How Did a Recluse Like Emily Bronte Create Wuthering Heights - A Novel of Complex Interpersonal Dynamics
Many people have wondered how a sheltered and reclusive person like Emily Bronte could have written Wuthering Heights, a complex story that depicts the coarser side of life. Emily had few friends outside of her family and few interactions with neighbors. How was she able to create characters with such passionate natures and different personality types?
Wuthering Heights is famous for its depiction of passionate romance and revenge; dysfunctional family relationships, and a protagonist who shows up as a ghost. It seems difficult for a woman who never married, or had any known love affairs to create such an intense novel of desire.
Emily Jane Bronte
Emily Jane Bronte (July 30, 1818 - December 17, 1848) wrote one singular novel, Wuthering Heights. Published in 1847, Wuthering Heights was not commercially successful and Emily died, believing that her master work was a failure. But, it would have been a very personal failure, as Wuthering Heights was published under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell. Not until after Emily's death was her true identity revealed.
Emily Bronte never married, living a quiet life at her father's Parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire, England. Her few forays into the world - boarding schools, teaching positions, and a governess job were brief, due to her homesickness and the depression that it caused her. Yet, she created a work of fiction with a unique structure that was way ahead of its time. She defied conventionality by veering away from the typical Gothic heroine, a polite, naïve, and virtuous virgin; presenting the reader with Catherine Earnshaw, a socially ambitious, passionate, outdoorsy, and complicated woman. Wuthering Heights presents sophisticated themes, plot, and character interactions that spark controversy 164 years later.
Wuthering Heights - Convoluted Relationships
Many works of fiction offer us a view of a particular group of people in or around a particular socio-economic realm. But Emily's characters move between classes with impunity.
Heathcliff, an orphaned street urchin, becomes a wealthy man. Catherine Earnshaw moves up when she marries the wealthy, sophisticated Edgar Linton. And Nelly Dean, a self-educated servant, is as comfortable with the mad Heathcliff as she is at ease with Mr. Lockwood; as she is at ease in the rarefied gentility at Thrushcross Grange. And she is at home in the rugged, windswept, troubled household at Wuthering Heights.
The characters and their interactions are complex and convoluted, as is the plot. Character types include : farmers and their help, servants, an orphaned waif, a wild girl who runs the moors and is also a social climber, a vengeful alcoholic, a kindly naïve young woman, a wealthy sickly young man, a bumbling oaf, a sophisticated gentleman, a naïve gentleman, a grouchy religious fanatic, passionate lovers, and a sociopathic protagonist.
The Unreliable Narrators of Wuthering Heights
The novel, Wuthering Heights is told by two unreliable narrators, Nelly Dean (a servant at Thrushcross Grange, formerly of Wuthering Heights) and Heathcliff's new tenant, at Thrushcross Grange, Mr. Lockwood.
Mr. Lockwood is portrayed as a pleasant yet unobservant man, hardly the kind of narrator to rely on. He mistakes a bunch of dead rabbits for sleeping puppies; the younger Cathy as Heathcliff's wife; Heathcliff himself as a pleasant landlord; and Nelly Dean as a 'fixture' at Thrushcross Grange.
How is the reader to trust the observations of someone who gets things so wrong? We are shown Mr. Lockwood's ineptitude at interpreting situations; but what about the situations that are not presented as incorrect? Could other things that Mr. Lockwood tells the reader be wrong as well?
Nelly Dean tells the past part of the story to Mr. Lockwood. It is Mr. Lockwood, during his narration who reports to the reader what Nelly Dean has told him as well as his personal observations.
The reader has no way of knowing if the real story happened as told, or if the tellers embellished the tale. The reader has no way of knowing if the plot was skewed by the perceptions of either Nelly or Mr. Lockwood; or if the facts have become confused in the telling, like in the childhood game of Gossip.
Indeed, Nelly, though presented to the reader by Mr. Lockwood as a kindly, sensible woman was deep into the heart of the story herself and played a large role in the events that transpired. She took care of the motherless children in the story and apparently manipulated some of the action by her own behavior as well as suggestions that she made in discussion with the other characters.
Did Nelly really behave in the manner that she reported? Or, is she making some of it up, perhaps to portray herself in a position of some power? Is she covering something up? Did the other characters actually do or say what Nelly claimed?
Charlotte Bronte on her Sister Emily
Charlotte Bronte, Emily's sister, is famous for writing the novel Jane Eyre. After her sister's death, Charlotte destroyed much of Emily's work - her notes, charts, and early drafts of Wuthering Heights as well as countless other evidence of Emily's creation. So, most of what little is known about Emily comes filtered through the lens of her sister's observations and is colored by her perceptions. It is unknown how much of Charlotte's views of Emily are true. She may have wanted to place a spin on how she depicted her sister in order to paint the picture of a certain personality.
Charlotte also paints Emily as a sort of ignorant mystic despite evidence that Emily was well educated and a gifted musician.
Shortly after the death of Charlotte, her friend, Mrs. Gaskell, wrote her biography which includes many letters and quotes. Some of the views presented by Mrs. Gaskell as well as Charlotte have come into question in the ensuing years. But the fact remains that Elizabeth Gaskell did know Charlotte, spoke to her often, and had first hand experience with the Bronte family. It appears, in the biography, that Mrs. Gaskell did not like Emily, believing her to be distant and rude.
In chapter 14 of her biography, Mrs. Gaskell includes a long quotation by Charlotte on her sister Emily. I think that it shows how Emily, despite her reclusive, agoraphobic nature, created Wuthering Heights. Emily, it seemed, loved gossip!
"My sister's (Emily's) disposition was not naturally gregarious: circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church, or take walks in the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of a home. Though the feeling for the people around her was benevolent; intercourse with them she never sought, nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced and yet she knew them, knew their ways, their language, and their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail minute, graphic and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensued, that what her mind has gathered of the real concerning them was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits, of which in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress."
In other words, Emily Bronte enjoyed gossip.
Wuthering Heights is Gossip
So, Wuthering Heights is actually gossip. Mr. Lockwood really has nothing to do with the Earnshaws or the Lintons. Heathcliff is merely his landlord. The first part of the book occurs before Mr. Lockwood even sets foot in the area. He is reporting to the reader what he has heard from Nelly Dean. And remember that he is not the most observant of men. On certain counts (such as the ones mentioned previously) we know for sure that he is wrong. So what about the rest of it? How much of the story that he tells us is just plain wrong. Like gossip.
But it works so well, the book has become a mainstay of literature classes and a widely selling book, 165 years after Emily Bronte wrote it. As Emily loved to hear gossip, she has created the ultimate in gossip: the multi-generational tale told to us in a kitchen, in a low voice, because Heathcliff himself might appear at any moment and the sound of the wind in the trees just might be the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw.
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© 2010 Dolores Monet