WUTHERING HEIGHTS by EMILY BRONTË
Emily Jane Brontë (1818-48) wrote this novel in 1847, a time of post European renaissance reflection when the British elite were trying to come to grips with issues such as existence, religion, philosophy, and the progression of modern science. A year later Emily died of tuberculosis, a disease like many others incurable by the Victorian era advances in medical science. In order to better understand Emily’s narrative style and portrayal of her characters and scenes we need to understand the influences of her time.
First we will observe what authorities of philosophy and religion believed prior to Emily’s time. Old Medievalism was a period when monarchs ruled the world in tandem with religious piety. Scholars and adherents of the Renaissance likened Medievalism to conservatism and corruption, a period of Popes rising to become rulers, pagan superstitions, witch hunting, and barbaric priest-ridden centuries of darkness where free thinking was suppressed and blind faith was the law.
In revolt to medievalism, John Locke (1632-1704), an empiricist, wrote in 1689 that the only knowledge humans could have was a posteriori i.e., based upon experience. To him, the mind was a tabula rasa—blank tablet—on which life’s experiences leave an impression, and that knowledge is gained through the contemplation of events transpired. This view was held first by Aristotle and was adopted by stoics during ancient Roman times and proliferated through the ages by Islamic philosophers of the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Irish Anglican bishop, George Berkeley (1685-1753), in response to Locke, in 1710 put forth a treatise challenging empiricism; his belief was that God fills in the voids of human perception by doing the perceiving when humans are not around to do it for themselves.
Scepticism, atheism, rationalism were spin-offs to these struggles between the philosophical and religious doctrines and led to an Age of Enlightenment in Europe (1715-1789) where everything that had gone before was subjected to scrutiny and reasoning in a Sapere aude “Dare to know” attitude. Rationalism, which has its roots in the Socratic life of inquiry, argued that truth has an intrinsically logical structure that can be applied to logic, mathematics, ethics and metaphysics. So, in essence, having a clear, unbiased frame of mind, using rational thought, man can reach out and, like Michelangelo’s fresco painting ‘The Creation of Adam’, touch God, the epitome of Truth. Rationalism was prevalent during the Georgian period (1714-1830), a time in which Britain was in continuous conflict with other European (France, the Dutch, and Spain) and trans-Atlantic powers (Americas) in her bid to become a dominant world power and was the herald to the empirical Victorian epoch and the Pax Britannica.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and the Battle of Waterloo where France was utterly defeated, Great Britain entered a period of economic and political instability. The Radical party emerged in a bid to champion the rights of the working and middle classes and was the forerunner to several upheavals and events. One such was the Peterloo Massacre (1819), in which protestors in Northern England demonstrated against famine, chronic unemployment, and the lack of suffrage. The king’s cavalry charged into this crowd of 60,000 protestors with sabres drawn leading to 15 deaths and 400-700 injuries. The massacre was named in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo.
The early ninth century in Britain saw a time when Evangelism was on the rise, challenging traditional religious structure that emphasised a code of honour for the gentry, ‘suitable’ behaviour for plebeians, and faithful observances of rituals. One such patron of Evangelism was the philanthropist Hannah More (1745-1833) a religious writer who became involved with the literary elite of London becoming a leading member of the Bluestocking group comprised of learned, intellectual women. Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800), a British social reformer, patron of the arts, salonist, literary critic, and writer, helped organise and lead the Blue Stockings Society.
Hannah More joined the group campaigning against the slave trade which peaked in the two last decades of the 18th century, and coincided with the events of Emily’s narrative, which is no coincidence since the author of Wuthering Heights delves deeply into the issue of humans being viewed as property both as a consequence of the patriarchal system, but also as residue from the slave trade; Emily makes disturbing references to gipsies, black devils, poor, dirty children speaking gibberish no one understands. Unlike Moore, Emily’s writing challenges the hierarchical structure of English society and goes a step further than Evangelism by challenging religious views on Good and Evil.
We witness, through Emily’s dichotomous representation of Heathcliff, her protagonist, how she challenges the commonly held views of her epoch that Good and Evil exist in their purest forms, and argues rather that someone who is perceived as evil can also have some good in them, and someone seen as wholesome and good can in fact have mortal failings which lead to consequences of greatest evil.
Emily belonged to that caste of writers of the early Victorian era that gave rise to Romanticism and the Gothic novel. Romanticism, not to be confused with romance and romantic novels, was a revolt against the aristocratic norms of the Age of Enlightenment which sought to quarter and rationalise/categorise nature. Romanticism was the attempt to revive the life and thought of the Middle Ages, by tearing out any influences of religion (as represented by Berkeley and other religious/papal authorities of the 18th century), empiricism that had gone before, and the rationalism of the Georgian period.
In Romanticism and revived medievalism the narrative attempts to escape social structure, industrialism, and what society blithely accepts as agreeable behaviour, and expresses nature in its purest form, embracing the exotic, unfamiliar, unchangeable and untameable. Romantics were distrustful of the human world and self-imposed limitations/ restrictions, and believed that a closer connection with nature was healthy both morally and mentally. Romanticism embodied a restless non-conforming spirit which violently sought to break through cramping boundaries, longing for the unbound and indefinable.
We mentioned before that Romanticism in literature awoke together with the Gothic tale. Examples of this which Emily, as a learned scholar, was surely aware of are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). In her pursuit of Gothicism, Emily uses as a backdrop the medieval mansion of Wuthering Heights, a dark brooding place, and spins her web of supernatural themes where she challenges everything that has gone before: religion, social order, division of the classes, rich and poor, master and servant, relationships between men and women, romance, horror, good and evil. Every aspect of her late Georgian and early Victorian period is placed under scrutiny and examined from all angles, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.
But, however many times we may read her novel, each time we find a new unexplored avenue, a new angle with which to view her work, and the themes she hits upon are as applicable in our time as they were ahead of hers. In fact, Emily was so ahead of her time that, after her subsequent death, her sister, Charlotte tried desperately to downplay Emily’s work and tried to defend her sister under the scrutiny of the literate urban public view which took offence to this Yorkshire lady’s apparent discrediting of society and the law of the land which was in place at the time. Even though the monarch, at the time of writing, was a woman, the woman’s role was subject to patriarchal control where a man had rights of ownership over his house, his wife, his sister and daughters. Women in the UK were not granted suffrage until 1915.
In keeping with her love and study of nature and everything wild, in Emily’s Wuthering Heights we see a distinctly canine imagery and symbolism in her scene settings: dogs and their behaviour feature prominently from the first chapter and abound throughout the narrative, indeed permeating her protagonists’ characters and their thoughts and behavioural patterns and social groupings, her characters acting at times like a wolf pack with dominant alpha males and females and words such as howled, growled replacing more genteel expressions. This has been attributed to the author’s childhood where she grew up in a home with dogs. Emily, with an intense nostalgia, brings out the supernatural aspect of her protagonists, Heathcliff and Catherine senior, who are as much a part of the wilderness of the moors as the stunted trees and the rocks that litter the landscape. Emily also brings in sharp contrast the Gothic aspect of ghosts and grave digging as opposed to civilised propriety and the benign honouring of the dead who, once buried, should be left in peace to reside in heaven. The pacified pastoral, Christian, English late eighteenth century placid belief of what heaven should be like comes into direct conflict with Emily’s protagonists’ passion for the natural, the supernatural; like spirits of the moor they see heaven as a perpetual existence, like the wind amongst the creatures and flora of the untamed Cambrian moors. True to her Romanticist views, Emily creates protagonists who remain indefinable to this day, even though our greatest scholars have made brave attempts to dissect and pin them down, with none having managed to do this entirely. For all boils down to personal perspective, and this is Emily’s clearest message and greatest triumph; man, like all creation, is continuously evolving, changing, and what is thought correct today, might mortify future generations, and in this her work remains eternal, supernatural, a perpetual struggle with no conclusion.