Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Adventure classics -- Many masks of the Brontes

Wuthering Heights

by Emily Bronte


When Emily Bronte was about six years old, her father, as he reported after her death, gave his children masks to wear while answering a list of question he posed. His reason, quoted in Richard Benvenuto’s study, Emily Bronte, was to receive more truthful answers by giving the children a form of anonymity.

In many ways, his second youngest -- and most enigmatical child, Emily, never removed her mask.

The work which made her reputation, Wuthering Heights, was published under the assumed name of Ellis Bell. Critics at first assumed the author was a man -- the sexuality and violence seeming too passionate to be the work of a woman. Unknown to readers at the time, the writer was a young unmarried woman, so shy she seldom spoke outside the circle of her family, or could even bear to look outsiders in the face.

Some facts behind the story of Wuthering Heights are hinted at from what little is known of Emily’s life. The setting is the rural Yorkshire countryside she knew, loved, and never willingly left. “‘Wuthering’ being a significant adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather,” reports the book’s ostensible narrator, Mr. Lockwood, near the story’s beginning. And the meteorological storms are only metaphors for the even more stormy emotions of the characters.

It’s easy to picture the dour servant Joseph, who provides the book’s rare humor, as a member of the congregation of her father Patrick Bronte. Or that the numerous orphaned children in the narrative are based on the situation of Emily herself, and her sisters and brother, left motherless in childhood.

But what mask was Emily wearing when she conjured the character of Heathcliff, a boy whose origins are never explained? Or the tumult his entry makes in the families of the Earnshaws and Lintons, whose isolated, repressed lives are blasted open by this mysterious foundling with a soul “made of lightning”?

Heathcliff runs away from his adopted Earnshaw family after overhearing his childhood sweetheart Catherine Earnshaw renounce him for marriage to the local magistrate’s son, Edgar Linton. But his return, and Catherine’s awakening to her own sexuality in marriage, will destroy and blight two generations. Only Heathcliff’s strange failure of will, which he attributes to Catherine’s ghostly manifestation, brings the story to an end.

Emily Bronte encases this story within a rigid framework, as if there were danger in approaching it too nearly. Lockwood’s narrative opens and closes the book, but his direct knowledge of the characters is slight. For most of the story, he relies on the gossip of his housekeeper Ellen Dean (Nelly), a former servant of both Earnshaws and Lintons. But Nelly often fleshes out her own narrative with reports by other characters, leaving the truth about Heathcliff and Catherine forever doubtful. As doubtful, perhaps, as anything we know about Emily Bronte herself.

For more than a century after her death in 1848, no original portraits were known. (Charlotte’s widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls, destroyed the then-only known painting, by Charlotte’s and Emily’s brother Branwell Bronte). But in 1989, a photograph of the painting appeared, copied from an earlier daguerrotype. The resulting picture, dating from Emily’s teens, illustrates this post. For more images of the Bronte family, see

 (Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an October of Halloween horror with another take of ghosts and strange passion, in Henry James’ A Turn of the Screw.)

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