I feel I should preface this essay with the statement that it makes no claim to scholarship. As a sometime writer myself, I have a passing interest in what motivates other writers, and how their natures might inform a more sensitive reading of their intentions. In this particular instance, I also have a personal stake in the matter.
Like a good many people, I have long been fascinated by the story of the Brontes. As I went about my own research into the family, and Emily in particular, I was constantly surprised by the similarity between what Charlotte called “Emily’s peculiarities” and those I have observed in myself. This led me to suspect that she and I had a lot in common, and it naturally followed that I should presume a more innate understanding of her nature and beliefs than I saw exhibited in the writings of most critics and biographers. I am forced to admit that such an understanding is based as much on instinct as firm evidence. If that charge be levelled at me, I have no option but to plead guilty. I believe, however, that well adjusted instinct, when combined with the available evidence, can sometimes search out truths that are otherwise missed.
The expression of opinion which follows might ramble too much to satisfy the fastidious requirements of the academic. That doesn’t concern me. I make no absolute claim to the rightness of my opinion. What I do claim is that, in a broad and empathic sense, it is well informed.
There is evidence that Wuthering Heights had its genesis in something that happened a year before Emily wrote it. If one excludes the Gondal chronicles which she co-wrote with her sister Anne, Emily’s literary accomplishments had always been entirely poetical. In 1845 her elder sister Charlotte chanced upon a notebook containing Emily’s more mature poetry. She was highly impressed with its quality and told Emily it ought to be published. She later recalled that her sister was furious. It seems she had two objections. Firstly, she was a very private individual and was deeply upset that her outpourings had been viewed by somebody else – even when that somebody was her own beloved sister. This appears to demonstrate that she had only ever written for herself, not for publication, and it also gives the clue to her second objection. Emily had no desire to be “recognised.” She regarded fame, along with wealth, as symptomatic of the ephemera attaching to the transient nature of human existence, and therefore not worth valuing, let alone pursuing. Charlotte persisted in trying to change Emily’s mind, and agreement was eventually reached that the sisters would self-publish a volume containing poems by all three.
Charlotte’s later recollection indicates that this was a turning point in Emily’s persona. She became more aloof, more determinedly self-absorbed, and even dismissive of the quality of her work. There is an implicit suggestion that she became a much tougher character, even though she was already possessed of a degree of toughness not generally associated with polite young women from the Victorian middle class. She had always been a somewhat solitary individual, only freely embracing the company of her family and pets; it seems she was now becoming ever more disillusioned with life and the human condition. This is a common feature in the early stages of mysticism, and it was in the summer of the following year that she set about writing Wuthering Heights. Interestingly, it is also evident that she wrote it for publication. She was prepared to pay the publisher a large sum of money, as a deposit against sales, to have it published along with Anne’s Agnes Grey in a three volume novel. I think it reasonable to speculate that this change of heart was connected with the general change in her attitude and demeanour. I believe she was angry and had something profound to say to the world, and I believe Wuthering Heights to have been the result.
Publication was delayed, and the novel eventually appeared in December 1847. It received a unanimously hostile response from the critics of the day, steeped as they were in Victorian notions of literary convention and social propriety. A few conceded that the work had some literary merit, but even they were largely united in their opinion that the book was unsuitable for the refined sensibilities of polite society. One American critic vehemently exclaimed that the author was “certainly no gentleman.” (The book had been published, as were all the Bronte works initially, under a masculine pseudonym; in this case, Ellis Bell.) Even Charlotte would later express doubt as to whether the brutish Heathcliff should ever have been given genesis, even as a character in a novel.
Emily died just a year after the book was published. She never had the chance to answer her critics, and probably wouldn’t have bothered anyway. As she sat in an armchair, weak and dying of tuberculosis, Charlotte read a reviewer’s hostile comments to her. She later recalled that Emily’s reaction was “half amused, half scornful.” Emily was very much her own woman; the opinions of others were of little concern to her. I suspect, however, that she was also aware that her message was being missed.
Times and the tastes of the reading public changed. By the end of the nineteenth century, Wuthering Heights was largely accepted as a foremost member of the canon of great English literature. People started to attach the word “genius” to the name of Emily Bronte. I think she would have hated that, or at least poured scorn upon it. She appears to have been largely devoid of ego, and would therefore have had no need of the approbation of others. It might be noted that this is also a central trait of the mystic.
The twentieth century saw Wuthering Heights being afforded a level of media attention and critical acclaim given only to a small number of novels. It spawned several major films and TV adaptations, as well as an opera, a musical, and a number one pop song. The book was universally accepted and admired; Victorian misgivings had been swept away by the more sophisticated attitudes of a more enlightened age. Critics continued to write about it in a constant attempt at re-evaluation. Many continued, of course, to find fault with it, as is their right.
We are now in the twenty first century, and recognition amounting almost to adulation continues to be heaped on this dark, compelling tale of the doomed love affair between the gypsy-like Heathcliff and the wild and wilful Catherine Earnshaw. I believe that recognition to be justified, but for entirely different reasons. I believe that, for a hundred and sixty years, the public, the critics, the biographers, and the makers of all manner of spin-offs have been getting it wrong. Dark and compelling it certainly is, but I don’t believe the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is a love affair, and I don’t believe Emily Bronte meant it to be seen that way. There are four romances in Wuthering Heights – five if you count the fraudulent liaison between Heathcliff and Isabella. I don’t believe the story of Cathy and Heathcliff to be one of them.
If this novel had been written by an “ordinary” writer – even one of the other Bronte sisters – I would be happy to take it at face value. But it wasn’t. It was written by a woman about whom little is really known, but who is widely acknowledged to have had a decidedly mystical disposition. Any reading of her more mature poetry, and what little was written about her contemporaneously, supports this view totally. Most critics and biographers accept the fact of Emily’s mysticism, but few understand what mysticism really entails. Without such an understanding, any opinion of her novel is bound to fall short of what she really intended. My point can be simply stated: if you don’t understand Emily Bronte’s mystical mindset, you won’t understand Wuthering Heights.
I accept, of course, that one has to generalise to a certain extent, since it is impossible to really know Emily Bronte. She wrote very little about herself; she was neither a diarist nor a letter writer. Some pointers can be gained from what few items of personal writing survive, but most of the informed commentary on Emily comes from her sister, Charlotte, along with a few snippets from the small number of people who met her. Even then, many of the comments were written after her death, when her celebrity was taking root and her character being veiled in mythology.
I think an understanding of Emily’s nature needs to be split into two categories; her psychological make up and her mystical outlook. The former can be described fairly simply. All the evidence suggests that she was self-absorbed, aloof (at least towards the end of her life,) highly intelligent, fiercely independent, and consumed with the need for total freedom of thought and action. Her three attempts to leave home and attend school – two as a pupil and one as a teacher – rapidly ended in failure. Most commentators see that merely as homesickness. A more empathic view of Charlotte’s recollection, as well as one of the few letters known to have been written by Emily, suggests otherwise. What she was unable to come to terms with was the sense of claustrophobia engendered by working in somebody else’s environment, complying with somebody else’s rules, and having her activities and methods geared to somebody else’s requirements. I understand this perfectly, because I have always had the same problem. All she wanted to do was keep the house, write her poetry, and walk on the moors to commune with nature. While her siblings were making repeated attempts to earn their living, Emily stayed at home as housekeeper.
She appears to have had no desire to socialise or develop relationships outside the household. She had no known friends, lovers or confidants. As far as her literature is concerned, it seems she never sought the opinions, advice or approbation of anybody – not even her like-minded sisters; and when objective criticism was offered, we are led to believe that she ignored it. She did her own thing in her own way; she trusted her own judgment. No doubt it was the only way she knew how to function as a writer.
Her mystical outlook is less easy to understand, at least in the west where life’s imperatives are seen in such materialistic terms, and where the only nod to spirituality is largely made in the direction of the shallower teachings of the exoteric Judaic tradition. It is interesting to note that, despite being a minister’s daughter, she is believed to have been the only one of the four surviving siblings never to have taught in the Rev Patrick’s Sunday school. It seems she regarded all organised religion as being largely self-serving sham, preferring instead to view spirituality in the broader, more self-sufficient terms that we associate with eastern traditions such as the Vedic and Gnostic schools. How she came by these ideas is a mystery. Her main source of literature was the Keighley Mechanics Institute. Keighley is a small town in West Yorkshire, and I doubt they would have had many books on Buddhism, the Tao, or even the Albigensians. If she developed her belief system without external prompting or guidance, the fact is all the more remarkable. I think it would establish her right to be called truly mystical.
So what was the bedrock of Emily’s belief? Simply this: that all material form, even at its most wholesome and seductively beautiful, amounts to entrapment. The more mature poetry written during the last few years of her life suggests, without reasonable doubt, that she saw the human body as a prison. She loved animals, she loved nature, and she loved to be out alone in the wilder places; and yet she indicates often enough that only after death would she have the freedom to truly commune with the essence of it all. She longed for that freedom, and appeared to relish the prospect of death.
This is a hard concept for most people to understand. We are conditioned in western culture to hang onto our human lives for as long as possible. We are not shown how to truly look beyond it, except as some fatuous prospect of going to heaven if we follow the dictates and dogma of one religion or another. Emily believed she could see beyond it; and my own beliefs lead me to think that she was probably right, at least up to a point. It is often said that she had a death wish, and it seems evident that she did. It is the interpretation of that wish that is wrong. The modern, materialistic mindset sees a death wish as stemming from some serious psychological aberration, most notably chronic depression. It is a negative phenomenon; a desire for the end of everything in the hope that the pain will go with it. To the mystic, however, death is but a small step along a bigger road. Emily certainly seems to have seen it as a joyful prospect, a release from bondage into a state of spiritual freedom. This is the positive view of death inherent in the mystical point of view.
So how should all this inform our perception of Wuthering Heights? The simple answer is that it must make us doubt that the novel is a straightforward story in which realistic characters are behaving in a manner consistent with received expectations. One leading critic realised this and speculated that the whole novel was an allegory based upon a presumption regarding Emily’s understanding of dualism. According to him, the novel was about the interaction between the forces of storm, represented by the Earnshaws, and the forces of calm represented by the Lintons. I wouldn’t go that far, largely because I have seen no evidence to support the idea that Emily subscribed to that view of dualism. I find it unavoidable, however, to believe that there is some sort of allegory being presented here. My own theory is based upon the fact that Emily Bronte and Catherine Earnshaw appear to have three fundamental character traits in common.
They can both be described as self-absorbed (“self-obsessed” would appear a trifle strong for Emily, although it might be applied to Catherine.) Self-absorbed is not the same things as selfish, of course. I have seen no evidence that Emily was selfish, and the notion that Catherine exhibits a high level of selfishness is, I believe, due to the persistent misreading of her character. This is central to the point I am trying to make.
Secondly, they both had a deep fondness for nature and the need to escape into the natural world at frequent intervals. Catherine loves tramping the moors, just as Emily did.
Thirdly, they can both be described as “wild.” In this context I define wild as having an obsessive need to be untrammelled – to be free to do their own thing in their own way, whatever the situation. This is nowhere more evident that in the famous argument Emily had with Monsieur Heger in Brussels.
These three character traits are the cornerstones of both women’s characters, and lead to the strong suspicion that Emily meant Catherine to be a form of self portrait. If that is the case, we must view Catherine’s attitudes and behaviour in a way that is consistent with Emily’s nature. I propose to look at three examples that I believe have given rise to misinterpretation.
Firstly, there is Catherine’s decision to marry the ineffectual Edgar Linton, despite her profound attachment to the stronger and infinitely more magnetic Heathcliff. She makes it clear through the interrogation by Ellen Dean that she does not truly love Edgar, despite her disingenuous protestations that she does. She gives many reasons for loving him, but they amount to little more than the fact that he is rich, handsome, well set up, and even-tempered. In short, he is a good catch. Most readers interpret this as indicating Catherine’s selfishness. She is willing to hurt the man who most loves her by marrying another for whom she has no deep regard, merely to set herself up with a comfortable life.
I don’t read it that way. To me, this is Emily’s first hint that Catherine sees human life as an illusion, a game to be played out for as long as we have to be here. This is also a typical view of the mystical mindset. I think it is the first real indication that that her feelings for Heathcliff, whilst being far more powerful than those for Edgar, are spiritual not material. He is not a contender for the position of husband, and never has been. Their relationship is not a romance in the ordinary sense of the word. In that case, there is nothing selfish in taking the opportunity to marry the most eligible bachelor in the area.
Secondly, there is her subsequent inability to understand why, after she has married Edgar and Heathcliff has returned, she cannot have unrestricted relationships with both men. This is generally taken as indicating one of two things. Either Catherine is spoiled and selfish enough to think she can have the best of both worlds, or that she is too naïve to realise that the two rivals will fight over her.
Again, I believe this to be a misinterpretation, because it fails to take account of the author’s views on life. I see this as the second indication that the two men mean totally different things to her. Edgar’s position as husband, father and provider places him strictly on the earth plane. He fits the picture, since he is conventional in all things social, psychological and spiritual. As such, he is the perfect person with whom to play out the virtual reality game of earthly life; but that’s all he is. Heathcliff, on the other hand, is more than just a soul mate. Catherine exclaims to Nelly “I am Heathcliff.” How else can this be interpreted but that she and Heathcliff are one soul separated into two bodies? Her connection to Edgar is that of wife, a role that places upon her responsibilities consistent with cultural expectations. Her connection to Heathcliff is one of spiritual bond. Of course she has to have both men, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t. They are not rivals, and her association with Heathcliff would in no way represent infidelity to Edgar. Heathcliff is not, nor ever has been, her lover. Catherine’s view is rational and reasonable, if you understand the mindset that wrote her.
Heathcliff appears to understand this; Edgar doesn’t. Edgar predictably takes the conventional view: Heathcliff is Catherine’s ex-boyfriend; his continued presence in her life is an unacceptable intrusion on the sanctity of his marriage. Edgar’s attitude exhibits what we might reasonably interpret as sexual jealousy. Heathcliff, on the other hand, is driven by the same universal imperative as Catherine. Nothing in his behaviour appears to indicate sexual jealousy. His extreme antipathy towards Edgar seems rather to stem from intense frustration at the fact that Edgar’s conventional attitude is keeping him from the other half of his soul. He despises Edgar’s small-mindedness – his inability to see beyond the human and conventional. Inevitably, he views Edgar as weak and worthless; and the fact that such a pathetic being is proving a barrier to the only thing he truly needs serves to compound his frustration to breaking point.
Finally we have a famous quotation of Catherine’s which, I believe, is Emily’s final confirmation of how we should understand her. After she has partially recovered from her “brain fever” and become lucid again, she realises that she is going to die. When Edgar takes her in his arms, she says to him
“What you touch at present you may have, but my soul will be on that hill-top before you lay hands on me again. I don’t want you, Edgar; I’m past wanting you.”
This might be taken for callousness on Catherine’s part, but I’m certain it wasn’t meant to be read that way. Instead, I believe it to be the definitive confirmation of her relationship with Edgar. He is her earthly husband, nothing more. He may have her earthly body, nothing more. Their relationship is part of the material prison in which the human body functions. Once the prison door is opened by death, the relationship ceases to have meaning. Her speech is simply a statement of fact, nothing more; and I believe it to be a statement entirely consistent with the author’s mystical outlook.
These three misunderstandings, as I hold them to be, are crucial to understanding the true character of Catherine Earnshaw. It functions on two levels: the overt earthly and the covert spiritual. I think it is a measure of Emily Bronte’s genius that she manages to wrap the allegory so convincingly in a realistic character, that the hidden reality is universally missed. But then, so few people understand the mystical mindset.
So, if Catherine is an allegory, what of Heathcliff? He is less easily explained. In general terms he seems to understand the nature of their relationship as she does, but his character does not match the standard of realism that Catherine’s achieves.
It has been said of Heathcliff that he is merely a Byronic sham. I see him more as a simplified form of a tragic Shakespearian anti-hero. He functions almost like a wild animal. He is an out and out brute; and yet some of his speeches are remarkably long, eloquent and melodramatic. The two don’t really go together if you’re looking for realism. If I might paraphrase Macbeth, Heathcliff is full of sound and fury, signifying something. What that something consists of is less transparent than it is with Catherine.
The most obvious conclusion is to see him merely as a foil. He has to be there in order for the hidden mystical dimension of Catherine’s nature to express itself. It should be noted that the human form of Catherine only exists for the first half of the novel, but her spirit undoubtedly rules the second through Heathcliff. And this, I feel, might be the clue as to why he is so dark tempered and vindictive. As he admits towards the end of the novel, his manner and behaviour are driven to extremes by the inconsolable sense of frustration he feels at being parted from Catherine. Hence, Catherine continues to be the dominant character even after she’s dead.
There is, however, another possibility. Might we not speculate that if the esoteric Catherine is a self portrait, Heathcliff might have been Emily’s exploration of her own dark side? We all have one; we all occasionally experience dark desires or imaginings that we should prefer not to see the light of publicity, let alone expression. They very rarely do, and we needn’t feel ashamed of something that is merely an aspect of the human condition. I think it might be why we love villainous characters in drama and literature, even though we are most comfortable when those characters are comic or soundly defeated in the end. Actors often say that they most like playing villains, and I have always had a fondness for villainous literary females. I believe it to be a displacement device, a safety valve for the harmless release of the darker parts of our nature. Sometimes it allows us to laugh at it, which is even better.
Maybe Heathcliff was Emily’s safety valve. His vengeful intent is, indeed, defeated in the end by the happy union of Hareton and young Catherine. As speculative as it is, I like this second possibility. It lends a satisfactory cohesion to the Heathcliff/Cathy dynamic, something the first possibility lacks. Two sides of the author are represented as one soul split between two characters. The allegory is all the sounder for it.
So what of the suggestion that the whole novel is an allegory? I think it would be stretching credulity a little too far to look for hidden meanings in all the characters, settings and aspects of the plot. I prefer to believe that Cathy and Heathcliff are the only allegories, and that they have been skilfully woven into a story that is otherwise realistic.
In conclusion, I will admit that it is not my place to say what a reader should or should not take from Wuthering Heights. The book is an enjoyable read, even taken at face value with no regard for allegories and mystical mindsets. My only real concern is for the Cathy/Heathcliff question. The view persists that their liaison is one of the great romances of English literature. I am quite certain that it is no such thing. Immensely powerful it may be, but it is certainly not romantic. One recent critic described it as “More Romantic than romantic.” This, I think, is close to the truth; and I think it is the deeper dimension of that liaison that gives the novel the right to the accolade of “genius.”