102: Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights

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This week on StoryWeb: Emily Brontë’s novel, Wuthering Heights.

Ooh! Heathcliff! That’s who I think of when I think of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights.

Sure, there’s Catherine and Nelly Dean and the moors and the intricately layered story within a story, but for me, it is all about Heathcliff, the quintessential dark, brooding, fiery, untamed Romantic hero. We know we shouldn’t be drawn to the rough-and-tumble Heathcliff. But, oh, how can we can help it?

I love the novel’s opening – as Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff’s new tenant at the lofty estate Thrushcross Grange, recounts his “welcome” by Heathcliff and his hearth-side dogs, surlier even than their master. This scene is quickly followed by Lockwood’s haunting night spent at Wuthering Heights – the nightmares to which he succumbs, the tree branch banging incessantly against the window, the ghostly appearance of Catherine. If those scenes don’t draw you into a novel, you might as well give up, dear reader.

In a way, I guess you could say Wuthering Heights is a ghost story – for certainly Catherine haunts Heathcliff throughout the novel. Indeed, it is a spooky but thoroughly compelling experience to read Wuthering Heights, drawn in as we are by the Lockwood’s mysterious visits to Wuthering Heights.

As Nelly (the very definition of an “unreliable narrator”) begins to weave her yarn for Lockwood, we’re drawn in further still, yearning to know who Catherine Earnshaw is, to unlock the puzzle of the forbidding Heathcliff.

I first read Wuthering Heights when I was in junior high. It was one of the classics my mother and I read together one summer. I’d read a book first – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, her sister’s Wuthering Heights – and when I had finished, my mother would take her turn.

At that young age and at that first reading, I fell for Nelly’s version of events – hook, line, and sinker. It wasn’t until I read the novel again (and again) and began to really study it that I discovered just how untrustworthy Nelly was, how she was not just an innocent bystander to Catherine and Heathcliff’s doomed romance but perhaps the cause of the bitter outcome. Perhaps if Nelly had not played the role she did, Catherine and Heathcliff – those ill-fated lovers – would have fulfilled their love.

But then we wouldn’t have Wuthering Heights, would we?

Wuthering Heights is Emily Brontë’s only novel, published under the pseudonym “Ellis Bell.” Brontë died the following year at age thirty from tuberculosis. After she died, her sister Charlotte edited Wuthering Heights and had a second edition published in 1850.

The novel sparked strong reactions from nineteenth-century readers. The English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti called it “A fiend of a book – an incredible monster. . . . The action is laid in hell, – only it seems places and people have English names there.”

The book is indeed fiendish, from its brooding hero and vexing heroine to the wild moors they call home. When the novel opens and Lockwood visits Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights and encounters the wild curs, it’s as if he is face to face with Cerberus, the hound of Hades. What an introduction to Wuthering Heights – the place and the novel!

You can read Wuthering Heights online at Project Gutenberg, but you’ll definitely want to have a hard copy of this marvelous, enduring novel. As you read, it can help to consult a family tree, a relationships map, or a timeline.

Want to know more about Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, and the Yorkshire moors? Check out Mental Floss’s “10 Things You May Not Know about ‘Wuthering Heights.’” For links to numerous scholarly resources on Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights, visit The Victorian Web. For more on Emily Brontë and her family, read the StoryWeb post on her sister’s novel Jane Eyre. You’ll definitely understand why their brother, Branwell, has often been said to be the inspiration for Hindley Earnshaw, Catherine’s older brother. And finally, you’ll want to visit the moors.

When Emily Brontë died just a year after Wuthering Heights’ first publication, she thought the book had been a failure. Little could she have known that it would go on to become one of the best-known and, unlikely as it seems given its haunting, “fiendish” qualities, one of the most beloved novels in the English language. Long live Heathcliff!

For links to all these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/emilybronte.

Listen now as I read Chapter I of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

1801.—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.

‘Mr. Heathcliff?’ I said.

A nod was the answer.

‘Mr. Lockwood, your new tenant, sir. I do myself the honour of calling as soon as possible after my arrival, to express the hope that I have not inconvenienced you by my perseverance in soliciting the occupation of Thrushcross Grange: I heard yesterday you had had some thoughts—’

‘Thrushcross Grange is my own, sir,’ he interrupted, wincing. ‘I should not allow any one to inconvenience me, if I could hinder it—walk in!’

The ‘walk in’ was uttered with closed teeth, and expressed the sentiment, ‘Go to the Deuce:’ even the gate over which he leant manifested no sympathising movement to the words; and I think that circumstance determined me to accept the invitation: I felt interested in a man who seemed more exaggeratedly reserved than myself.

When he saw my horse’s breast fairly pushing the barrier, he did put out his hand to unchain it, and then sullenly preceded me up the causeway, calling, as we entered the court,—‘Joseph, take Mr. Lockwood’s horse; and bring up some wine.’

‘Here we have the whole establishment of domestics, I suppose,’ was the reflection suggested by this compound order. ‘No wonder the grass grows up between the flags, and cattle are the only hedge-cutters.’

Joseph was an elderly, nay, an old man: very old, perhaps, though hale and sinewy. ‘The Lord help us!’ he soliloquised in an undertone of peevish displeasure, while relieving me of my horse: looking, meantime, in my face so sourly that I charitably conjectured he must have need of divine aid to digest his dinner, and his pious ejaculation had no reference to my unexpected advent.

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

Before passing the threshold, I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door; above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date ‘1500,’ and the name ‘Hareton Earnshaw.’ I would have made a few comments, and requested a short history of the place from the surly owner; but his attitude at the door appeared to demand my speedy entrance, or complete departure, and I had no desire to aggravate his impatience previous to inspecting the penetralium.

One stop brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby or passage: they call it here ‘the house’ pre-eminently. It includes kitchen and parlour, generally; but I believe at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter: at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues, and a clatter of culinary utensils, deep within; and I observed no signs of roasting, boiling, or baking, about the huge fireplace; nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been under-drawn: its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham, concealed it. Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols: and, by way of ornament, three gaudily-painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was of smooth, white stone; the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures, painted green: one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch under the dresser reposed a huge, liver-coloured bitch pointer, surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses.

The apartment and furniture would have been nothing extraordinary as belonging to a homely, northern farmer, with a stubborn countenance, and stalwart limbs set out to advantage in knee-breeches and gaiters. Such an individual seated in his arm-chair, his mug of ale frothing on the round table before him, is to be seen in any circuit of five or six miles among these hills, if you go at the right time after dinner. But Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose. Possibly, some people might suspect him of a degree of under-bred pride; I have a sympathetic chord within that tells me it is nothing of the sort: I know, by instinct, his reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling—to manifestations of mutual kindliness. He’ll love and hate equally under cover, and esteem it a species of impertinence to be loved or hated again. No, I’m running on too fast: I bestow my own attributes over-liberally on him. Mr. Heathcliff may have entirely dissimilar reasons for keeping his hand out of the way when he meets a would-be acquaintance, to those which actuate me. Let me hope my constitution is almost peculiar: my dear mother used to say I should never have a comfortable home; and only last summer I proved myself perfectly unworthy of one.

While enjoying a month of fine weather at the sea-coast, I was thrown into the company of a most fascinating creature: a real goddess in my eyes, as long as she took no notice of me. I ‘never told my love’ vocally; still, if looks have language, the merest idiot might have guessed I was over head and ears: she understood me at last, and looked a return—the sweetest of all imaginable looks. And what did I do? I confess it with shame—shrunk icily into myself, like a snail; at every glance retired colder and farther; till finally the poor innocent was led to doubt her own senses, and, overwhelmed with confusion at her supposed mistake, persuaded her mamma to decamp. By this curious turn of disposition I have gained the reputation of deliberate heartlessness; how undeserved, I alone can appreciate.

I took a seat at the end of the hearthstone opposite that towards which my landlord advanced, and filled up an interval of silence by attempting to caress the canine mother, who had left her nursery, and was sneaking wolfishly to the back of my legs, her lip curled up, and her white teeth watering for a snatch. My caress provoked a long, guttural gnarl.

‘You’d better let the dog alone,’ growled Mr. Heathcliff in unison, checking fiercer demonstrations with a punch of his foot. ‘She’s not accustomed to be spoiled—not kept for a pet.’ Then, striding to a side door, he shouted again, ‘Joseph!’

Joseph mumbled indistinctly in the depths of the cellar, but gave no intimation of ascending; so his master dived down to him, leaving me vis-à-vis the ruffianly bitch and a pair of grim shaggy sheep-dogs, who shared with her a jealous guardianship over all my movements. Not anxious to come in contact with their fangs, I sat still; but, imagining they would scarcely understand tacit insults, I unfortunately indulged in winking and making faces at the trio, and some turn of my physiognomy so irritated madam, that she suddenly broke into a fury and leapt on my knees. I flung her back, and hastened to interpose the table between us. This proceeding aroused the whole hive: half-a-dozen four-footed fiends, of various sizes and ages, issued from hidden dens to the common centre. I felt my heels and coat-laps peculiar subjects of assault; and parrying off the larger combatants as effectually as I could with the poker, I was constrained to demand, aloud, assistance from some of the household in re-establishing peace.

Mr. Heathcliff and his man climbed the cellar steps with vexatious phlegm: I don’t think they moved one second faster than usual, though the hearth was an absolute tempest of worrying and yelping. Happily, an inhabitant of the kitchen made more despatch: a lusty dame, with tucked-up gown, bare arms, and fire-flushed cheeks, rushed into the midst of us flourishing a frying-pan: and used that weapon, and her tongue, to such purpose, that the storm subsided magically, and she only remained, heaving like a sea after a high wind, when her master entered on the scene.

‘What the devil is the matter?’ he asked, eyeing me in a manner that I could ill endure, after this inhospitable treatment.

‘What the devil, indeed!’ I muttered. ‘The herd of possessed swine could have had no worse spirits in them than those animals of yours, sir. You might as well leave a stranger with a brood of tigers!’

‘They won’t meddle with persons who touch nothing,’ he remarked, putting the bottle before me, and restoring the displaced table. ‘The dogs do right to be vigilant. Take a glass of wine?’

‘No, thank you.’

‘Not bitten, are you?’

‘If I had been, I would have set my signet on the biter.’ Heathcliff’s countenance relaxed into a grin.

‘Come, come,’ he said, ‘you are flurried, Mr. Lockwood. Here, take a little wine. Guests are so exceedingly rare in this house that I and my dogs, I am willing to own, hardly know how to receive them. Your health, sir?’

I bowed and returned the pledge; beginning to perceive that it would be foolish to sit sulking for the misbehaviour of a pack of curs; besides, I felt loth to yield the fellow further amusement at my expense; since his humour took that turn. He—probably swayed by prudential consideration of the folly of offending a good tenant—relaxed a little in the laconic style of chipping off his pronouns and auxiliary verbs, and introduced what he supposed would be a subject of interest to me,—a discourse on the advantages and disadvantages of my present place of retirement. I found him very intelligent on the topics we touched; and before I went home, I was encouraged so far as to volunteer another visit to-morrow. He evidently wished no repetition of my intrusion. I shall go, notwithstanding. It is astonishing how sociable I feel myself compared with him.

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