The real Emily Brontë was red in tooth and claw, forget the on-screen romance



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Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights in 1847, at a time when writing was largely the preserve of men.
BBC/PBS

Hila Shachar, De Montfort University

With their fierce, independent heroines, brooding anti-heroes and all sorts of dastardly plots, it’s no surprise the Brontë sisters and their novels occupy a special place in screen adaptations of literature.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) tends to attract different kinds of film and TV adaptations to the usual polite drawing-room dramas. This is partly because Wuthering Heights is a brutal novel, despite all the romance associated with it. But it’s also down to how Brontë is remembered as an author. In this, her bicentenary year, her enduring appeal as a romanticised figure is much discussed.

This can be traced back to her older sister Charlotte’s own myth-making around Emily following her death in 1848. The myth of Emily relies on her image as a noble savage: a child-like innocent who had little contact with the world beyond her Yorkshire village and beloved moors. Charlotte’s defence relied on the idea that Emily didn’t really know what she was doing when she wrote this extraordinary novel.

It’s easy to understand why Charlotte felt compelled to defend her sister. In the 19th century, writing was still considered a masculine creative act, and taking up the pen as a woman brought accusations of being “unfeminine”. The Brontës existed in the real world and had to navigate their social reputations within it, especially if one of the aims of their writing was economic independence. But Charlotte’s defence of her sister set the scene for how adapters would later approach Emily and her work.

Bringing out Emily

A good example is the 1992 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights starring Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff and Juliette Binoche as Cathy. This version neatly does away with the novel’s complicated story-within-a-story structure and its two main narrators – housekeeper Nelly Dean and the pompous visitor Lockwood – and instead casts Emily herself as the storyteller.

Played by the waif-like Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor, Emily stumbles upon the ruins of a real house while wandering the moors and, under a mysterious hooded cloak, tells the viewer:

First I found the place … something whispered to my mind, and I began to write.

Emily as a mystical medium is the ultimate visual symbol of how authors are commonly conjured up – as divine geniuses, inspired from above. Of course this is far more attractive than showing the blood, sweat and tears that come with the real craft of writing. But there is something more going on here – something which is representative of wider cultural politics and what often happens with authors like Emily Brontë: they are turned into easily consumable, harmless, generic figures.

Western culture tends to invest in ideas of transcendence around well-known writers. People like to think of them as unique beings who move above and beyond their own cultural and social moments. But when it comes to Emily Brontë, perhaps there is also an unspoken desire to neutralise her complex and subversive engagement with her own world.

Hollywood’s 1939 version of Wuthering Heights is a strongly romantic interpretation that ignores much of the novel’s original plot.
United Artists

An explosive tale, Wuthering Heights is unflinching in its depiction of domestic abuse, racism, women as property and the abuse of social power. The direct, unromantic way in which this is explored in the novel is itself threatening to the social order it portrays, and seems like a subversive act for a female author. Adapting the story as romance sells better, and plays down the book’s uncomfortable brutality, as does the idea of Emily Brontë as an “unworldly” young woman who existed outside of conventional society.

This results in constant adaptations of her novel that rely on almost identical images of natural transcendence, beginning with an image from William Wyler’s hugely popular 1939 Hollywood version starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. It shows Cathy and Heathcliff together on the moors, which seems to encapsulate for many people what the novel is about. Most adaptations repeat this imagery, but you’d have to search hard to find it in the novel, as Cathy and Heathcliff aren’t really depicted as adult lovers frolicking on the moors.

This iconic imagery is not just due to Hollywood creating a visual “template” for the novel through romance; it’s also the product of how adapters have woven the myth of Emily as a transcendent noble savage into her own characters.

A more realistic Emily

A notable and recent exception is To Walk Invisible, the 2016 BBC biopic of the Brontës, in which the sisters are shown discussing the economic necessity of becoming writers. When debating whether to take up male pseudonyms, Emily, played by a straight-talking Chloe Pirrie, says:

When a man writes something it’s what he’s written that’s judged. When a woman writes something it’s her that’s judged.

This blunt assertion seems to summarise how authors of the past – particularly female authors – are dealt with: who they are as human beings and their specific cultural environment are often ignored. They are rendered harmless and powerless to speak to us in a politicised way about the past we’ve inherited, and about our own world. With Emily, the emphasis is instead on romanticising the female author as a child-mystic, rather than focusing on her fiction as informed adult social critique.

Mythologising an author like Emily Brontë may provide a consistent and comfortable way to “consume” famous writers in contemporary culture, but it does a disservice to the potential for a more complex dialogue between past and present – after all, the realities of power, race, gender and class that Brontë wrote about in the 19th century are still issues being tackled today.

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The Conversation

The question is, in 2018, should adaptations continue to collude in the screen legacy of a “safe” Emily Brontë, viewed from a transcending distance, or could they consider a more dangerous, unpredictable Emily who compels the reader to examine forms of power and powerlessness in contemporary times? It’s time to shed the romance for the reality.

Hila Shachar, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, De Montfort University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Emily Brontë’s fierce, flawed women: not your usual Gothic female characters


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BBC Cymru’s To Walk Invisible, the story of the Brontë sisters.
BBC

Clare Pettitt, King’s College London

Domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse, neglect, sexual obsession and torture: Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights is nothing if not graphic in its depiction of the messy, frightening and chaotic lives of unhappy families. No wonder critics at the time were repelled by its “shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity” and its “details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance”. But the women in the novel, trapped in these toxic, inter-generational cycles of abuse, are not passive but remain resolute and resistant.

“Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know,” wrote Charlotte Brontë in her apologetic preface to the 1850 posthumous edition of her sister’s novel. But despite her misgivings, Heathcliff remains one of the most memorable and enduring characters in Victorian literature.

Emily Brontë died of tuberculosis the age of 30. Wuthering Heights was her only novel.

The boy adopted by the Earnshaws as a gypsy child grows up to hang his fiancée’s dog. He refuses a nurse or doctor to his dying son – crying: “Lock him up and leave him.” And he frequently assaults and threatens others – “I’ll crush his ribs in like a rotten hazel-nut” he says of Edgar Linton. Later he also threatens to rip out his wife Isabella fingernails and digs up his great love Catherine Earnshaw’s coffin with necrophiliac fervour.

In Brontë’s description of a fight between Heathcliff and Hindley, Catherine Earnshaw’s elder brother, who has just tried to shoot him, the choreography is cool and exact:

The knife, in springing back, closed into its owner’s wrist. Heathcliff pulled it away by main force, slitting up the flesh as it passed on… His adversary had fallen senseless with excessive pain and the flow of blood that gushed from an artery or a large vein. The ruffian kicked and trampled on him, and dashed his head repeatedly against the flags.“

Violence and abuse

Charlotte Brontë’s preface famously excuses the book as the “rugged” outpouring of her sister’s untutored imagination as a “nursling of the moors” and suggests that Heathcliff is the focus of all the villainy in the book. But Heathcliff is not the only perpetrator of violence and abuse in a novel which bristles with attacks and injuries, both mental and physical.

At one point Hindley orders the servant (and principal narrator) Nelly Dean to: “‘Open your mouth.’ He held the knife in his hand, and pushed its point between my teeth”. In an alcoholic rage Hindley grabs his own baby son and shouts, “‘I’ll break the brat’s neck.’ Poor Hareton was squalling and kicking in his father’s arms with all his might, and redoubled his yells when he carried him up-stairs and lifted him over the banister.” The father then drunkenly drops him, and baby Hareton’s life is only saved because Heathcliff manages to catch him.

Wuthering Heights is, in the words of the novel, “a string of abuse or complainings” – and worse. Brontë trains a singularly cool and unflinching gaze on the violent behaviour that can explode in the intimate spaces of the “home”.

Early critics saw this clearly, but more recent critics have noticed it less. Perhaps the attention given to Brontë as a woman writer by feminist critics in the 1970s and 1980s, hugely important as it was, pushed readings of the novel away from the representation of violence and towards ideas of female repression.

Loathsome women

In her famous 1987 analysis, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel, literary scholar Nancy Armstrong reads the double-generation plot as resolved by the middle-class female (Catherine’s daughter Cathy) who disrupts and transforms the old order with her domestic rule. Armstrong says: “Where there had always been brambles at Wuthering Heights, Catherine has Hareton put in her ‘choice of a flower bed in the midst of them’.”

The ruins of Top Withens on Haworth Moor, scene of the fictional Wuthering Heights.
Shutterstock

But such readings perhaps underestimate the manipulative, violent and obsessive behaviour of the female characters and both their complicity and their agency in abuse. Balanced against the “painful appearance of mental tension” in Heathcliff, is what is described by Nelly Dean as the “mental illness” of Catherine.

Catherine pinches Nelly’s arm “spitefully” and slaps her face with “a stinging blow”. She forces Nelly to lie to her husband Edgar and say she is very ill in order to frighten him. Edgar’s sister Isabella scratches Catherine with her “talons” and draws blood. And Heathcliff describes Isabella – his fiancée – as “that pitiful, slavish, mean-minded… abject thing”, despising her for they way she is obsessed with him even though he treats her with appalling cruelty.

“Even the female characters excite something of loathing and much of contempt,” remarked one reviewer at the time. That Brontë dared to make her women loathsome is important. The violence against women in Gothic fiction (as in the novels of genre pioneer Ann Radcliffe) generally sees them depicted as beautiful victims. In other words the females characters suffer beautifully but passively, such as the terror endured by Emily St Aubert in Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho or the strangulation of the exquisite Elizabeth Lavenza in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

But Brontë’s female characters are not victims. They remain locked in a perpetual struggle both inside the home and with the forces of nature and fate beyond the home. From their girlhoods, when “half savage and hardy” they run free on the moors, neither of the Catherines in Wuthering Heights ever lose their hardiness or give in to any of the men around them. Even Isabella manages to escape her abusive marriage to Heathcliff, and moves away with her baby son. And narrator Nelly Dean is stoic and always protective of her charges, even in the face of simmering violence.

The ConversationA different feminist argument can be made that Emily Brontë shows us how vital is the tenacious defence of self in a violent world. Catherine, Isabella, Nelly, Cathy: Brontë’s women are fierce and active in their own stories. These women are not passively resilient, but resolute, resistant and strong-willed.

Clare Pettitt, Professor of 19th Century Literature and Culture, King’s College London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a cult classic



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Kaya Scodelario as Catherine Earnshaw in the 2011 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
Film 4 and UK Film Council/IMDB

Sophie Alexandra Frazer, University of Sydney

In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.

Nothing about the reception of Emily Brontë’s first and only published novel, Wuthering Heights, in 1847 suggested that it would grow to achieve its now-cult status. While contemporary critics often admitted its power, even unwillingly responding to the clarity of its psychological realism, the overwhelming response was one of disgust at its brutish and brooding Byronic hero, Heathcliff, and his beloved Catherine, whose rebellion against the norms of Victorian femininity neutered her of any claim to womanly attraction.

The characters speak in tongues heavily inflected with expletives, hurling words like weapons of affliction, and indulging throughout in a gleeful schadenfreude as they attempt to exact revenge on each other. It is all rather like a relentless chess game in hell. One of its early reviewers wrote that the novel “strongly shows the brutalising influence of unchecked passion”.

Moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum claims, however, that “we must ourselves confront the shocking in Wuthering Heights, or we will have no chance of understanding what Emily Brontë is setting out to do”. The reader must give herself over to the horror of Brontë’s inverted world.

She must jump, as it were, without looking to see if there is water below. It is a Paradise Lost of a novel: its poetry Miltonic, its style hyperbolic, and its cruelty relentless. It has left readers and scholars alike stumbling to locate its seemingly Delphic meaning, as we try to make sense of the Hobbesian world it portrays.

Sir Laurence Olivier (Heathcliff) and Merle Oberon (Cathy) from the 1939 film adaptation.
Photoplay/Wikimedia Commons

The author remains as elusive as her enigmatic masterpiece. As new critical appraisals emerge in this, Emily Brontë’s bicentenary year, the scant traces she left of her personal life beyond her poetry and several extant diary papers, are re-fashioned accordingly.

Described as the “sphinx of the moors”, her obstinate mystery has lured countless pilgrims to the Haworth home in which she passed almost all of her life, and the surrounding moorlands that were the landscape of her daily walks and the inspiration for her writing. Brontë relinquished her jealous hold of the manuscript only after considerable pressure from her sister Charlotte, who insisted that it be published.

The Bronte sisters painted by their brother Branwell: from left to right, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte.
Wikimedia Commons

Wuthering Heights was released pseudonymously under the name Ellis Bell, published in an edition that included her sister Anne’s lesser known work, Agnes Grey. Emily was to die just 12 months later, in December 1848.

As Brontë biographer Juliet Barker writes, the writer stubbornly maintained the pretence of health even in the final stages of consumption, insisting on getting out of bed to take care of her much loved dog, Keeper. She resisted death with remarkable self-discipline but, “her unbending spirit finally broken”, she acquiesced to a doctor’s attendance. It was by then too late; she was just 30.

After her sister’s death, Charlotte Brontë wrote two biographical prefaces to accompany a new edition of Wuthering Heights, instantiating the mythology both of her sister – “stronger than a man, simpler than a child” – and her infamous novel: “It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of heath.”




Read more:
Why Charlotte Brontë still speaks to us – 200 years after her birth


A feminist icon

It is that property of wildness that has compelled artists from Sylvia Plath to Kate Bush, whose 1978 hit single, Wuthering Heights, was representative of the magnetic pull of Brontë’s fierce heroine, Catherine. The novel has maintained its relevance in popular culture, and its author has risen to a feminist icon.

Wuthering Heights has maintained currency in pop culture, most famously in Kate Bush’s haunting 1978 hit of the same name.

The elusiveness of the woman and the book that now seems an extension of her subjectivity, gives both a malleability that has seen Wuthering Heights transformed into various mediums: several Hollywood films, theatre, a ballet and, perhaps most incongruously, a detective novel. Brontë’s name is used to sell everything from food to dry-cleaning products.

Film versions have tended to indulge in a surfeit of romanticism, offering up visions of the lovers swooning atop windswept hills, most famously in the 1939 movie, with Laurence Olivier as a dashing Heathcliff, a heavily sanitised re-telling of what the promotional material billed as “the greatest love story of our time – or any time!” Andrea Arnold’s gritty, pared-back 2011 film is the notable exception; bleak and darkly violent, the actors speak in an at times unintelligible dialect, scrambling across a blasted wilderness as though they are animals.

Contrary to Charlotte Brontë’s revisioning, however, Wuthering Heights was not purely the product of a terrible divine inspiration, emerging partially formed from the granite rock of the Yorkshire landscape, to be hewn from Emily’s simple materials.

Instead, it is the work of a writer looking back to past Romantic forms, specifically the German incarnation of that aesthetic, infused with folkloric taboos and primal longings. Her tale of domestic gothic is housed in an intricately complex narrative architecture that works by repetition and doubling, at the fulcrum of which stands Catherine, the supremely defiant object of Heathcliff’s obsession.

At the novel’s core is the corrosiveness of love, with the titanic power of Shakespearean tragedy and the dialogic form of a Greek morality play. Two families, locked in internecine war and bound together by patrilineal inheritance, stage their abject conflict across the small geographical space that separates their respective households: the luxury and insipidity of the Grange, versus the shabby gentility, decay, and violence of the Heights.

A claustrophobic novel

It is a distinctly claustrophobic novel: although we read with a vague sense of the vastness of the moors that is its setting, the action unfolds, with few exceptions, in domestic interiors. Despite countless readings, I can conjure no distinct image of the Grange. But the outline of the Heights, with each room unfolding into yet another set of rooms, labyrinthine and imprisoning, has settled into my mind. The deeper you enter into the space of the Heights – the space of the text – the more bewildering the effect.

The love between Heathcliff and Catherine exists now as a myth operative outside any substantial relationship to the novel from which the lovers spring. It is shorthand in popular culture for doomed passion. Much of this hyper-romance gathers around Catherine’s declaration of Platonic unity with her would-be lover: “I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind.” Yet their relationship is never less than brutal.

What is it about their unearthly union, with its overtones of necrophilia and incestuous desire, that so captivates us, and why does Emily Brontë privilege this form of explicitly masochistic, irrevocable and unattainable love?




Read more:
How incest became part of the Brontë family story


Brontë’s great theme was transcendence, and I would suggest that it is the metaphysical affinity that solders these two lovers that so beguiles us. The greediness of their feeling for each other resembles nothing in reality. It is hyperreal, as Catherine and Heathcliff do not aspire so much as to be together, as to be each other. Twinned in that shared commitment and to the natural world that was the hunting-ground of their childhood play, they try, with increasing desperation, to get at each other’s souls.

Penistone Crag – a rock at the top of Ponden Kirk – is believed to have been Emily Brontë’s inspiration for the place where Cathy and Heathcliff went to be alone.
Aaron Collis/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

This is not a physically erotic coupling: the body is immaterial to their love. It is a very different notion of desire to that of Jane Eyre and Rochester, for instance, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which is very fleshy indeed. Both Catherine and Heathcliff want to get under each other’s skin, quite literally, to join and become that singular body of their childhood fantasies. It is a dream, then, of total union, of an impossible return to origins. It is not heavenly in its transcendence, but decidedly earthly. “I cannot express it”, Catherine tells her nurse Nelly Dean, who is our homely, yet not so benign, narrator:

But surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries … my great thought in living is himself. I all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be.

This notion of the self eclipsing its selfish form seems impossible for us to conceive in an age where one’s individuality is sacred. It is, however, the essence of Catherine’s tragedy: her search for her self’s home among the men who circle her is futile. Nevertheless, Emily Brontë’s radical statement of a shared ontology grounds the eroticism between the pair so that we cannot look away; and neither it seems, can the other characters in the novel.

The book’s structure is famously complex, with multiple narrators and a fluid style that results in one focalising voice shading into another. The story proper begins with Lockwood, a stranger to the rugged moorlands, a gentleman accustomed to urban life and its polite civilisations.

The terrifying nightmare he endures on his first night under Heathcliff’s roof, and the gruesomely violent outcome of his fear sets in motion the central love story that pulls all else irresistibly to it. Heathcliff’s thrice-repeated invocation of Catherine’s name, which Lockwood finds written in the margins of a book and mistakenly believes to be “nothing but a name”, works as an incantation, summoning the ghost of the woman who haunts this book.

The ConversationEmily Brontë speaks of dreams, dreams that pass through the mind “like wine through water, and alter the colour” of thoughts. If the experience of reading Wuthering Heights feels like a suspension in a state of waking nightmare, what a richly-hued vision of the fantastical it is.

Sophie Alexandra Frazer, Doctoral candidate in English, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wuthering Heights Infographics


The link below is to an artcile that contains a host of ifographics concerning the Emily Bronte novel, ‘Wuthering Heights.’

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/gallery/2018/jul/30/emily-brontes-wuthering-heights-in-charts

How incest became part of the Brontë family story



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The Brontë family, by Branwell, who painted over himself after realising the ‘composition was too cramped’.
National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia

Amber Pouliot, Harlaxton College

To this day, Emily Brontë’s life story and literature continue to exert a powerful hold on the imaginations of audiences worldwide. One reason for the longevity of this fascination is the air of mystery that envelops the author and her work. Who was Emily Brontë? What does her famous novel, Wuthering Heights, mean? And how could a reclusive curate’s daughter, living on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, have written this mysterious tale of passion and revenge?

In 1896, literary critic Clement Shorter dubbed Emily “the sphinx of our modern literature”. She died early, leaving behind only a few diary papers and letters, in addition to her novel and poetry. By contrast, we have volumes of letters from her sister Charlotte, telling us about her life in her own words. Emily was private, reclusive, and difficult to understand. But the strength of collective desire to uncover who she really was, and how she came to create her masterpiece, inadvertently also gave rise to one of the coarsest and most curious legends to have attached itself to the Brontë family – the myth that Wuthering Heights was the product of incestuous longings.

Emily Brontë, painted by her brother Branwell c.1833.
National Portrait Gallery, London, CC BY-NC-ND

In Wuthering Heights, the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy defies easy labels. Adopted by old Mr Earnshaw, Heathcliff is raised alongside Cathy, sharing her lessons, games, and even her bed. It’s no wonder, then, that Cathy’s desire to marry Heathcliff and her declaration of love and affinity – “he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” – sometimes throws readers. Are they siblings? Are they lovers? Are they both? Cathy and Heathcliff might be “kin”, but as academic Mary Jean Corbett explains, there is no indication in the text that their relationship is prohibited on the grounds of brother-sister incest.

Still, seeming to take their cue from Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship, biographers and creative writers have characterised the relationship between Emily and her brother Branwell as particularly close. As early as 1883, A. Mary F. Robinson argued that Wuthering Heights could be explained if one looked into Emily’s relationship with Branwell. Later, during the interwar period, as the Brontës’ lives became the subject of acknowledged works of fiction and drama, that sibling bond was sexualised and offered as an explanation for the novel.

In some of these texts, Branwell and Emily’s relationship is sexually abusive. In Ella Moorhouse’s Stone Walls (1936), for instance, Branwell tries to force a knife and bottle of liquor into Emily’s mouth. In others, it is loving and supportive. Clemence Dane’s play, Wild Decembers (1932), features a fictional Branwell indulging in masturbatory fantasies while looking at his sister. But he also supports Emily’s writing and collaborates with her to bring Wuthering Heights – their symbolic child – into the world.

Branwell Brontë – a self portrait.
Wikimedia

There are a number of texts that simply revel in the salaciousness of imagining sibling love, too. In Kathryn Jean MacFarlane’s Divide the Desolation (1936), Emily and Branwell engage in a form of childhood S&M play, with Emily delighting in the fact that her brother cares enough to hurt her. While Emilie and Georges Romieu’s The Brontë Sisters (1931) features an extended erotic fantasy in which Emily pulls Branwell from his burning bed and against her body while wearing a translucent, wet night gown.

In each of these texts, Emily’s relationship with Branwell is presented as the catalyst for Wuthering Heights. Sexually charged moments between the siblings are often followed by scenes in which Emily commits her brother’s words and actions to paper. Some of these texts even dramatise the siblings writing the novel together, and Branwell is often given Heathcliff’s lines.

But why did this incestuous idea enter the minds of other writers in the first place? Many of the Brontës’ first readers characterised their writing as coarse, which isn’t surprising. Heathcliff abuses wives and animals, uses brutal language, and digs up the body of his dead lover, after all. When Elizabeth Gaskell approached the task of writing The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857) , she needed to excuse this perceived coarseness, to stress the sisters’ respectability, but also explain how they created characters like Heathcliff.

Gaskell resolved her difficulties by claiming the sisters misguidedly recorded the coarse behaviour of their brother, Branwell, a man who suffered from addiction and mental illness following the end of a disastrous relationship. Branwell, according to Gaskell, was the model for Heathcliff, Rochester, Huntingdon. During the interwar period, in the heyday of psychoanalysis, some writers took Gaskell at her word. If the brutal but sexually alluring Heathcliff was Emily’s portrait of her brother, then perhaps their relationship was the model for Cathy and Heathcliff’s.

The ConversationQuite apart from the fact that we have no evidence for incest in the Brontë family, the incest myth is problematic because it makes Branwell ultimately responsible for Wuthering Heights. It reduces Emily from a spontaneous genius or deliberate artist to a woman grappling with forbidden desires or subject to sexual abuse. Let’s hope that in the year of her bicentenary, Emily’s genius will finally be allowed to stand on its own.

Amber Pouliot, Teaching fellow, British Studies, Harlaxton College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Emily Brontë at 200: Wuthering Heights has had readers going round in circles for 170 years



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Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 film Wuthering Heights.
Wikimedia

Catherine Han, Cardiff University

Though she is famed as one of England’s greatest writers, Emily Brontë – whose 200th birthday would have fallen on July 30, 2018 – probably only ever wrote one novel, Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847.

Wuthering Heights might now be synonymous with Cathy and Heathcliff, but their love affair is not the whole story. They exist within an elaborate web of semi-incestous relationships between the Earnshaw, Linton and Heathcliff families. Through its multigenerational story, the book examines whether grand but destructive passion is preferable to companionship and domesticity.

Wuthering Heights family tree.
shakko/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The novel’s first half relates the love between Cathy and Heathcliff, but the latter part is devoted to their descendants, especially Cathy’s daughter, Catherine Linton, and her nephew, Hareton Earnshaw. Ever since Wuthering Heights was first printed, the contrast between the two generations has prompted readers to ask the same questions. Does Brontë ultimately critique Cathy and Heathcliff’s exciting but tortured affair by comparing them with Catherine and Hareton? Or do the younger couple, after their transgressive predecessors, represent the restoration of boring convention?

Generations of patterns

From the very start, Wuthering Heights encourages readers to look at the generations in relation to one other. Brontë employs an intricate pattern of repeating names, a pattern made explicit by the bumbling narrator Lockwood. In an early chapter, Lockwood spends a night at the gothic Heights where he discovers those names graffitied onto a window ledge. He recounts:

This writing, however, was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small – Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton.

In vapid listlessness I leant my head against the window, and continued spelling over Catherine Earnshaw—Heathcliff—Linton, till my eyes closed; but they had not rested five minutes when a glare of white letters started from the dark, as vivid as spectres – the air swarmed with Catherines…

This Catherine soup foreshadows major events to come. The first Catherine, Cathy, begins the novel as “Catherine Earnshaw” before taking the surname Linton after marrying Edgar. Her daughter is born “Catherine Linton” then becomes “Catherine Heathcliff” through a forced marriage to Linton Heathcliff, Heathcliff’s son. In the final chapter, the second Catherine is engaged to Hareton and is on the verge of being renamed “Catherine Earnshaw”. As the names reveal, the novel gives one version of the story and then tells the same tale in reverse.

Relationships of Wuthering Heights.
MichaelMaggs/Wikimedia

Lockwood’s visions suggest that these names and their attached identities are floating free, ready to be claimed or disregarded at will. Indeed, names and identities within Wuthering Heights appear interchangeable. The novel keeps swapping the characters and their names around in order to imagine them in new combinations. In the process, the distinctions between the generations and their attached symbolism start to dissolve.

Circling the story

The pattern of names also suggest that Wuthering Heights is a cyclical tale rather than a linear one. The repetitions introduce all sorts of complications into how we read the two halves of the narrative in relation to each other. From one perspective, the circular structure prevents us from assuming that Wuthering Heights is a tale of doomed passion being eventually superseded and replaced by mature love. From another, the first generation can be interpreted as triumphantly returning. We start with a Catherine Earnshaw and end up looping back to a Catherine Earnshaw.

Of course, Wuthering Heights is too sophisticated to give us an either/or answer as to whether passion or companionship is preferable. On closer inspection, Catherine and Hareton possess many of the same qualities as their forebears but in less extreme and more domesticated forms. In the final chapter, the pair is described as reading together in a recently replanted garden, a detail that suggests the violence and chaos of the Heights has been tamed. They symbolise a harmonious synthesis of the many oppositions – especially nature/culture and passion/companionship – that abound in the novel. In this hybrid setting, the younger Catherine’s taking of her mother’s maiden name creates the impression of a simultaneous return and renewal.

The ConversationThe novel’s recurring names and its overall design suggests other possibilities. In particular, that Brontë was more interested in weaving a complex narrative than answering the very questions raised by her own novel. In so doing, she crafted a literary and philosophical puzzle that continues to ignite the imaginations of many authors, filmmakers and artists to this day.

Catherine Han, Teacher, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Brontës under the influence: the legacy of Branwell’s drinking



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Dark horse of the family.
National Portrait Gallery/Flickr

Pam Lock, University of Bristol

What a tragedy – that picture of the old father and the three sisters,
trembling day and night in terror at the possible deeds of this
drunken brutal son and brother!
That is the part of the life which affects me most.

George Eliot’s reaction to Elizabeth Gaskell’s dramatic account of Branwell Brontë’s malign effect on his family shows the stark difference between tranquil and industrious images of their home at Haworth Parsonage and the claustrophobic reality.

Branwell’s spiralling addictions to drink and drugs transformed Haworth at times from a well-ordered home to a domestic prison isolated by shame and fear. His behaviour became so dangerous that his father felt compelled to insist they share a bedroom after Branwell drunkenly almost set fire to the house. He was saved by Emily who flung him bodily from the bed and put the fire out with a large pan of water from the kitchen.

Branwell, the Brontë sisters’ talented but disturbed brother, has long stood in his siblings’ shadow, best known as a running joke in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm in which smug academic Mr Mybug tries to prove that Branwell wrote the sisters’ novels while hiding their outrageous drinking.

However, the bicentenary of Branwell’s birth has prompted a re-evaluation of his writing, biography, and influence on his famous sisters’ work.

Branwell’s regular boozing at his all-too-local local, The Bull public house in Haworth, contributed to his early death, masking symptoms of the tuberculosis which claimed his life in 1848.

His final letter begs his friend, John Brown, to bring him gin:

Sunday.
Noon.

Dear John,

I shall feel very much obliged to you if can contrive to get me Five pence worth of Gin in a proper measure.

Should it be speedily got I could perhaps take it from you or Billy at the lane if top or what would be quite as well, sent out for, to you.

I anxiously ask the favour because I know the favour good it will do me.

Punctually at Half past Nine in the morning you will be paid the 5d out of a shilling given me then. yours, P.B.B.

Branwell’s anxiety for drink in this letter is intense. His specific directions about collection only half hide the secrecy of his request (he would not wish his father to find out). Thirsty for alcohol, Branwell asks his friend to ensure that he gets maximum amount of gin for his money by stipulating “proper measure”.

As Branwell’s illness progressed, the sisters were writing and publishing their most famous novels: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847), and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). But how did his drunkenness and attacks of delirium tremens – generally attributed to symptoms related to the excessive consumption of alcohol in the 1840s with symptoms including high fever, trembling of the limbs, and hallucinations (“alcoholism” was not coined until 1859) – influence the sisters’ writing? And to what extent do other sources account for their novels’ frequent focus on drinking and drunkenness?

A history of drinking

Branwell’s drinking became problematic in 1845, following a psychological crisis arising from his relationship with his employer’s wife, Mrs Robinson. Scholars disagree about whether the young Branwell actually had an affair with the lady of the house, or his love was unrequited. Whatever you believe, he and others blamed this crisis for his later dependence on drink and drugs.

In Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Hindley Earnshaw and Arthur Huntingdon drink like Branwell. They behave erratically and offensively, exhibiting violent and suicidal tendencies. Many reviewers were disgusted, complaining about “drunken orgies” in Wildfell Hall and “scenes of brutality” in Wuthering Heights. Defending herself in the preface to the second edition of Wildfell Hall, Anne wrote that she felt a responsibility to “reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller”. The original thoughtless traveller was Branwell; the novels were written and published in the year before his death. Disturbingly, both fictional characters die wracked by mental and physical agonies, yet feel compelled to drink to excess to the end.

Victorian drinking

The two novels’ bleak account of the fate of the heavy drinker goes against much contemporary received medical and temperance wisdom. Popular and medical thought about drink was changing. Moral theories of “drunkenness as vice” were challenged by medics such as Thomas Trotter and Robert MacNish, who proposed that drunkenness could be a disease which might be “cured”.

The sisters are likely to have read MacNish, who also wrote on a passion of theirs: phrenology. Medical descriptions of problem drinking by MacNish and Thomas Graham, author of their father’s medical reference book, are echoed in the sisters’ writing. For example, in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s description of Hindley’s death suggests apoplexy, a condition commonly associated with habitual drunkenness:

We broke in this morning, for we heard him snorting like a horse; and there he was, laid over the settle – flaying and scalping would not have wakened him – I sent for Kenneth, and he came; but not till the beast had changed into carrion – he was both dead and cold, and stark.

Heathcliff’s grotesque description of Hindley “snorting like a horse” matches Dr Graham’s descriptions of stertorious breathing as a symptom of apoplexy. Emily’s choice of animalistic and undignified terms for Hindley’s death, particularly in comparison with Heathcliff’s controlled and smiling death, de-glamourises excessive drinking and reminds the reader of its stark medical consequences.

Through fiction Anne also sought to reveal coarse truths about male drunkenness. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Helen Huntingdon’s changing attitude to her ability to “cure” her husband of habitual drunkenness goes against the advice of temperance writers. Joseph Livesey, co-founder of the first teetotal society in Britain, recommended that “young girls make a declaration against drunkards”. His explanation is typical of early Victorian temperance and religious rhetoric:

I know no department in our social economy where the women have not great influence, and I cannot but think that lessons of morality, supported by their example, and delivered with earnestness and with the insinuations of female talents, would be productive of the happiest results.

Helen marries Arthur intending to save him, and so live up to the role allocated to women by writers like Livesey. However, it is not long before she appeals to her husband: “Don’t you know that you are a part of myself? And do you think you can injure and degrade yourself, and I not feel it?”. Soon after she describes him:

Slowly and stumblingly, ascending the stairs, supported by Grimsby and Hattersley, who neither of them walked quite steadily themselves, but were both laughing and joking at him, and making noise enough for all the servants to hear. He himself was no longer laughing now, but sick and stupid – I will write no more about that.

The ConversationHelen has come to feel helpless to prevent her husband’s drinking. The realisation that he cannot be (and does not want to be) saved resonates with Anne’s despair of a cure for Branwell. Far from “trembling day and night”, as George Eliot pictures them, the sisters transformed their experiences into some of the most powerfully dark and didactic fiction of the 19th century.

Pam Lock, PhD Candidate, Victorian Literature and Alcohol, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.