17 May 2024

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë


Social background

Wuthering Heights (1847) was published a decade into the Victorian Age when the UK was changing from a mainly agrarian society into an industrial economy. Millions moved into the factory cities to find work. Meanwhile Emily Brontë (1818–1848) grew up in the final days of rural Yorkshire.

Victorian society was conservative and the Brontë sisters published under male pseudonyms due to the Victorian public's patriarchal belief that women were primarily moral influences and homekeepers. The novel also received negative criticism for its supposed immorality. When Charlotte revealed Emily's identity after her death critics were surprised that the novel could have been written by an inexperienced woman in rural surroundings and indeed that the violence and passion of the novel were conceived by a female. There was even a failed attempt to prove that Emily's brother, Branwell, had composed the novel.

Respectable Victorian society was linked to landlordship. Both the Lintons and Earnshaws were landed gentry. Catherine tells Nelly that she couldn't marry Heathcliff since both would be beggars, but she married Linton to help Heathcliff. Property passed from father to son or nearest male relative. On Edgar's death Thrushcross Grange passes to Cathy's husband, Linton and then to his father Heathcliff.

The stormy climate and expanse of the Yorkshire moors is present in the novel of all three Brontë authoresses. It is particularly used by Emily as a background for her novel. The local folklore about ghosts and fairies is also incorporated into her writing. These may have inspired the episodes of Lockwood's spectral dream at the beginning of the novel and his later nightmare about the 490 part sermon.

Illness and death due to the adverse climate were an accepted part of life and Emily's older sisters died young of tuberculosis. Edgar and Linton also die of wasting diseases in her fiction.

The Brontë's father was a clergyman and religion has influenced the novel. Joseph is a hellfire and brimstone character, probably based on an ecclesiastical instructor. These educators appear frequently in the novel as teachers to the young characters like Cathy and Linton. 

Literary tradition

Wuthering Heights is not in the sedate tradition of Victorian literature and belongs more to that of the gothic novel. (Mary Shelley had published Frankenstein (1818) and Valperga (1823) during Emily's childhood.)

At the time of writing the novel of the Romantic movement, inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, with its themes of nature, the individual, irrationality, freedom and mysticism were in vogue in European literature. Walter Scott's Rob Roy (1817), also set in the wild border country with characters from landed gentry, has parallels with Emily Brontë's romance. Both female main characters, Cathy and Diana, are also equally out of place among their coarse families. 

Byron's sexually attractive, passionate, proud and malevolent heroes were taken up by Charlotte Bronte and closely resemble the portrait of Heathcliff described by Emily. 

Religion in Wuthering Heights also extends to a primal experience of the spiritual which was important to the Romantic movement. Heathcliff is a dark-skinned demonic figure, though his ill-treatment at the hands of Hindley and rejection by the Lintons are reminders of how Frankenstein's monster became evil through social repudiation.