One hundred and ninety-six years ago, on 30th July 1818, the fifth (and penultimate) Brontë sister was born.
One hundred and ninety-six years ago, on 30th July 1818, the fifth (and penultimate) Brontë sister was born. Coincidently, this was also the year in which Mary Shelley’s influential Frankenstein was published. Twenty-nine years later, Emily Brontë produced a Gothic novel of her own, in which she drew from her own guarded, yet eccentric, life in the midst of the desolate Yorkshire moors.
Wuthering Heights was published under the name Ellis Bell, as Brontë knew that Victorian society would not have been able to accept the thought that a woman had imagined something so dark and passionate. In fact, even though most readers thought the work to be a man’s doing, they deemed the intense depiction of love and cruelty entirely inappropriate.
Despite the shock reaction to the powerfully explosive novel, critical reviews were mixed. Some labelled it “positively disgusting” and others commending the intense force of Brontë’s writing. The story is often fractured and can be agonising to read in places, but this is arguably all part of the Gothic experience.
However, as the more measured Jane Eyre had been published during the previous year under the pseudonym Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë), critics inevitably compared the two, often concluding that the somewhat fragmented Wuthering Heights was the inferior work.
Influenced by both the Romantic and the Gothic genres, Emily Brontë’s novel transgressed the boundaries of the acceptable, through both its presentation of intense passion and extreme violence.
An article in the 1984 edition of the Britannia put the result concisely into words: “it strongly shows the brutalizing influence of unchecked passion.” It was the brutality of the “devlish” Heathcliff and the unchecked passion of the central couple that was seen as excessive and shocking at the time.
Is the work still relevant today?
Undoubtedly, the views and expectations of society have changed enormously since the Victorian era. Nevertheless, one critic described Wuthering Heights as a “novel of human passion,” meaning that at the core of the book lies the exploration of human nature, something that will arguably never change.
Wuthering Heights essentially expands on a concept originally introduced by the Romantics; that people are driven by passion rather than reason. Some examples of this can be found in the character of Heathcliff: upon the death of his lover, Catherine, he exclaims in desperation, “I cannot live without my life, I cannot live without my soul.”
This could also suggest that he is a hopeless romantic, rather than an “imp of Satan” who exists as a liminal character between the supernatural and the natural worlds.
At the agonising climax point of the novel, Catherine and Heathcliff’s passion transgresses beyond what is humanly possible, resulting in the inevitable fact that they can no longer both remain in the natural world, as it would be unbearable.
Although exaggerated to the extremes, these intense emotions felt by the characters in this novel are the same as those that are felt today.
Despite having spent her whole life isolated on the moors, Brontë has somehow managed to capture the pain and anguish felt as a result of being desperately in love, with both remarkable power and insight.
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