Emily Brontė, Wuthering Heights
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1949
When Emily Brontë’s novel “Wuthering Heights” is published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell in 1847, it is predominantly met with rejection and discussed as highly controversial in Victorian society. The novel and its characters, it is said, were too wild, too unruly, too passionate, and conveyed an unconventional or even no sense of morality at all. When, with the publication of a new edition in 1850, it turns out that the author is a woman, public outrage still intensifies.
“Wuthering Heights” shows the extreme feelings of which human beings are capable. The story is one of all-consuming love, burning hate, violence and human cruelty. Two children grow up together in the bleak and solitary moorlands of the English north. Although Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff feel that they are soul mates, the difference in social rank forbids their marriage. When Catherine marries the wealthier Edgar Linton, she sets in motion a chain of events which make the tale grimmer with every page.
To take revenge on Edgar, Heathcliff marries Edgar’s sister Isabella against his will, only to make her life hell. The open conflict between Heathcliff and Edgar eventually kills Catherine; she dies after giving birth to her child. Heathcliff also takes revenge on his former tormentor Hindley, Catherine’s brother. Not only does he rob Hindley, who’s become an alcoholic, of his house at gambling, he also turns Hindley’s son against him.
The story continues in a similar vein, chapter by chapter, until everyone is dead. As a reader you sometimes feel like you’ve never held a more desperate or depressing book in your hands. The story’s setting is extraordinarily well chosen to mirror this atmosphere. Yorkshire’s moorlands offer mist-shrouded heaths, constant rain, a dull, grey sky, and harsh winds howling around the house. British director Andrea Arnold’s almost naturalistic film adaptation from 2011 brilliantly captures this bleak vision.
But there are also contemporary voices, which find praise for the author, attest to her originality and astonishingly vivid imagination. One critic is downright enthusiastic: It was impossible, he writes, to start reading the novel and not finish it, and equally impossible to read it and then not talk about it. The novel was shocking, horrifying in its depiction of human cruelty, but at the same time deeply moving in its portrayal of unconditional love – even if this love is between two fallen angels. Catherine herself chooses this expression in one of the book’s most memorable passages: “he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”
“Wuthering Heights” remains Emily’s only novel. The fifth of six children dies young, like many of her siblings. The success during her lifetime is only moderate; Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”, on the other hand, becomes an immediate bestseller. It is not until the 20th century that “Wuthering Heights” attains widespread recognition from critics and popular culture. To this date there are almost 20 film adaptations – the next one is coming to cinemas in 2018.
by Teresa Teklić