The Life and Times of Emily Bronte
Emily Bronte’s father, Patrick Bronte, was the son of a Northern Ireland farmer. Initially, he earned a living as a blacksmith but by sheer determination and ambition gained a degree from Cambridge and at the age of twenty-nine was ordained a clergyman. He married Maria Branwell in 1812 and in 1818 their daughter Emily was born. Maria Bronte died in 1821 and her sister, Elizabeth, a strict disciplinarian, took on the care of the young Brontes. They were living in the parsonage at Haworth at this time.
Emily, like Catherine in Wuthering Heights, developed an independent spirit as she grew up: she left her school, Roe Head, after only three months, worked as a teacher for six months and left her school in Brussels after eight months. Their father, Patrick, who had had a number of literary works published encouraged a love of books and learning and Emily began to build her own imaginary world called Gondal which contains most of her best poetry. She spent her time helping with the housework, reading, and creating Gondal, until 1845, when her sister, Charlotte, upon reading the Gondal poems for the first time, suggested that they be published. Eventually, they were published but only two copies were sold!
Within a year Emily had finished and published Wuthering Heights and her sister Anne had written Agnes Grey, both following Charlotte who had already published Jane Eyre in 1847, which was very successful. However, Wuthering Heights was not well received by the critics receiving only one good review. Within a year of publication of what was later to become a huge literary success, Emily Bronte died in December 1848. Indeed, her brother Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died from various forms of tuberculosis between September 1848 and May 1849. To put her death into a historical timeline, she died one year after the death of Daniel O’Connell who passed away in Genoa in 1847 and in the same year as Marx and Engels published ‘The Communist Manifesto’.
However, it has to be said that Emily Bronte’s short life (1818 – 1848) coincided with major epochs in Britain, namely The Romantic Movement, led by William Wordsworth and others and also the increasing growth of urbanisation. Cities like Liverpool, from which Heathcliff was brought by Mr Earnshaw, had doubled in size between 1800 and 1830. This era also saw great changes in the countryside also. Agriculture became more efficient with most of the open fields and commonages being enclosed and worked by the estate owners like the Lintons. The cottagers and small farmers who had traditionally farmed these common areas were marginalised after the lands were enclosed and they frequently migrated to the industrial cities. More than likely, Heathcliff’s parents were from this disinherited class.
This new and changing social scene in the nineteenth-century which was no doubt much influenced by the fallout from the French Revolution (1789) also bred a new generation of philosophers and social influencers. One of these was John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) who rejected the utilitarian creed of industrialisation and was an inveterate advocate of human liberty, urging people to develop their individual potential and talents. He believed that it was necessary to bring about many reforms in society before people could achieve this freedom. One of his causes was a campaign for popular education which he believed to be necessary if people were to attain true personal liberty. It is clear from the pages of Wuthering Heights that Emily Bronte’s views on education and freedom and her own spirit of freedom and independence are a reflection of this philosophy which was in vogue at the time.
Introducing Wuthering Heights
It is difficult to pigeon-hole Wuthering Heights neatly into just one genre alone. These ‘grace notes’ do not seek to be dogmatic and rather try to analyse the novel from different viewpoints. And after all, we have always to give some weight to the views of the individual reader who comes to this novel, probably because it has been prescribed by powers on high, and who brings his/her own values and attitudes to the mesmerising conflicts and contrasts in the story.
• The novel can be interpreted as a love story, but it can also be interpreted as a revenge story, an autobiographical story or a saga depicting the conflict between differing civilisations. If anything, there are elements of all of these views contained within it.
• Conflict is elemental and central to this novel. It is the source and origin of the plot and the novel has scarcely begun when the peace and harmony at Wuthering Heights is disturbed by the arrival of Heathcliff bringing discord and conflict to the Earnshaw household. Initially, this conflict centres on Hindley and Heathcliff but it develops and eventually envelops all the characters and ultimately becomes a conflict between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. This conflict engulfs the novel and only shows signs of subsiding in the third generation at the end of the novel.
• Wuthering Heights also has an unusual structure and method of narration. Nelly Dean, a servant, relates the history of three generations to Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange. He in his turn records in his journal the story as told to him by Nelly and also some of his own reminiscences. Wuthering Heights is then presented to us in this rather complicated form in a novel spanning thirty years in time. (See further analysis below).
• Critics and scholars have long argued as to which literary genre the novel belongs. Some claim that it is a Romance, while others claim that it is a Saga and others still that it is a Gothic Romance. Certainly, there are reasons for saying that aspects of the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff constitute a typical romance story, but this view is open to question considering the tragic death of Catherine, Heathcliff’s revenge and the supernatural aspects of their relationship. The novel also follows some of the patterns of a Saga in presenting the history of the three generations of the two families told through the eyes of the servant in both families. Gothic influences are also evident in the story. Emily Bronte was an avid reader of Gothic romances in her childhood, feeding her mind with the horror and sensationalism of their mysterious setting and their evil ghost-like characters. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Lockwood’s dream and Heathcliff’s death are two of the more prominent occurrences in the novel which are classic Gothic in their inspiration, but the physical surroundings and settings of the novel bear no comparison with the mysterious castles and unknown lands typical of the Gothic romance. We can also say that even though Heathcliff’s origins are unknown and his actions at times seem demonic, he is a human creature displaying human qualities.
• In all our discussions of Wuthering Heights, we are continually drawn to the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff. At first, we see their idyllic love relationship which is subjected to many trials and pressures, as a result of which we find Heathcliff turning into a fiendish monster. This transformation in Heathcliff fascinates and sobers us. Despite the evil of Heathcliff, we still maintain some shreds of sympathy for him even as he reaches the worst depths of his degradation. (See further analysis below).
• If we take a telescopic view of the novel (or maybe, we could use a drone!), we have on the one hand Wuthering Heights in the Yorkshire Moors, surrounded by the world of raw nature with its calms and storms, an untamed world whose inhabitants live in an untamed manner. At the centre of life at the heights we have Catherine, Heathcliff and Hindley. On the other hand, we have Thrushcross Grange, representing the world of civility, surrounded by beauty, protected from the untamed world. The inhabitants of this world live a life of civilised gentility with the benefits of education and society. At the centre of life at the grange are Edgar and Isabella Linton. The Heights and the Grange provide the setting in which the story is acted out by each generation in its turn.
Structure in Wuthering Heights
The opening chapters give us certain details about Heathcliff, Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. However, the essential story only begins in Chapter 4 when Nelly starts to relate it to Lockwood. The novel begins with the date 1801, but Nelly tells the story to Lockwood of events which happened in the past, beginning with the arrival of Heathcliff to Wuthering Heights, thirty years earlier (1771).
The story records the events in the lives of three generations at Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. This naturally presented an overwhelming problem of structure for Emily Bronte in selecting and organising the events in such a manner so as not to confuse the reader. She is also faced with the problem of retaining the reader’s interest throughout the lives of the three generations.
The most interesting aspect of the structure is the composition of the two families. The Earnshaws at Wuthering Heights have one son, Hindley, and one daughter, Catherine. The Lintons at Thrushcross Grange have one son, Edgar, and one daughter, Isabella. Edgar Linton marries Catherine Earnshaw, while Isabella Linton marries Heathcliff, Earnshaw’s adopted son. Edgar and Catherine’s only daughter Cathy, marries first, Heathcliff and Isabella’s son, Linton Heathcliff, and later marries Hindley Earnshaw’s son, Hareton.
It is obvious that Emily Bronte was very conscious of the necessity for a pattern in the selection and composition of the two major families. The list of relationships above may cause some confusion but if you examine the family tree you will see the pattern clearly. We can see that there were three marriages in the second generation and one child by each marriage.
The novel can be divided into two parts: the first part dealing with Catherine, Heathcliff, Hindley, Edgar and Isabella, the second part dealing with young Cathy, Linton Heathcliff, Hareton and Heathcliff’s revenge. Unifying both parts is the character of Heathcliff, a mixture of evil and romance in the first part, a dehumanised, revengeful recluse in the second part. Nelly and Lockwood, the narrators, also help to give unity to the novel, Nelly because, like Heathcliff, she is present through the history of the three generations. Lockwood is present at the beginning and the end, he introduces us to Heathcliff at the beginning of the novel and leaves us at his grave at the end.
A further pattern in the story, contributing to the formality of the structure, is the series of young romances. Catherine has two romances, one with Edgar the other with Heathcliff, while the young Cathy also has two romances, one with Linton Heathcliff, the other with Hareton. This pattern of romances ensures a continual inter-relationship between the Heights and the Grange.
As the novel opens there is no contact between the Heights and the Grange, but from the moment Catherine is taken in by the Lintons after being bitten by the dogs, conflict between the two houses begins. When Catherine returns after her stay with the Lintons she is further estranged from Heathcliff. This separation and Catherine’s marriage to Edgar gives rise to Heathcliff’s revenge. The revenge story increases the sense of tension and this tension helps to maintain our interest and curiosity.
The novel begins with harmony and ends with harmony. Heathcliff is a disruptive force. The disharmony and conflict between the two houses and between the characters continue through the novel until the young Cathy succeeds in becoming a civilising influence over Hareton. Heathcliff’s determination in his revenge fades and he is unsuccessful in gaining his revenge over Hareton. Cathy teaches Hareton and brings him under her influence, the values of the Grange and book values. They are described in Chapter 32 as ‘one loving and desiring to esteem, the other loving and desiring to be esteemed, they contrived in the end to reach it’. She succeeds where the first Catherine failed and with her marriage to Hareton the reconciliation of the conflict in the novel is achieved and harmony is once more restored to both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.
There were two methods of writing a novel in common use among Emily Bronte’s contemporaries: one method involved the narration of the story in an autobiographical manner by a character who was involved in the action of the story; the other method involved the use by the author of an omniscient third person who had sufficient knowledge of the events to be in a position to narrate the story. Emily Bronte’s method is similar to the latter except she uses two narrators; Nelly Dean who is the servant at Wuthering Heights and later at Thrushcross Grange, and Lockwood who acquires the tenancy of Thrushcross Grange from Heathcliff.
The novel opens with the date 1801 as Lockwood becomes a tenant at the Grange. He is an outsider and a city man who claims to be unsociable by nature, but his curiosity about Heathcliff and Catherine is aroused by his two visits to Wuthering Heights and his ghost-like experience of Catherine during his second visit. After these experiences at the Heights, described in the opening three chapters, he makes enquiries of Nelly Dean about Heathcliff and the other residents at the Heights on his return to Thrushcross Grange. Lockwood tells us:
‘Under the pretence of gaining information concerning the necessities of my establishment, I desired Mrs Dean when she brought in supper, to sit down while I ate it, hoping sincerely that she would prove a regular gossip and either rouse me to animation or lull me to sleep with her gossip’.
Thankfully for us, Nelly Dean does prove to be ‘a regular gossip’, satisfying Lockwood’s curiosity by responding to his questions and proceeding to tell him about her childhood at Wuthering Heights and the arrival of Heathcliff from Liverpool as a child. In this manner, Emily Bronte lulls us into the story of Catherine and Heathcliff as Nelly continues to narrate her story to Lockwood.
Nelly Dean’s story, covering a period of thirty years in the lives of three generations of the Earnshaws and Lintons, occupies most of the novel and there are only brief interventions in the story by Lockwood. Nelly Dean is in a perfect position to tell the story since she was either directly involved in the events, was an observer of them or was told about them directly by a confidant on the rare occasions when she was not present at the scene of the action. She, therefore, has the authority to tell the story and we accept it as authentic. She grew up at Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff and Catherine; she lived at Thrushcross Grange after Catherine’s marriage to Edgar and before Heathcliff’s death she is again living at Wuthering Heights. She is not a direct observer of the events at Wuthering Heights after Isabella’s marriage to Heathcliff, but she learns about their life together from Isabella’s letter to her (Chapter 13). She learns about Heathcliff’s re-opening of Catherine’s grave and his suffering after her death from his own lips (Chapter 29) and she learns about the life of the young Catherine at Wuthering Heights from the account of Zillah (Chapter 30). Heathcliff’s description of his suffering in Chapter 29 is an excellent example of the use of a reversal which influences our feelings towards Heathcliff by giving us a flashback to earlier events in the story. Isabella’s letter as a literary device is unobtrusively woven into the story so that we learn about events which Nelly Dean could not have otherwise known about.
Lockwood records in his journal the entire story as told to him by Nelly Dean and also adds his own experiences. He records his first impressions of Wuthering Heights and his reading of Catherine’s diary in the first three chapters and then records Nelly Dean’s story with only minor interruptions until his visit to Wuthering Heights before his departure for the city (Chapter 31). On his return, in September 1802, he discovers about the growing relationship between the young Catherine and Hareton. He meets Nelly again and she continues to narrate the story until Lockwood leaves us in the final paragraph as he lingers by the graves of Catherine, Heathcliff and Edgar. Lockwood, a sceptical outsider like us, the readers, lends an air of authenticity and realism to this tale from the Yorkshire moors and therefore gives the story added credibility for the reader: the reader can identify with him and his curiosity arouses our curiosity also.
Whether we consider the narrative technique too complicated or not, we have to agree that it does achieve its aim in presenting a strange gothic world in such a manner as to make it interesting and familiar to the reader. The two narrators, Nelly Dean and Lockwood give the story a credibility and a plausibility which it might not have had Emily Bronte chosen to present it in an autobiographical manner without their intervention.
Author’s Note: The term ‘Grace Notes’ comes to us from the world of Irish Traditional music where they are used as embellishments, added extras to further personalise the tune. Here they are used in a similar fashion – maybe the nuggets unearthed here could be the difference between H1 or H2!
Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970.
(A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).
Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975
Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights‘ gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).
You might also like to read Major Themes in Wuthering Heights
and The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel
4 thoughts on “Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights”
I love to read your reviews, and am doubly thankful for your Author’s Note, here, as I’d wondered immediately what was meant by “Grace Notes.” All of it a delight!
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