Table of contents
2. Diversity in contemporary reviews
2.3. Choice of characters, originality and Emily Bronte’s abilities as a novelist in
the eyes of contemporary critics
3. The Victorian Novel and its characteristics
3.1. Defining the Victorian period…
3.3. Distance to the reader
3.4. The search for (religious) morals
Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights is a controversial piece of literature. Its discussion over the decades has been as diverse as is the range of its characters.
When it was first published in 1847, in the beginning of the Victorian era, its reception was of a considerable diversity, ranging from absolute rejection to baffled appreciation due to its originality.
Differences in reception become even more extreme and obvious when contemporary reviews are being compared with the way the novel is being received nowadays:
Rejection has transformed into a matter of wide appeal that does not only attract film makers, painters, musicians and other authors, but has also found its way into many a teacher’s English lesson.
Wuthering Heights has made its way from the ignorance of public appreciation to the status of being a classic and masterpiece of English literature.
On the following pages I will focus on reviews of the novel, predominantly on contemporary criticism intermixed with recent comments, and address the question as to why such a spectrum of opinions can exist and be expressed about one and the same novel.
In my opinion, the importance of this question stems from the impression that the reading of Wuthering Heights leaves on its recipients “[…] a strange sort of book, […] it is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it.”1 As a reader and especially as a student of English, I feel a rather large obligation to look deeper into the differences and controversies that the novel in question has caused during the last hundred and fifty years and thus to also get a better sense of awareness how the field of literature is subject to cultural and historical changes as a whole. Wuthering Heights appears to be an especially apt piece of literature to exemplify these dynamics being at work as will be subsequently shown.
However, I will also arrive at the conclusion that a certain tendency in opinions concerning the novel overwhelms.
I will attempt to examine various aspects such as language, gender of the author and the estimation of ‘his’ abilities, etc. in order to gain some insights.
The retracing of opinions will be supported by a second part of this research paper dealing with the time in which Emily Bronte created her first and only novel.
In order to gain a better understanding of what people where actually expecting around 1840, I will take a closer look at the typical characteristics of the Victorian novel, provided that such exist.
Furthermore, I will try to point out some differences between well appreciated pieces of fiction and the work of Emily Bronte from which I expect a better comprehension of contemporary opinions to derive.
In the concluding part of this paper I will first of all summarize the insights that will presumably have been delivered on the preceding pages and will then end with explaining why Wuthering Heights has hardly lost its attractions over a time span of over a hundred and fifty years.
2. Diversity in contemporary reviews
I would like to start this first point with the problem that seems the easiest to solve:
Did it affect contemporary criticism that reviewers thought of the author of Wuthering Heights being male?
From what can be deduced from some of the contemporary reviews as well as from Charlotte Bronte’s comments in the preface to Emily’s novel is that the choice of ambiguous names, intentionally as it might have been, was not especially made to conceal their female identities, but rather in order to protect themselves from any kind of “personal publicity”2.
Awareness that their style of writing would not be considered feminine did not lead to the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, as Charlotte informs the reader. It was rather determined by a fear of not being taken serious, of falling victims to prejudice against women in general.
Thus from the author’s point of view one can safely assume that writing under a male name was not intended to influence criticism in any way, but rather to ensure that their works would be subject to a fair and equal treatment.
Approaching the question from the reviewer’s perspective will inevitably lead to somewhat hypothetically results.
One has to bear in mind that the question of the sex of the author simply never occurred to the critics as they were all assuming that Wuthering Heights was the product of a man. It is only in one review (the Atlas 1848) that we find the question being explicitly addressed. The critic does suspect that the names of Currer, Ellis and Acton are not genuine, but at the same time emphasizes of how little importance that is:
“[…] whether the authorship […] is to be assigned to one gentleman or to one lady […] are questions matters really of little account.” (Atlas 1848, in: Allott 230)
It can therefore be concluded that a discussion about the gender of the author of Wuthering Heights is actually a rather needless and futile one. Questioning how the knowledge about a female author would have affected the book’s appreciation will ultimately lead into the field of mere suspicion. One may assume that critics would haven been even more shocked, had they known that a woman was capable of writing such a “dark tale” (Literary World 1848, in: Allott 233), but since assumptions like these can be neither verified nor falsified, it appears best to leave the matter be.
However, a last contribution to this matter will be made under the next point.
What nearly all contemporary reviewers have deeply criticized about Emily Bronte’s novel is the seeming abundance of swear words and harsh expressions used by its characters.
“…there is such a general roughness and savageness in the soliloquies and dialogues here given as never should be found in a work of art…” (American Review 1848 in: Allott 237).
Criticism like this can be found in virtually all of the contemporary reviews and I will settle with quoting only one of the many voices that were uttered against the novel in this matter.
What is really remarkable from today’s perspective is the fact that often this criticism verged on the brink of disgust and contempt; feelings that we are hardly able to fathom being aroused by a piece of fictitious literature today. This is also reflected by a statement from U.C. Knoepflmacher: “…the brutality which its Victorian reviewers had adduced against it can hardly unsettle the modern reader”3
At the very least these contemptuous feelings evoked by the book usually resulted in the opinion that the novel is absolutely not recommendable.
“…If we did not know that this book has been read by thousands of young ladies… we should esteem it our first duty to caution them against it simply on account of the coarseness of its style.” (American Review 1848 in: Allott 237).
Thus the book has been regarded as a threat to the moral virtues of society, endangering the righteous behaviour of anybody, especially women, who should give in to the temptation to read it. Reviewers usually concluded that it was an immoral novel, even dangerous to the extent that it could corrupt the future behaviour of its readers and that people should be warned against its negative influence.
Knowing today that critics didn’t even deem the novel proper for a woman to read, we may indeed assume that they would have been shocked by the image of a woman creating this “compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors” (Graham’s Magazine 1848, in: Allott 237). With this last remark I will end the discussion about the gender of the author and continue with the aspect of language.
Even a century later Arnold Kettle was able to find “one of the harshest passages in all literature”4 in his essay Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1847) from 1951:
You teach me now how cruel you’ve been-cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry: and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight – they’ll damn you. You loved me – then what right had you to leave me? What right – answer me- for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could have inflict would have parted us you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart – you have broken it; and in breaking it you have broken mine. So much the worse that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you – oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?
This passage shows that it is not merely the words themselves that contribute to the perceived harshness but rather the circumstances in which they are being uttered. Emily Bronte made her characters talk in such unexpected ways that contemporaries couldn’t help to sense something surreal about the novel, a seeming lack of authenticity that will be examined later on in greater detail.
Furthermore, there is also a remarkable use of words related to religious aspects within the novel. Many times the characters use the name of the Lord in vain or emphasize their statements by adding various swear words related to religious issues.
This might have added to the feeling its readers that Religion and Christianity itself are not taken serious and being ridiculed:” […] The devil had seized her ankle […] I heard his abominable snorting […] I vociferated curses enough to annihilate any fiend in Christendom” (Bronte 42).
This aspect many critics have taken offense at and criticized heavily and I will settle with quoting only one of many possible examples:
“…he […] exhausts the whole rhetoric of stupid blasphemy…” (North American Review 1848, in: Allott 248).
As will subsequently be further explained this use of language represents an absolute contrast to other novels at the time. Humble and religious behaviour of the protagonists was expected and well appreciated, and unpretentious characters gave plenty of opportunities to identify oneself with. In the story of Wuthering Heights the reader does not find a single character of that kind.
This already leads the way into the comparison of Wuthering Heights with other, well-received novels of the time and their characteristics. But before that aspect can be addressed however, a few more points have to be discussed.
1 Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper, 1848. in: Allott, Miriam. The Brontes – The Critical Heritage Series. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1974.p.228.
2 Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights . New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.p.320.
3 Knoepflmacher, U.-C. Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights. Cambridge: University Press, 1989.p.107.
4 Kettle, Arnold. Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1847). in: Watt, Ian. The Victorian Novel – Modern Essays in Critcism. Oxford: University Press, 1971. p. 209.
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