Deleuzian terms) they are producing difference.

‘“Let me in, let me in, I’m come home…I’d lost my way on the moor”’ is the catchphrase of Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost trying to return by her own window to her own bed. She is trapped in that neurosis, ‘embedded’ there, as Freud would say. And while any number of endings might have been possible, Brontë opts to revoke the past and throw a line to the future. One can almost imagine the younger Cathy and Hareton selling both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange for a fresh start somewhere else. Oates has argued that ‘far from being a rhapsodical ode to primitive dark energies’, the novel is ‘an assured demonstration of the finite and tragically self-consuming nature of passion’ – the key word is finite – and it professes ‘an attitude toward time and change that might even be called optimistic’. She finds it odd that it’s so often misread.

And Again

‘Like most, I suspect, who read Wuthering Heights early in life, the novel has smouldered in my mind ever since – rekindled by regular rereading.’ (John Sutherland).

2018 is the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth. The celebrations are in full swing. The poet and performer Patience Agbabi has been a writer-in-residence at the Brontë Parsonage Museum and hosted an evening of contemporary themes in Wuthering Heights. In York in September there will be an Emily Brontë conference, where topics include Displacement, Dispossession and Exile, Gothic and Queer Readings, and Musicality in Text and Life.

In February, in a long pink winter coat and black boots, Her Royal Highness Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum where she met the artist Clare Twomey who has been creating a new version of the lost manuscript of Wuthering Heights by copying it one line at a time. According to a Brontë Society Newsletter, ‘Over 10,000 visitors have participated in the work, and Her Royal Highness wrote the last line into the newly created manuscript in the very house where Emily wrote the original’. In other reports we read that the crowd that gathered to greet her included ‘four-legged and furry friends, which the Duchess patted’ and after her manuscript duties, she was taken on local vintage bus and steam train rides. Commenting on these events online, one person remarked: ‘Emily would gag’. Others said they loved the pink coat.

Commissioned by the Bradford Literature Festival, Kate Bush, whose song ‘Wuthering Heights’ topped the charts in 1978, will be writing an epitaph for Emily Brontë’s bicentenary which coincides with the fortieth anniversary of her hit and the words will be inscribed on an installation of stones near the Parsonage. Poets Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay and novelist Jeanette Winterson have been invited to write pieces for a similar project to commemorate the Brontës’ work. There will be a guided walk between Thornton and Haworth, Emily’s places of birth and death, as well as a falconry display, and a new rose called ‘Emily Brontë’, soft pink with subtle apricot hues, was launched at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

Yorkshire-based author Michael Stewart has retold Heathcliff’s story in a novel which a publicity blurb describes as ‘dripping with atmosphere’, a ‘superbly written piece of gothic fiction which authentically captures the bleak, earthy tone of Emily Brontë’s classic’. Connoisseurs will compare it with Jeffrey Caine’s Heathcliff (1987), which covers similar ground and thirty years ago was praised as ‘a remarkably accomplished and engrossing novel’. Then Stewart’s book will take its place on the already groaning shelves of fictional proliferations – sometimes called second-generation Brontëan fiction, pastiches, literary impersonations, posthumous continuations, derivative literature, fan fiction, sequel and prequel-mania, an industry, literary parasitism, ripoffs – for which the Brontës are a magnet, alongside books like Jean Rhys’s Wild Sargasso Sea (1966), Anna L’Estrange’s Return to Wuthering Heights (1978), Robert Barnard’s The Case of the Missing Brontë (1983), Jane Urquhart’s Changing Heaven (1990), James Tully’s The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë (1999), Denise Giardina’a Emily’s Ghost (2009), Alison Case’s Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights (2015), and many more, all I suppose ‘dripping with atmosphere’.

To highlight just one example from this list, in the 1970s Anna L’Estrange was asked by an inspired publisher to write a follow-up to Wuthering Heights. In her Author’s Preface, she admits that everyone knows or knows of that novel, it’s as famous as Shakespeare and the Bible, and says it was not a task she undertook lightly. Her greatest impediment was the fact that Emily Brontë was a poet and a mystic, and L’Estrange was neither, but since the novel ‘cries out for a sequel’, she decided to go ahead with it. And so she reread the original, though in doing further research, she was irritated by the ‘accumulated rubbish’ of critical writing. She visited Haworth and walked on the majestic moors, where the weather ‘can change from bright sunshine to a lashing storm in a matter of moments’. She wondered what Emily would have thought of the enterprise and ‘the unusual ease with which I was able to write’. Her book ends with the narrator – son of Lockwood – predicting that in ‘a decade or two there would be another story for me to hear’. For sure! Apparently L’Estrange’s publisher was promising many sequels, which caused one fearful critic to protest: ‘A Heathcliff in the factory, another in the trenches, yet another on the dole and, finally, a Heathcliff as the lead singer in a group of punk rockers: it will be too much’. Anna L’Estrange is Rosemary Ellerbeck, who is also the novelist Nicola Thorne. She was born in Cape Town, educated in Cheshire, attended the London School of Economics, and is the author of more than fifty novels.

Recently Wuthering Heights made it into The Guardian’s list of Top 10 Wilderness Books. Other surprises include The Secrets of ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Polish author Eryk Ostrowski who tries to prove it was Branwell who wrote Wuthering Heights (thus going a notch higher than Daphne du Maurier, who suggested Branwell was its co-author) and to tell us the universal claim of Emily Brontë as the book’s author is ‘the biggest hoax in modern literature’. And I wonder if crime writer Robert Barnard toyed with Brontë material in his novel The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori (1998), but I haven’t dared to find out.

Next to the books and articles and oddities we can place films, dozens of them, including the much-debated Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. That year Virginia Woolf told a friend, ‘We’ve been given stalls for a 1st night of Wuthering Heights – a movie.’ For the lead role the director William Wyler had Bette Davis in mind, but Davis excused herself; she later said she thought Geraldine Fitzgerald, who played Isabella Linton, should have had the part of Cathy, and ‘not that Merle Oberon. She never ran through any moors!’ Had Davis got the part, one of the silver screen’s most sneeringly subversive women, she would have given the story a whole new look.

Wyler had purple sawdust sprinkled over tumbleweed to recreate the Yorkshire moors in California’s San Fernando Valley, with imported heather for close-ups. In Luis Buñuel’s very Spanish Abismos de Pasión (1954), the moorlands were simply replaced with a landscape of bare Mexican hills. There are German, Italian, Japanese, Filipino and Bollywood versions, and musicals, miniseries, games, songs, opera, theatre and ballet. Emily Brontë has also been cinematically portrayed by Ida Lupino in the ‘literary lemon’ Devotion (1946), Isabelle Adjani in the elliptical Les Soeurs Brontë (1979), and Chloe Pirrie in the highly acclaimed To Walk Invisible (2016), among others.

The Brontë Society and Brontë Parsonage Museum do an amazing job in balancing literary and archival seriousness with humour and business acumen. Amongst the merchandise offered for sale there’s the Bron-TEA Selection, where you can buy Emily’s Heady Heights, a detoxing blend of wild nettle and berries. Will they also hold hot applesauce-thrown-in-someone’s-face workshops? And is it Adults Only at the bicentenary or could there be a colouring-in competition for kids? Let’s see, what colours would suit the scene from Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff yells at his wife ‘”Get up, wretched idiot, before I stamp you to death”’ and flings a dinner knife at her head, striking her below the ear? Should we fear populism more than we fear a mass of Heathcliffs? Is the aura of Wuthering Heights weakened by its illegitimate offspring, its copies? Or is the old text lucky to be rewarded with new contexts?

Stevie Davies examined this quandary in her affectionately satirical novel Four Dreamers and Emily, about a conference that takes place in Haworth. One of the Dreamers, Timothy – who believes he is Emily Brontë – scoffs at what’s become of the place, with its trinket shops, a bakery selling Brontë Buns, ‘Wuthering This and Blithering That’; ‘the village was in the hands of madmen, and overrun by visiting lunatics’. Another, Eileen, is a bossy expert and claiming to be a relative of Charlotte Brontë’s friend Ellen Nussey, she has added the name Nussey to her own. The third dreamer is Marianne, a struggling academic who delivers the opening address, announcing ‘there are thousands of Emilies. We each carry one about with us…she is made of the raw material of our dreams’. The fourth is Sharon, a waitress, accidentally swept into the literary scene, who noticed ‘how they pecked snappishly at each other, these Brontëans’. Timothy is dying, Eileen is exhausted from the effort of her masquerade, Marianne is in the middle of a marital crisis and Sharon is overweight and looking for love. A mad Brontë frenzy whirls around them: the dog walkers participating in a Keeper and Grasper [two of the Brontës’ pets] Lookalike Competition, ghosts, the Irigarayan, Derridean, Althusserian sexy scholar who was the ‘most radical thing in the field’ and mesmerises the audience even if few understand her as she belts out her thoughts with great force and produces impressive slogans like ‘clitoricity not historicity’, two biographers who think they know where certain missing manuscripts are buried and start to dig, and the Brontë hanggliders that sail overhead, each craft named after a different family member because, explains one of the team of pilots, the Brontës ‘were creatures with wings…they flew’, a statement that gave one of the more stolid scholars the chance to say yes, for sure, they were ‘ornithologically inclined’, they ‘knew Bewick’s History of Birds intimately’.

True Solitary

There was immense respect but less hype in the centenary year of 1918, when Emily Brontë was honoured far and wide. In Tasmania they were certain that she was ‘the most interesting and attractive of the group of famous sisters. Although she spent most of her life coughing…she was…the most audacious of the three…and those who have been moved to strong emotion by her virile and passionate writings will celebrate her centenary by turning afresh to her memorable pages.’ (The Mercury, Hobart, 6 July 1918). In 2018 that is still the best advice.

These days in Brontë literary circles it’s become customary to declare one’s relationship to Anne, Emily and Charlotte, one or all, either explicitly or in some coded way: to disclose a ghostly encounter, make a rare scholarly discovery, or simply to wear purple or keep a sprig of Yorkshire heather pressed between the pages of a book. Some think they’ll crack the mystery of Emily by exposing her eating habits (she was thin) or explaining that her eccentricities and signs of frustration were due to autism. Lately questions of her sexuality have gained more attention. But always it’s the same small set of biographical facts being scrutinised and arranged in various ways.

The writer and reluctant traveller Gerald Murnane’s ‘true account of certain events recalled on the evening when I decided to write no more fiction’, is titled ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’ and describes his one and only trip from Victoria to Tasmania. ‘I had always been afraid that if I were to travel out of what I thought of as my native territory, I would become a different person and would forget the person that I had been’. For reading matter he’d taken Chitham’s biography of Emily Brontë, whom he calls ‘a true solitary’ (as he himself had once wished to be) and he cites her as a great influence on his writing. Murnane shares not just Brontë’s reluctance to leave home, but also her attitude to food, confessing ‘I did not want to eat. I was almost afraid to eat. I felt as though my body…could be sustained by the powerful thoughts about to enter my mind’. And also this: ‘I seemed to be dreaming that a branch was knocking against the window of my room. As I awoke I understood that someone was knocking at my door’. Not surprisingly, it’s a woman with a briefcase containing a manuscript, which she said was written by a man and which ‘imagined an island-country of approximately the same shape as Tasmania’, a ‘New Arcadia’, and after much circumambulation (involving racehorses and alcohol and wishful thinking) he confirms what he suspected, not only that ‘the woman who brought the briefcase to my room for some purpose that I cannot as yet divine’ is the author of the manuscript, but (he remembers) the New Arcadian horse that won ‘a maiden race in a certain year’ was owned by  J. Brenzaida and F. de Samara and the trainer was Ms A. G. Almeida (three prominent Gondalians). Murnane’s Tasmania is Brontë’s Gaaldine. And I assume the mysterious visitor-author-horse trainer Ms Almeida’s middle name is Geraldine, which sounds like Gaaldine, the interior of which Gerald Murnane explores, and where Ms Almeida’s and Murnane’s, or Brontë’s and Murnane’s, interiors intersect.

I first read Wuthering Heights as a teenager in 1964 and found a library book about the Brontës by E. M. Delafield. Ignoring Delafield’s warning that ‘there has been a tendency on the part of all those who have ever written about the Brontës, to lose their heads’, I spent a significant part of my 20s under the great blue and gold dome of the British Museum Reading Room, researching Emily Brontë and the nineteenth century; I gained my PhD in 1979. But that wasn’t the end of it, my interest quietly persisted and sometimes I think I may have read everything written by and about Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights, though that’s not possible, nor useful. And I have never been to Yorkshire.

But I’m puzzled by the talismanic role Wuthering Heights plays in my reading life. Is it, I once worried, an affectation? Like Joan Didion in her self-styled cosmic mood, bedazzled by the Hoover Dam? Channelling P. B. Shelley when he first sees Mont Blanc, Didion claims that ‘Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye… Quite often I hear the turbines. Frequently I wonder what is happening at the dam this instant’. Is Wuthering Heights my Hoover Dam? Something terrific and monstrous and of course widely shared, its waters (one might say) being released to fill downstream orders, repeatedly? I hope not.

However, when I’d eventually broken free of the cave-like British Museum Reading Room and sat down to write my PhD thesis, I was living in Geneva, where that tattered first copy of Wuthering Heights was always on my desk, and the desk stood in front of a window that looked out at the precipitous limestone layers of the Salève. When Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was amazed by his monster’s agility, he asked, ‘Who could arrest a creature capable of scaling the overhanging sides of Mont Salève?’ On clear days my view extended across the Alps, and I discerned the ‘solemn power’ of Mont Blanc, which distance rendered a mere blip above the other peaks. Much like Byron’s and the Shelleys’ experience in 1816. ‘Their windows looked pleasantly southwards over the blueness of the lake… the haze of the Alps stretched backwards and upwards in darker and darker tones until finally, above and beyond them all – when the morning light was clear – the single glittering white fang of Mont Blanc appeared’.

There’s no doubt that Emily Brontë read Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’, and no doubt the poem would have taken her to those meditative heights and back again, with Shelleyan thoughts. As his biographer Richard Holmes notes, the end of the poem does not focus on the mountain’s aspects and impacts – brutal and fearful and sublime – but ‘on the poised, unflinching attention of the human mind itself which embraces all, and is in this sense the ultimate power… Mont Blanc proved for Shelley that the natural world held no other intelligent divinity except the mind of man’.

Brontë was drawn to far and high places, ideas, emotions. She named her novel Wuthering Heights and her Gondal heroine A. G. A. was mountain-born. In her poetry she capitalised Earth and Existence and she wrote ‘No coward soul is mine/ No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere’. Beyond all the fuss that has gathered around her – tourists, fans, critics, biographers, royalty, bicentenary essayists – she remains a ‘true solitary’ and her novel is unsurpassed.

If you read just one book on the topic, I suggest Stevie Davies’ Emily Brontë: Heretic (1994), a rich, intelligent literary biography which starts with this idea: ‘Her poetry and prose deal with the need to understand and the denial of that need by the combined complexity and limitation of the given world, mind and language…Her own works uniquely compel and arouse us because they forbid our full comprehension; again and again the door is shut’. Perhaps more than any other biographer or critic, Davies grasps this spirit of resistance, Brontë’s perversity, her ‘contrary temperament’ and her ‘philosophy of contraries’.

Selected Sources

Alexander, Christine and Margaret Smith, The Oxford Companion to the Brontës, 2006
Barker, Juliet, The Brontës, 1994
Bald, Marjorie, ‘The Brontës’ in Women Writers of the Nineteenth-Century, 1923
Bentley, Phyllis, The Brontës, 1947
Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights, 1847; The Complete Poems, 1992
Chapple, J. A. V. and Arthur Pollard, The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, 1997
Chitham, Edward, A Life of Emily Brontë, 1987
Davies, Stevie, Emily Brontë: Heretic, 1994; Four Dreamers and Emily, 1996
Delafield, E. M.,The Brontës – Their Lives Recorded by their Contemporaries, 1935
Eagleton, Terry, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, 1975
–  Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture, 1995
Frank, Katherine, A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë, 1991
Hewish, John, Emily Brontë: A Critical and Biographical Study, 1969
Gérin, Winifred, Emily Brontë, 1971
Holmes, Richard, Shelley – The Pursuit, 1974
L’Estrange, Anna (Rosemary Ellerbeck), Return to Wuthering Heights, 1978
Lutz, Deborah, The Brontë Cabinet – Three Lives in Nine Objects, 2015
Meyer, Susan, Imperialism at Home – Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, 1996
Miller, J. Hillis, ‘Wuthering Heights and the Ellipses of Interpretation’, Notre Dame English Journal, vol 12, no 2, 1980, pp 85-100
Moers, Ellen, Literary Women, 1976
Murnane, Gerald, ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’, in Collected Short Fiction (2018)
Oates, Joyce Carol, ‘The Magnanimity of Wuthering Heights’, Critical Inquiry, Winter 1983
Peters, Maureen, An Enigma of Brontës, 1974
Robinson, Agnes Mary Frances, Emily Brontë, 1883
Spark, Muriel and Derek Stanford, Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work, 1953
Spark, Muriel, The Brontë Letters, 1954
Sutcliffe, Halliwell, ‘On the Spirit of the Moors’, in Brontë Society Transactions, 1906
Sutherland, John, The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily & Anne Brontë (& Branwell), 2016
Uglow, Jenny, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1993