Skip to Content
Search Icon

Arts and Letters

Let Me Have It


Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë (edited by Ian Jack, introduction and notes by John Bugg)

Oxford University Press, pp.416, $6.95

In a letter to his friend William Allingham, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote that Wuthering Heights was “the first novel I’ve read for an age, and the best (as regards power and sound style) for two ages, except Sidonia.” One wonders how many superlatives can have aged this badly. My attempts to track down a copy of the aforementioned German romance—Englished, it seems, by Jane Wilde, the mother of Oscar—faltered some years ago after Google showed me page upon page of Japanese cartoons about tentacled aliens. (The works appear to be unrelated.)

Still, there is something to be said for Rossetti’s implicit suggestion that in Emily Brontë’s pages we encounter a work of fantasy rather than a traditional English novel. What follows in the better-known portion of his letter is even more suggestive:

It is a fiend of a book,—an incredible monster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from Mrs. Browning to Mrs. Brownrigg. The action is laid in hell,—only it seems places and people have English names there.

This is, as Lord Morley says in his life of Rossetti, “admirable criticism.” The action of the novel really is hellish, as is the behavior of most of the characters. Their obstinate refusal to cooperate with grace and one another puts Mr. Lockwood very much in the position of one of those blessed souls who, as Saint Thomas (wrongly I hope) suggested, are fascinated by the torments of the damned. But there is also something very cozy about the whole thing. We are horrified by what we read, of course, but pleasantly so, as a child is hearing a ghost story on a winter afternoon. The matter is strange and brutal, but also very remote from us in our snug position in front of the fireplace, with the doors locked firmly against the cold, far from whatever is stalking the moors. I for one find this feeling agreeable.

In that sense Wuthering Heights has more in common with a book like Frankenstein (also widely admired in Rossetti’s circle) than with that other infernal travelogue, Paradise Lost. Heathcliff is at any rate a vastly more sympathetic figure than Milton’s Lucifer, who, as everyone except William Empson has eventually discovered, is a rather squalid character (“a Toad, close at the eare of Eve”). Like most readers, I have always wondered how he acquires his fortune. The reasonable explanations one encounters—that he fought in the Revolutionary War or turned highwayman—tend to be unsatisfactory, and it is surely easier to imagine him simply happening upon buried treasure. (One also likes to think that he might have spent a few Byronic years at Cambridge, keeping a bear in his rooms.)

I find myself wondering about the novel’s metaphysics. More than one of the characters seems to be in possession of knowledge he or she could have had no earthly way of acquiring (see, for instance, Nelly Dean’s repeated premonitions or Catherine’s prediction that Joseph will be the last to remain at the Heights). More to the point: does Lockwood actually encounter the ghost of Catherine? There are good reasons to think he does: the number of years since her marriage to Edgar Linton (“‘It is twenty years,’ mourned the voice”) is not something that Lockwood could have gleaned from his reading of her diary. This is to say nothing of the mysterious figure at the pillar, who appears to be a kind of ageless changeling double of Hindley.

Here and in a hundred other places we are aware that we have indeed left behind the familiar Austen territory of morals, manners, marriage, and money (though the novel is also in some sense “about” those things, too). For some of its readers, this has always formed a considerable part of the book’s appeal. F.R. Leavis disagreed, famously dismissing Wuthering Heights as “a kind of sport,” a book in which Emily Brontë

broke completely, and in the most challenging way, both with the Scott tradition that imposed on the novelist a romantic resolution of his themes, and with the tradition coming down from the eighteenth century that demanded a plane-mirror reflection of the surface of “real” life.

She certainly did. But despite some admittedly slapdash writing (Borges once singled out “I had no desire to aggravate his impatience, previous to inspecting his penetralium” as the worst sentence in English), and an almost total indifference to punctuation, she produced one of the most technically impressive novels of the nineteenth century. And her achievement in capturing the Yorkshire dialect, at a time when non-standard English was either invisible or rendered as burlesque in most fiction, was considerable. One thing that surprises us in rereading it is how little of the book is given over to descriptive passages; many of its memorable images (“as different as a moonbeam from lightning”) appear as dialogue. Even the ending is far too subtly inquisitive to be considered a purple patch:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

One thing that cannot be said for Wuthering Heights is that it is funny. I struggle to think of a single amusing thing said by any of its characters, or an incident that could be accurately described as a joke. This was probably intentional. But it is hard to escape the feeling that it is a kind of nursery room seriousness, like that of Rider Haggard, rather than any deep moral feeling that accounts for the novel’s almost singular lack of humor. In recent decades some readers have no doubt been tempted to supply their own fun, perhaps by seizing upon Emily’s fondness for a certain speaker tag.

The present edition largely reproduces Ian Jack’s definitive Clarendon text, and, at seven dollars, is admirably priced to compete with print-on-demand rubbish. It is nice to have Charlotte Brontë’s preface and some of Emily’s verse in addition to a very full selection of contemporary reviews. One is struck by how similar the reactions were [sic throughout]:

Wuthering Heights’ is a disagreeable story.

This is a strange book.

Wuthering Heights is a strange sort of book,—baffling all regular criticism; yet it is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterward and say nothing about it.

Strangely original. It bears a resemblance to some of those irregular German tales in which the writers, giving the reins to their fancy, represent personages as swayed and impelled to evil by supernatural influences.

Wuthering Heights is a strange, inartistic story.

It should have been called Withering Heights, for any thing from which the mind would more instinctively shrink, than the mansion and its tenants, cannot be imagined.

The book is original; it is powerful; full of suggestiveness. But it is still coarse.

How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery.

I am ashamed to admit that like Rossetti, who wrote to Allingham four years after the second edition appeared in 1850, I came somewhat late to Wuthering Heights. (Years ago a friend described it as “the best novel ever written in crayon” and compared it favorably to Stevie Smith, which was enough for me.) When I picked it up again by chance last year in February, my reading was bookended by illness, the stillbirth of our third daughter, and the beginning of lockdowns. For months its singular atmosphere—winter gloom, physical isolation, and not always buried anger—was simply the world in which I walked.

This proved to be an unexpected blessing, for when I came out from under the spell of the book, I found that my rage and grief had disappeared with it. Here is the highest praise I can think of for the sympathetic ear of Mrs. Dean and her creator.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?