An Appreciation Part A
|Emily Bronte from a painting by|
It is rare when genius occurs in the same family and rarer still when it is the same type of genius. One of the most outstanding examples of the occurrence of similar genius in the same family is the Bronte sisters.
Now the three Bronte sister’s Emily, Anne, and Charlotte Bronte are among the best known writers of the English prose novel, or more specifically the so-called Gothic Romance. Although not born of a poor family they were perhaps best described as born in a situation of gentil poverty.
Their father, Patrick Bronte was a parson in Haworth Yorkshire whose wife died when her children were young. They had two siblings who predeceased them. Their brother Branwell, born 1817, died in 1848. The father Patrick born in 1777 would go on to outlive all of his children, dying in 1861.1
An over ridding fact of the lives of the Bronte children was “consumption” or tuberculosis (TB) that appeared to have directly or indirectly killed all of them.2
Anne and Emily, 1818-1848, seem to have died directly of TB. Charlotte, 1816-1855, seems to have died of TB and complications from pregnancy, and Anne, 1820-1849, from pneumonia and TB.3
Although their lives have a certain interest the real reason for present day interest in the Bronte’s is their literary efforts.
Despite their relatively isolated surroundings in Yorkshire, the three Bronte sisters seemed to have had a good, albeit informal education from their father and through their voracious reading. Further they seemed to have honed their literary skill by writing and composing letter, poems, essays etc., for each other. They also practiced a variety of artistic pursuits including drama and drawing a painting. The brother Branwell especially liked to paint.4
From this environment the three Bronte sisters composed their great novels.
From Emily Bronte we sadly have only one novel. However it is one of thee great English novels. I am of course referring to Wuthering Heights. This is the sort of novel any English language novelist would give his / her soul to Satan to have written it is prodigious and to think it is a first novel.
The story, which is well known from the various film dramatizations of the novel has usually been sentimentalized and turned into a love story. That is the love story between Heathcliff, who is perhaps the first true anti-hero in a English novel and Catherine, the heroine.
What people usually miss is the class antagonism and in fact bad faith of many of the characters and the fundamentally false nature of the love between Heathcliff and Catherine.
Heathcliff has been plucked out of the life of a street urchin by Catherine’s father, also named Heathcliff, who has since died. Upon the father’s death the siblings turned Heathcliff into a servant contrary to the father’s wishes. The only person who treats Heathcliff decently in all this is Catherine. They fall in love but it appears that Heathcliff is the only one who takes it seriously, whereupon for Catherine it is a diversion. When Heathcliff leaves and comes back a few years later a rich and wealthy person he feels utterly betrayed when he finds out Catherine is married.
Now Catherine is bluntly not very bright and it appears that it never occurred to her that Heathcliff if he came back would feel this way. And even after Heathcliff makes plainly known his anger and resentment she remains clueless. When Catherine dies a psychological horror story breaks loose.
In the part of the novel generally ignored by film versions Heathcliff becomes a sort of avenging angel against the family that mistreated him so badly. The novel becomes a novel of disguised revenge. With Catherine dead the last bonds of affection that restrain Heathcliff are broken.
Heathcliff now more or less decides to destroy the family, although virtually no one sees that that is his aim, at least at first; and he is implacable, remorseless for decade after decade. Revenge consumes him as he destroys the lives of members of the family one after the other including Catherine’s own children. Not even his own child is safe from his desire for revenge. Only close to the end of the novel does he finally let go of his determination to destroy the family.
Wuthering Heights is in the end a revenge novel not a love story, for the love between Catharine and Heathcliff lacks depth and is in the end superficial. The real passion of Heathcliff is resentment, a sense of grievance and a passion to avenge his slights by ruthless revenge.
So in page after page Emily delineates the nature and yes the cause of Heathcliff’s revenge even has she deliberately makes Heathcliff very unattractive as a character, who was most cruelly wronged. Yet we cannot hate Heathcliff because the way he is treated by the family is indeed un-called for and frankly quite vicious. Even Catherine, who is portrayed as positive, is basically both rather dumb and pretty thoughtless. Heathcliff’s revenge consumes him, until it seems to be all that he is.
Heathcliff’s revenge is at once understandable and excessive. If we feel for Heathcliff’s plight in the first part of the novel our sympathy is eroded and finally ended by Heathcliff’s wildly excessive revenge. Heathcliff cannot help himself and although in the end he lets go of his revenge in the end it destroys him by blighting his life. Meanwhile others pay a terrible price for nurturing Heathcliff’s revenge.
The writing is first class, as for example in this piece describing the house in the first part of the book:
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 corners defended with large jutting stones.5Further at the end as Heathcliff is dying he becomes almost mad and Emily as Heathcliff proclaims:
“I’m rather obliged than angry, Nelly,” he said, “for you remind me of the manner that I desire to be buried in – It is to be carried to the churchyard, in the evening. You and Hareton may, if you please, accompany me – and mind, particularly, to notice that the sexton obeys my directions concerning the two coffins! No minister need come; nor need anything be said over me – I tell you, I have nearly attained my heaven; and that of others is altogether unvalued and uncoveted by me!”6
Thus although Heathcliff dies after letting go of his revenge he does not repent nor does he feel guilty over the misery he has caused. Emily delineates the nature and implacable depth of this sometime sympathetic but utterly unmerciful man, who becomes his revenge and resentful hates.
Emily died at the age of 30 Apparently after she died Charlotte Bronte destroyed a novel that Emily had been writing.7 More the pity given the quality of Wuthering Heights; which is undoubtedly one of the most influential novels ever written and indisputably the best novel written by the Bronte sisters.
|The Bronte Residence|
1. For details on the Bronte’s life see Barker, Juliet, The Brontes, Abacus, London, 1994. Indisputably the best recent biography of the Brontes.
2. Read the descriptions of their deaths in Barker, above, pp. 673-684, 701-703, 907-911.
3. IBID, see also pp.156-159.
4. See Barker, pp. 165-197.
5. Bronte, Emily, Wuthering Heights, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, original publication 1847, p. 2.
6. IBID, p. 297.
7. Barker, 683-684.